British Columbia License Plates - Expo 86

Expo 86

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Having spent most of my summer at Expo, I always assume that everybody is as familiar with it as I. However, for those of you who were not there, the World Exposition was held in Vancouver from May 2 until October 13, 1986. Expo's theme was "Transportation and Communication: World in Motion - World in Touch", and coincided with Vancouver's centennial.

Needless to say, with a theme related to Transportation, there was invariably going to be some sort of license plate tie-in.

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A Short History of World's Fair License Plates
With the use of the Expo logo on the 1986 registration decals, British Columbia was following in a well established practice by other US and Canadian jurisdictions hosting World's Fair's to promote these on their license plates. In fact, World's Fair license plates offer a particularly rich and interesting insight into the use and evolution of license plates throughout the 20th Century.
On May 6, 1939, Patrick Kirby, was driving along the streets of Los Angeles when he was pulled over by local police for failing to display 1939 California license plates. Kirby had the proper vehicle registration certificate for 1939, but had not removed the 1938 license plates issued to him by the state.
Kirby had, in fact, paid for and received his 1939 plates which contained the slogan "California World's Fair 1939", but had promptly returned the plates upon seeing the slogan, advising the Department of Motor Vehicles stating that they were unacceptable to him as he did not wish to promote the World's Fair on his vehicle without compensation and, moreover, the slogan did not conform to the requirements of the state's Vehicle Code. At the time of his arrest, Kirby was engaged in a stand-off with the DMV having requested plates without the slogan and refusing to display the 1939 plates that had been issued to him, while the DMV was declining to provide such plates.

And what was it that prompted Kirby to refuse to display the slogan on the car; they were leud! Kirby believed the plates indirectly promoted Sally Rand, an early burlesque dancer - known for innovating the ostrich feather fan dance and balloon bubble dance - who had become famous at the time of the Chicago World' Fair six years earlier and had subsequently been invited to perform at California's Fair:

Rand's "Nude Ranch" at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco was housed at a night spot called The Music Box and featured women wearing cowboy hats, gun belts and boots, and little else.  The show was only one of several "flesh" shows in the Treasure Island Amusement Zone, also known as the "Gayway." 

In response to his arrest, Kirby sued the state and won! The Superior Court (Appellate Department) concluded that the Vehicle Code was quite clear, plates could only display either the word "CALIFORNIA" or its abbreviation "CAL." and the year for which they were issued and that the DMV had no authority to vary this. Unfortunately for Kirby, this decision was not rendered until 1940, by which time it is assumed he had mounted 1940 plates on his vehicle.

Interestingly, the presiding judge opined that "the department of motor vehicles had no more authority or right to require [the] defendant to display ... a license plate advertising the California World's Fair than it had to compel him to carry a banner or make oral speeches advertising the fair, the climate, prunes, oranges or a political party ... To hold otherwise would be to authorize the taking of his property without due process of law and would countenance an unwarranted invasion of his personal liberty."

It would be 42 years before California license plates displayed a slogan, being the short-lived "The Golden State" introduced in 1982.

A generation later, E. Kenneth Froslid, a magazine picture editor for Time, sued the New York Commissioner of the State Motor Vehicles Department, William S. Hults, in the State Supreme Court for forcing him to attach license plates to his car which carried the slogan "World's Fair".

According to Froslid, the slogan promoted the New York World's Fair Corporation, which was a private enterprise whereas license plate represented public space.
Further, the decision of the Commissioner to use the slogan compelled Froslid to use his private property for advertising purposes on behalf of a private corporation - without compensation - that the use of the inscription constituted a gift of public property to a private corporation and, finally, that the statement was misleading since not all nations of the world would be participating in the fair which, on top of everything just mentioned, wasn't even authorised by the Bureau of International Exhibits.
In response, the Commissioner suggested that inclusion of the slogan was reasonable, Froslid has suffered no real injury and had no standing and that the New York World's Fair Corporation straddled the line between a private and public due to a number of special privileges that had been conferred upon it by the state legislature and local government.
The Court concluded that Commissioner Hults had no authority in law to include the inscription "World's Fair" on the plates or to issue plates containing that inscription and that advertising a private corporation on the state's license plates "in no way serves to further the purpose or intent of the law requiring display of registration plates."
In coming to this conclusion, the Judge took direction from a previous decision of the Legislature to provide direction for the inclusion of the inscription "New York World's Fair 1939" on the registration plates issued in 1939, as well as providing at the 1961 Session for a reference to the current World's Fair on the 1964 and 1965 plates - a decision which was subsequently vetoed by Governor Rockefeller, but which Hults had seemingly over-ridden.
Upon hearing that the Motor Vehicle Department had been ordered to provide him with plates not displaying the slogan, Froslid declared "this is great ... I took on two giants, New York State and the World's Fair and I won."
On appeal, Froslid's victory was reversed primarily on the basis that the Appellate Judge reasoned that the Commissioner did have the authority under the Vehicle and Traffic Law to include the slogan. In his written decision, the Judge's reasoning is especially interesting in light of how the messaging found on license plates has changed since 1964:
While the purpose of the license plate of an automobile is for ready identification of the owner by the police and by the public, the fact that this is the primary purpose does not mean that a license plate may not have a dual purpose. If the secondary purpose is one that does not promote the interests of one or a few individuals, but is to promote a matter of public concern or welfare, it is our opinion that such a secondary purpose may also be accomplished by inscription on the license plate ...

Passenger Decals

One of the more interesting sets of plates to emerge from the Fair are those associated with the NWT Pavilion. There are, effectively, two different types of plate sets:

NWT Pavilion Plates
The first are those actually used on official vehicles associated with the Pavilion and which display a single digit, such as the "EXPO 5" plate shown above. The second, more common type are the "EXPO 86" plates which were either produced as samples or souvenirs (I am not sure which).

Promotional Plates

Souvenir Expo 86 Booster Plate

The plate shown at left was produced by Astrographics on behalf of Universal Exchange, one of seven companies to have purchased the rights to the "Expo 86" logo from Expo's official souvenir supplier, Ace Novelty of Seattle in early 1986.
Universal Exchange was quoted in media reports from the time as having paid a $10,000 performance bond for the rights to use the words "Expo 86" on the plates, with the bond being deducted from Ace Novelty's 25% cut of Universal's gross profits.
Approximately 10,000 of the plates had been produced by February of 1986, and were to retail at souvenir shops within the Expo fairgrounds for $6.98 CDN. According to one of the Director's of Universal, Jerry Ruddock, the plates were proving popular with dealerships as giveaways for customer's buying new cars as well as being mounted on buses operated by Maverick and Grey Line.
Over 25 years later, unissued stock of these plates are commonly posted on eBay for around $6.00 USD.

Souvenir City of Vancouver Booster Plates


Anyone who was a kid during Expo surely remembers the water park with UFO-H2O as the main centrepiece.

Although I can't remember anymore, apparently the water park was in a sunken plaza adjacent to the Ontario Pavilion.

"The design was that of a spaceship piloted by a whimsical green Martian that landed in a fantasy landscape of jumping waters. A new process at the time saw the water treated so that air and impurities were removed. The resulting stronger bond between the water molecules allowed designers to make the water dance in unusual ways few people had seen before" (it is amazing what you kind find on the internet these days).

After Expo concluded, a big auction was held and basically everything associated with the Fair was sold off (for years after I can remember seeing the wire and concrete benches up in Whistler).
While the big stuff, such as the hockey stick in Duncan, were easy to pick out, the fate of UFO-H2O always remained a mystery (at least to me).
Well, weren't we here at surprised when one of our intrepid plate spotters sent in the following images in early 2009:
Turns out the old green fellow was shipped off to Kitimat after the Fair and, 24 years later, has clearly seen better days.
What cracked me up most about UFO-H2O was that the Socreds had been so hell-bent in the lead-up to Expo to get all the blue-and-white 1979 base plates off the roads and replaced with plates sporting the new "Flag" logo they were re-branding the province with (and which, incidentally, bore an uncanny resemblance to their own political party logo), yet here was a prominent attraction within the Expo site sporting an oversized representation of the dull 1979 base! Oh, how I still laugh over that ...

Highway 86
Pierre Delacote Collection
Given the theme of Expo was transportation, one of the attraction was Highway 86, which was a four lane boulevard that rose out of False Creek and contained over 200 cars, boats, bicycles, spaces capsules, airplanes, lunar rovers, and motorcycles. Not all of the vehicles had licence plates, but one of the motorcycles did. When everything related to Expo was auctioned off after the conclusion of the Fair, the purchaser of one of the motorcycles with a plate kindly donated it to a local collector - and this is the plate shown above.

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© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.