The Federal Bureau of Investigation Porcelain License Plate Story

 

By Charlie Gauthier

 I grew up the son of an FBI Agent, stationed at Headquarters in the District of Columbia. My father, Leo J. Gauthier, joined the FBI as a clerk in the New York office in 1935. My father was born with a design/artistic talent, which was easily recognized by the SAC in New York who promptly notified J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, about a young man with these talents. After a brief meeting with Mr. Hoover, my father was transferred to Headquarters in 1937 with the responsibility of creating courtroom exhibits and whatever other artistic work Mr. Hoover needed for the Bureau.

 

Within a matter of years, the Exhibits Section of the FBI was established and staffed by a group of extremely talented men and women who could create nearly everything. My father was the Chief of that organization, and over the years the Exhibits Section created numerous courtroom exhibits for major trials, culminating in the creation of a scale model of Dealey Plaza, site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That model is now in the Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository, and includes a picture of my father on the side of the model. In essence, my father became the Bureau’s crime scene expert in major federal trials. When not creating crime scene exhibits, my father designed a number of important pieces of FBI history, including the FBI seal, years-of-service keys and Hogan’s Alley at the FBI Academy at Quantico, VA.

 

My father was also responsible for the various Cadillac limousines used by J. Edgar Hoover. Similar to the cars used by the U.S. Secret Service to protect the President of the United States, J. Edgar Hoover had all of his limousines armor-plated for protection purposes. There were two of these limousines at the FBI Headquarters in the District of Columbia and since Director Hoover would travel frequently to the major field offices across the country, there was an additional vehicle at the FBI Offices in New York City and Los Angeles. In terms of the model years of these limousines, the newest and one-year-old cars were in Washington, DC, the next oldest in New York and the oldest in Los Angeles. At some point in time, it appears Director Hoover asked my father to design and produce special license plates to be used on these limousines.

 

The process would have been fairly straight forward – come up with a design, have the design approved by Director Hoover, have a prototype made for final approval and then have as many made as were needed. Based on the FBI license plates which I have been able to identify through photographs provided by various sources, there are three which seem to fit the “prototype” category. There is a single black on white porcelain plate which I would label as Prototype 1. 

 

And there is a pair of black on yellow porcelain plates, which I would label as Prototype 2 – those plates were given to me by my father. 

 

 

All three of these prototype plates have one distinguishing feature from the rest of the known FBI plates – the name of the manufacturer in the lower right corner. It appears that the one change Director Hoover had to the final prototype, before the rest of the porcelain plates were made, was the removal of the manufacturer’s name from the front of the plate. 

 

 

These three known prototype plates were made by the Manhattan Dial Company in Brooklyn, NY. And since the rest of the known FBI plates are identical in terms of color and font style/size, it is an almost certainty that all of the other plates were made by Manhattan Dial Company. Unfortunately, the company is no longer in existence to help provide some background information, such as the dates of manufacture or how many were made. But my research into old Brooklyn telephone books shows that the Manhattan Dial Company first appeared in the telephone book in1903 and was located at 40 Lexington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. It was still listed at that address in the 1957 phone book, but by 1959 there was no longer a listing for the company.

 

When were these porcelain FBI plates made? My best guess is the late 1940s to early 1950s because of the following:

 

  • The plates are 6-3/8” x 13-7/16” in size, suggesting they were made before the standard 6” x 12” size was adopted in 1955;
  • J. Edgar Hoover did not have multiple limousines prior to or during World War II; and
  • It is unlikely such heavy steel plates would have been made during World War II since every effort was made to save metal for production of tanks, airplanes, etc. needed for the war effort.

 

How many porcelain FBI plates were made? Since there were four Cadillac limousines in use by J. Edgar Hoover, there would have been a minimum of four pairs (eight plates) made. Add the three prototypes mentioned above and that makes a minimum of 11 plates. But with the help of people who have been kind enough to share photographs of their plates, we are aware of 12 in-service versions of the plates. When you add the three prototypes, there are a total of 15 porcelain FBI plates known to exist.

 

It certainly makes sense that a few extra pairs would have been made in case one or more of the porcelain plates were damaged or destroyed. Interestingly, a pair of the plates that belonged to a retired FBI Agent from the Los Angeles office has the number “4” hand painted on the back of one of the plates. And because the LA limousine was always the fourth oldest in Director Hoover’s fleet of Cadillac cars, it strongly suggests it was used on the limousine kept for Director Hoover in Los Angeles.

 

 

While we may never know for certain how many of these FBI plates were actually made, I am hopeful this article will generate more information on the plates and document how many are still in existence. If any readers have or are aware of a porcelain FBI plate, please send a photograph to me so I can compare it to photographs of the other 15 known FBI plates to see if it represents a previously unknown plate.

I can be reached at: Charlie Gauthier, P.O. Box 52, The Plains, VA 20198 or at JollyDolly@aol.com.

 

 

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