Pictured above is a Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG. Car and Driver called the car “the quickest factory Benz we’ve ever tested.” The car has many well-known fans, including Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and hockey star Alex Ovechkin. The actual car pictured above was itself owned by a celebrity — it was one of Steve Jobs’ vehicles. But what makes it notable is what it’s missing. The car lacked a license plate.
The legend of Jobs’ plates — online, at least — likely stems from a Flickr photo set, here, from September of 2008. Jobs, flaunting his power in the face of good parking rules and customs, docked his no-plates Benz diagonally across a handicapped spot. A camera-armed passerby noted the absurdity and shared a few photos, which made their way around the Internet like such absurdities are prone to do. The images provoked a conversation about Jobs’ apparent disdain for the rules. And the plates — or lack thereof — prompted specific points of discussion. Parking diagonally can be inconsiderate, but hardly illegal. Wrongfully co-opting a handicapped space (Jobs didn’t have a permit, even though he may have been entitled to one then) may result in a ticket, but no one is going to tow the CEO’s car from the company lot. But driving around without license plates? Most likely, your car is going to end up in the impound lot.
And for Jobs, driving his SL55 AMG without plates apparently as a regular occurrence. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, made special note of the habit in an 2011 interview with 60 Minutes, prompting another round of chatter about Jobs’ plates. Isaacson believed that Jobs chose not to follow the simple law simply because the Apple icon felt that “the normal rules just shouldn’t apply to him.” But we aren’t supposed to have separate laws for titans of industry and their super-rich/powerful friends — even if we sometimes do — and it’s unlikely that Jobs could have flaunted his no-tags ride without provoking the ire of at least one team of law enforcement officials. How’d he get away with it?
Amazingly, because what he was doing wasn’t illegal at all.
At the time of his death, a provision of the California Vehicle Code — 4456 Section D, parts 1 and 2, if you’d like to look it up — allowed for the following (via this New York Times item):
A vehicle displaying a copy of the report of sale may be operated without license plates or registration card until either of the following, whichever occurs first:
* The license plates and registration card are received by the purchaser.
* A six-month period, commencing with the date of sale of the vehicle, has expired.
The second bullet — the six-month window — is the important one. Jobs, of course, was stupendously rich. And he was absurdly famous, and therefore able to make deals that most people would shudder at even considering suggesting. As a former Apple executive told IT Wire, he found a leasing company willing to create a unique arrangement for him — he’d get a new, identical car, every six months (or likely a few weeks before that deadline). He’d therefore always be within the window provided by the California Vehicle Code, and, as a bonus, he’d never have to buy that “New Car Smell” air freshener that hangs from the rear-view mirror. And he’d never have to have license plates on his car, either.
Of course, there are some questions as to whether this is true or just another story in the hagiology of Jobs worship. An anonymous source of IHS Automotive found the Vehicle Identification Number of Jobs’ car, and ran it through CarFax (which IHS owns). The results: the car was purchased in 2006 and had 22,000 miles on it. The LA Times echoed the Polk company’s take that Jobs was never caught simply because he didn’t do a lot of driving.
From the Archives: Operator Unknown: Why sometimes it’s better to have no license plate than to have a fun one.
Related: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, 4.5 reviews on well over 3,000 copies. Also available as an audio book in abridged and unabridged versions.