When New York Tried to Take Away a W

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush — known colloquially as simply “W” or “Dubya” — was inaugurated as the 43rd President of the United States. The entire day was not without controversy. Because of the incredibly close election results, thousands of protesters lined the streets of Washington, D.C., jeering the new President as the parade in his honor made its way through the city. The staff of outgoing President Bill Clinton also levied their objections to the successor, in a less angry way — some removed the “W” keys from the White House computers.

A week later, someone else came for the letter W — New York Governor George Pataki.

The license plate version, that is.

Single-letter license plates are, by definition, rare. In each state, there are only 26 available; if you include numerals, that jumps to 36. In New York State, as of 2017, there were well over ten million cars registered, making single-letter plates extraordinarily rare. But they do exist. And for Warren Davis, a real estate investor, obtaining a single-character plate was a lifelong dream — one he achieved. As the New York Post reported, “he’d wanted a single-letter vanity plate – W or D – since he was a kid and had applied year after year until [the W plate] became available in 1990.”

But that was then. Had Davis not obtained his plate when he did, he may have been precluded for obtaining one. In 1996, the Post investigated who in the state-owned these special plates; in a subsequent report linked above, the paper concluded that “most of the state’s single-lettered plates belong to the politically connected, including big donors to Pataki’s campaign.” Davis’s “W” though was his, so long as he renewed it, and he did every two years like clockwork.

But then, George W. Bush was elected President — and suddenly, “W” was the most special of all the single-letter license plates. On November 16, 2000, just days after the presidential election (and before the ambiguities around the results were resolved), Davis received a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles, informing him that he’d have to surrender his W the following January.

Davis, via his attorneys, reached out to the DMV to appeal, but he was informed that it was out of the agency’s hands. The decision, per the DMV (via the lawyer) came from above, perhaps as high as Governor Pataki’s office. The plate was going to be re-assigned to someone more politically connected.

Davis sued — and won. The day before he was to give up the plate, his attorneys successfully obtained a restraining order delaying the forfeiture for about a month. The next day, the DMV capitulated. A spokesperson told the New York Times that the department commissioner said “there was some kind of mix-up, but he didn’t go into any kind of detail.” Pataki’s office declined to comment, but to Davis, the governor’s acts or motives ultimately didn’t matter. The DMV spokesperson, per the Times, “confirmed that it indeed is against state policy for the department to ask the owner of a special plate to surrender it if that person has filed properly for a renewal” and as a result, Davis was able to renew the plates for another two-year period — with more renewals to come if he so wished.

A note to Davis’ then-attorney, to determine the current state of the W plate, when unreturned. (Oh well.)

Bonus fact: If you were driving around in Montana toward the end of World War II, you could probably get away without having a license plate on your car. Why? Wartime rations provided a built-in excuse. The state’s Motor Vehicle Division explains: “During 1944, license plates were manufactured from pressed soybean fiberboard due to a shortage of steel caused by the war. Goats, cows, and mice reportedly enjoyed the taste of these plates, with some vehicle owners losing their plates to a snack for the animals.”

From the Archives: iPlates: How Steve Jobs got away with driving around without license plates.