“It’s an investment. It’s an ego thing. It’s a look,” said Aaron Dunphy.
At heart, though, it’s a Delaware thing.
Dunphy is talking about low-digit tags for motor vehicles, in bold black and white, contrasted to the the Colonial buff and blue that everyone else gets.
His business this weekend posted PC8 for a cool $175,000. It’s now on a 2020 Mercedes Benz, and the family, which bought it from him a decade ago, decided the market was strong and their priorities had changed. He declined to say anything else, other than they “have been around Delaware forever.”
Evidence of the market strength: in the last year, he’s sold several tags for more than $100,000. And he figures that since he started Low Digit Tags in 2005, the tags appreciate at about 9 percent a year.
The cachet with low-digit tags starts with a single 1, for the governor. The lieutenant governor gets 2, and the secretary of state gets 3. One family owns three of the other tags with just a single digit.
That’s the family of real estate developer and philanthropist Anthony H. Fusco. They started in 1994 by buying 9 for a little under $200,000, followed most dramatically by 6, bought in a 2008 auction for $675,000. By 2016, they owned 17 plates valued at over $3 million, Philadelphia magazine reported.
Delaware also issues tags that start with letters, such as C and CL for commercial, CT for construction truck, D for dealer, FT for farm truck, MC for motorcycle, MOP for moped, RV for recreational vehicle and T for trailer.
The other cachet: color. Delaware began license plates in 1905. A fun history on the The Delaware Historic Plate Co. (authorized to make old-style plates) says early ones have been found in leather and cardboard and multiple color combos. The favorite was black and white porcelain, later steel.
Delaware permanently transitioned to the state colors of Colonial buff and blue in 1958, creating a line that implies that families whose vehicles have black and white tags have been around since at least then. Considering the numbers that had been released then, all official black and white porcelain plates must be below 86999 for an all-number plate. Black and white plates in stainless steel can go up to 200000 for all-numbers and to PC9999.
Of course, vanity tags can be short too, but the draw is in official shortness. A single 8, with no preceding letter, would go for above $1 million, Dunphy predicted.
Buyers also have to pay the Department of Motor Vehicles another $120 to $160 to switch the tag.
Dunphy brokers 95% of the tags on his site, at a 10% commission. He also sells motor vehicles, mostly for friends and family members, from his Wilmington base, plus the beach in the summer.
“It’s a fun business,” he said, noting that families have been upgrading their tags “from five digits to four and then three.” People are also drawn to numbers that represent “their anniversary, the birthdate, their divorce date and the house number they grew up on.”
Dunphy, who grew up in New Jersey, which uses an unaesthetic jumble of letters and numbers on tags, said when he moved to Delaware he couldn’t wait until he could join the in-crowd with some low numbers. His family now has three vehicles, two with vanity tags and one with a three-digit tag.