The Beginning of Amateur Radio License Plates in Pennsylvania


Royal Kramer, W3ZIF, shares with us this amusing story about one of the first Ham Radio Operators to receive a call sign license plate for his automobile. 

Photograph of a Pennsylvania Amateur Radio license plate bearing call sign K3HLN.

The year was 1956, the year I got married, and the first year that ham radio license plates were officially permitted on our vehicles after many years of battling the powers-to-be in Harrisburg to pass a law regarding their use on our vehicles.
It was also the first year that I was working in the design drafting department at PPL in Allentown. Another draftsman who worked with me was Paul Fritsch, W3HHC. He was my “Elmer” in many ways as he gave me code practice sessions together with many other technical problems that I had encountered over the years despite the fact that he was 15 years older than me. Paul got his license back in 1938 I believe and was a 1st LT. in the Army Signal Corp during WWII serving in the South Pacific. 
From time to time, Paul and his wife Anna would travel to Anna’s family who lived in the small community of Muir, Pa which is located west of Pottsville and Tower City.
One Saturday, as they were driving out the Route 22 thruway, between Allentown and Hamburg heading for Route 61 and long before I-78 was built, Paul noticed a flashing red light about a mile behind him and not being a fast driver, sort of slowed down to let this car pass him which was a PA. state trooper. However, the state trooper’s vehicle did not speed up to pass him but kept a steady speed behind him. Paul figured he may be following him so he pulled over to the side of the road and the state trooper pulled up behind him. Both Paul and Anna wondered why they were stopped but as the state trooper came up to his car, he wanted to see his license and registration as they normally want to do and Paul responded that he didn’t think he was driving over the speed limit and the state cop responded saying that he didn’t stop him for speeding but because he had an illegal license plate on his car. He asked Paul where he got the license and he told him at the same place everyone else gets their license from, the Department of Revenue. Paul asked him why his plate was illegal and the cop said that license plates that begin with the letters W,X,Y, and Z are reserved strictly for tractor trailer trucks and since he was driving a four door sedan, his license was illegal. Paul said that he could explain that since he had a “special plate” on his car with his call letters on; W3HHC. He pulled out his FCC license and showed it to the cop. The cop looked at it and had a weird look on his face. He asked when the Department of Revenue came up with this law and he told him it was that particular year, 1956. The cop responded wondering why the DOR never let the state troopers know about it as this was the first license plate he saw that started with a W. Paul told him that he will see many more license plates similar to his that start with the letter W as many ham operators had applied for this “special plate.”  The cop, somewhat embarrassed,  appreciated this information and apologized to Paul for detaining him and left him go with no citation or fine issued.
Saying all this, these “special plates” were the first ones issued by the state but we were all charged an extra $3.00 to have this kind of plate displayed on our vehicles. After several years of paying this extra $3.00, that cost was dropped and today, we pay the same amount as any other person would pay for a regular license plate. Today they are called “vanity plates” but I don’t know if people have to pay extra for that plate or not. 
Back in Allentown, practically every member of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Radio Club had their call letters displayed on their license plate. However, as the years passed, many of these hams became Silent Keys and it seems that the younger hams in the club never bothered to apply for this “special plate.”
I can honestly say that when I bought my first car in 1959 soon after getting out of the Army, I applied for this plate and after owning eight vehicles so far in my life, my license has always had W3ZIF on its plate. I’m proud of my W3 call.
73 to you and your family and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Roy Kramer, W3ZIF