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The Great Gift of the Dealer License Plate

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author photo by Doug DeMuro January 2017

I think it's about time we take a few moments to reflect on the fact that the dealer license plate is the greatest thing that's ever happened to the car enthusiast. There are many rules and regulations we car enthusiasts have to follow, hoops we have to jump through and fines we have to pay -- and then, shining above it all, is the dealer license plate.

Before I get into all the particulars of the dealer license plate, I'm going to quote my local state statute about dealer plates. Although laws are different in every state, many are rather similar -- and your state's dealer license plate law is probably fairly similar to mine. Mine reads (using paraphrasing):

Dealer registration plates may be displayed on any vehicle which is owned or in the possession of a dealer or manufacturer, and such a vehicle may be operated upon the highway, but only if the vehicle is being held for sale and is being used for any of the following purposes:

a) Driver's education course.
b) Testing, safety inspection, repairing or transporting to or from a repair facility.
c) Demonstrating the vehicles in the possession of the dealer or manufacturer at no cost to the prospective buyer.
d) Loaning to customers whose vehicles are being repaired.
e) Loaning to a prospective purchaser.
f) Loaning to charitable organizations for use in charitable activities.
g) Transit to or from a dealer, show or exhibit.
h) Delivery from a manufacturer.
i) Transit to a prospective purchaser.
j) Use in the conduct of the dealer's administrative functions.
k) Personal use for the dealer or members of his or her immediate family.
l) The officers of the dealership and their immediate families.
m) The regular employees of the dealer.

Now, before I get into this whole "A through M" thing listed above, let's go back to that first bit. Dealer registration plates may be displayed on any vehicle that is owned or in the possession of a dealer. Any vehicle. In possession of a dealer.

Few statutes offer such a wide berth to car enthusiasts. The rest of us have one measly license plate that has to be stuck on one measly car, and it has to be registered and taxed, and you have to pay insurance, get a parking permit and go through inspection, emissions tests and whatever else your state has to offer.

Not with a dealer plate. Any vehicle. In possession of a dealer.

In other words, you could throw a dealer plate on a NASCAR, and it couldn't really be considered abuse. You could throw a dealer plate on a Formula 1 car. You could throw a dealer plate on a Top Fuel Dragster, those crazy things that have (instead of doors) an entire front that lifts off and that go down the drag strip at approximately the speed of a shuttle launch, and nobody can really stop you for it.

Of course, dealer plates are rather restrictive in who can use them, right? You have to be a dealership employee, driving a dealership vehicle and wearing your dealership uniform, and then maybe you can take a dealer car to Arby's for your lunch break. Well, as it turns out, that isn't right.

If you scroll through the "A through M" listing of who can operate cars with dealer plates, it seems to include virtually everyone. Of course, dealership owners (K). Also, dealership board members and officers (L). And dealership employees (M). But there are also several ways a "prospective purchaser" can use a car on dealer plates (C, E, I), and what exactly defines a prospective purchaser? If you get pulled over driving a car with dealer plates, is a police officer going to check your credit right there on the side of the road?

Even if you don't want to label yourself a prospective purchaser, there are many ways you can legally drive a car with dealer plates. For driver's education (A). For use in the dealer's "administrative functions," whatever those may be (J). For charity use (F). If your car is in the shop (D). And my personal favorite, in transit to a dealer, a show or an exhibit (G), which seems like the most general possible thing you can imagine. Get stopped using Alabama dealer plates in Idaho? Don't worry. You're in transit to a dealer. You just happened to take the long route.

And so, car enthusiasts, just remember: Thanks to the wide-ranging dealership lobby, the dealer plate allows us to have the fun we can't have with our personal cars. So if you ever became frustrated with a car dealer for wasting your time or turning back on an offer, well, maybe now it's time to mend those fences -- and make friends with someone who has a dealer plate.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Great Gift of the Dealer License Plate - Autotrader