License plates even have a screw loose in nutty winter

March 08, 2003|By ROB KASPER

WHEN ASKED to describe the lowdown situation the last few weeks have put us in, I say: look at our drooping license plates. Everywhere I look I see license plates that have lost their moorings and are dangling from the front of cars. OK, I exaggerate. Maybe not everywhere. But just last week I saw four or five cars with their license plates out of kilter. One of them was mine.

These battered license plates are casualties of the recent combat between area cars and snowbanks. Thanks to the perpetual snowstorm we called February, great mountains of snow appeared around Maryland, most on them occupying what used to be parking spaces. To find a place to stash your car, or to free yourself from a walled-in parking spot, you had to get aggressive. You pointed the nose of your machine at the menacing mound and "created" some space. You did the same thing, on a smaller scale, with car doors.

The longer the snow stuck around, the more aggressive you became. "Take that!" I yelled one day last week as I rammed the car door into a weakening wall of snow that had been hemming me in.

Such snow bashing takes its toll, however, especially on a license plate like mine, which was secured to the car with rivets. After several set-tos with an especially ferocious snowbank, one of the two rivets holding the front tag in place popped loose, and the tag drooped.

When your tag is dragging, your "ride" looks bad, even if your ride is a 10-year-old dented Taurus station wagon with 130,000 miles.

In addition to looking woeful, a dragging tag could be illegal. After checking with the Attorney General's office, folks at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration informed me that state law requires our license plates to be securely fastened, to be clearly visible and to be horizontal. My dejected plate failed on all those counts. Moreover, it was in clear violation of a "no swinging" part of the statute. In Maryland, swinging is not allowed, at least when it comes to license plates.

Back in the days when a bumper was a bumper and cars were made of steel, slapping a license plate on a car required little more than nuts, bolts and a wrench. Apparently the nut-and-bolt routine still works on a number of modern vehicles, because the license plate holder kits I found at two auto parts stores contained simply nuts and bolts.

Unfortunately they would not work on this bumper. The parts in the license plate kit were square, the screwhole for the plate in this bumper was round and seemingly bottomless. Because the bumper was one solid piece, there was no way I could reach underneath it and hold a bolt in place as I tightened a nut on the tag.

Once upon a time, this car had, I think, a license plate frame, a device that screwed into those round holes and grasped the front plate. But that was 10 years ago when the car was new. Since then the license plate holder - along with a few other assorted parts and patches of its paint - have disappeared.

I wanted to secure the downcast plate with the same kind of fastener that had once held it up. This was an ingenious rivet, made of nylon, I think, with wings that "exploded" or spread out once they were in the screwhole. I couldn't find any in the stores.

So I turned to a handyman's favorite helper, and now America's first line of defense, duct tape.

I taped the plate to the car, and drove to a hardware store. I might have been legal, but I was feeling pretty tacky as I creaked along in a green car, its nose bandaged with pieces of gray duct tape.

At the hardware store, I bought a plastic anchor, the device used to hold screws in drywall. Using a hammer, I tapped the plastic anchor into the seemingly bottomless screw hole in the car bumper. Then, with the fattest screw I could find, I secured the license plate to the anchor. Once again, my front plate was horizontal and once again I was legal in Maryland.

The license plate fasteners don't match now, but at least they look better than duct tape.

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