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The wearing of the green

Owners won’t part gently with their vintage license plates

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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It is a thing of nostalgic beauty, a reminder of a first car or an earlier time, a badge of honor attesting to decades of living and driving in Massachusetts. It is simple and unadorned, retro chic, and downright Yankee. It is the green license plate, last printed 23 years ago, but still adorning one in 20 cars in the state.

No need to part with yours, if it works. But the state really wishes you would.

The white plates with green characters are singletons — they hang only from the car’s back — and law enforcement disapproves of them, because a car with one plate is harder to identify than a car with two. Cracked and faded plates also make it difficult for toll evaders to be identified from the automated pictures snapped at tollbooths.

As the number remaining has dwindled, the greenie has become an eye-catching throwback. Some still gleam from years of garaging and tender care, but many show their age, their reflective surface fractured into a spider web, their green and white paint now a muted moss and beige.

Inmates in Walpole printed more than 10 million of them between 1977 and 1987, and 3 million greenies were still on the road in 1989. Now there are fewer than 325,000.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the state has never attempted a complete recall, but it has taken steps to remove the greenies from circulation — stirring up anxiety and resistance among the devoted.

“Turn in my beloved green license plate? Someone at the RMV would have a huge fight on their hands if they think this is going to happen,’’ said Margot Duzak, a hotel manager from Brookline. At 42, she has had her plate for 25 years, from her first clunker to her latest Volvo XC90.

To encourage trade-ins, the state waives the new-plate fee for motorists who swap single green plates for the newer “Spirit of America’’ pairs, and it prohibits green plate holders who lease their cars from transferring plates — though the plates can be transferred to purchased cars. Also, since 2008, the state has instructed inspection stations to reject any plate that cannot be read clearly from 60 feet, with an “illegible means ineligible’’ campaign.

To stave off the day of reckoning, some drivers with aging green plates have started touching them up with nail polish or household paint, a practice frowned upon by the state, or shopping around for lenient inspection stations.

Jack Garvin, a licensed inspector, said most of the green plates he sees are still clear enough to pass, for now. In the case of failure, he extols the virtues of a clean, shiny plate and downplays the line at the RMV.

“I just try to schmooze them until they accept it,’’ said Garvin, who works at Newton’s Elliot Street Sunoco, alongside Route 9.

For many green plate holders, the attachment is not just about aesthetics and personal history, but also about a specific set of characters, as comfortable and familiar as an old phone number. The state will not replace a green plate with an identical Spirit of America plate, because the two plates have different number-letter configurations, known as masks, said Ann Dufresne, a Registry of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman.

Diane Kenney, whose green plate is nearing its 30th birthday, dreads the day she will have to part with hers. “Don’t even say it out loud,’’ said Kenney, who got her plate when she was 19. It has followed her through six addresses and at least as many cars, the latest a 2007 Pontiac Solstice.

“The front end is so pretty,’’ said Kenney, reluctant to mar her roadster’s grill with a second plate. On her long commute from Wareham to her job with a Stoughton flooring company, she watches out for other greenies, feeling kinship across the lanes and taking comfort in the ones that are in worse shape than her own.

Liz Pakula of West Roxbury, a downsized librarian, likes that her greenie allows her to put a Jimmy Buffett plate on the front of her car. More than that, it is a bridge to the first car she bought, a Toyota Celica GT liftback, back in 1977.

Many have stories like that. Tom Sullivan, a retired Massachusetts Water Resources Authority technician, had knee-replacement surgery in November and will not be able to drive again until at least February. When he does, his doctors have advised him to ditch his less-than-reliable 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis, a boat he jokingly refers to as “the official car of Social Security.’’ It eats at him that he is paying insurance on a car he cannot drive, but he does not want to let the registration lapse and lose his greenie.

For Sullivan, 68, the plate is a reminder of his favorite car, a gold-colored 1972 Pontiac Catalina convertible, held together with Bondo but a head-turner just the same. The car came on every family vacation, and his daughter learned to drive it on the grass lot at a Vermont campground.

The surviving plate, now affixed to the Grand Marquis, bears a thick stack of biennial registration decals and has a few extra holes that Sullivan drilled when he lashed it to the Catalina with nylon cable. The reflective surface is cracked, and the numbers have lost their luster.

“Plenty legible,’’ he said, admiring it.

Massachusetts was not the first state to require registration, but it was the first to issue license plates, distributing little squares of porcelain-covered iron to registered motorists in 1903. The plate evolved over the years but remained consistently uncluttered by icons and slogans — save for the ill-fated codfish plates of 1928 and ’29.

Legend has it that fishermen protested, because the fish swam away from the state name, presaging an industry slump. The tale is perpetuated on the RMV’s website, but it is apocryphal. “Absolutely total lore,’’ said Stewart Berg of Boston, a collector with 100,000 plates and a voice of authority on Massachusetts plate history.

Though the colors changed periodically, the plates remained basic and two-tone — blue on white, red on white, green on white — through the greenie.

In 1986, Massachusetts succumbed to a slogan craze sweeping the nation’s plates; Governor Michael Dukakis announced that the greenie would be replaced the following year with a blue-and-red-on-white plate emblazoned with “The Spirit of America,’’ a shortened version of a tourism slogan (“The spirit of Massachusetts is the spirit of America’’) that debuted in 1984.

Conservatives scoffed. Peter Flaherty, national chairman of Citizens for Reagan, told the New York Times that the Massachusetts plate should say “Stay and Pay’’ instead. Boston Herald columnist Don Feder offered “The Spirit of Bulgaria’’ as a better alternative.

The Dukakis administration intended to replace all single greenies with double Spirit of America plates within two years, but economic constraints thwarted the plan. The state continued to dole out old greenies until they were exhausted in the mid-1990s — and let serviceable green plates stay on the road.

That longtime use fostered attachment. Take Paul Allen-Webber, a 40-year-old from Rowley. He knows his plate is just a 6-by-12-inch sheet of aluminum, no more, no less. But it is also the only one he’s ever had, going back to the ‘78 Grand Am he rebuilt with his dad at 17.

The plate has been with him for six cars, a constant through marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and the start of his business, a gift shop in Ipswich. And never once in that time has he gotten a ticket. “I’m attached to it,’’ he said. “I guess it’s kind of a little superstitious thing now, too.’’

Allen-Webber’s inspection comes up in August. In 2008, the guy who has inspected his car for ages, a family friend who served with his dad in Vietnam, threw him for a loop.

“He told me that was the last one — ‘I’m not going to be able to pass it again.’ And so I went somewhere else,’’ Allen-Webber said.

“But this year, when I brought it in, [the new inspector] said, ‘Ah, I probably shouldn’t pass it. Just get new plates before coming in next year.’ ’’

Next summer, of course, he will take his car elsewhere.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.