Useless Car Trivia Question: Why Did This Car Have Three License Plates?

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I bet everyone reading this is looking for just the absolute right thing to say to someone special in their lives, a partner or crush or colleague you wish to impress, perhaps a prison guard you want special favors from or an orderly you want better pills from. The good news is that I have exactly what you need, right here: a choice morsel of top-grade automotive trivia, all but guaranteed to put you in the good – no, best – graces of anyone you tell it to. It’s this: why did the Citroën ID/DS Break need three license plates?

Well, three in Europe, and 31 out of the 50 States of America. Definitely two rear license plates no matter where you were. What’s going on here? Why would this car need an extra license plate at the rear? There’s a hint of the answer in this picture:7572 P1

 

It’s subtle, but do you see the extra license plate there? It’s laying flat, at a 90° angle to the normally-positioned license plate there. So, why, exactly, would you want a secondary license plate facing up? Is it to be more cooperative with police helicopters?

To understand why, we must understand the car, at least a little bit. The Citroën DS or ID (basically two trim levels of the same car, the DS being the higher-spec one) was available as a wagon, which the French like to refer to as a “break,” which comes from the French term break de chassewhich means “hunting break,” where “break” refers to a kind of horse carriage used to break horses, and, I guess, also carry people with guns who want to shoot animals in the woods.

Anyway, Citroën’s wagon design included a nice clamshell rear hatch-and-tailgate combo:

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Of course, if you have a tailgate, you may want to drive with that tailgate down so you can haul really long things, like a six-foot party sub, and since you have no interest in violating your chosen nation’s road laws, you want your license plate visible. Hence:

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See? The second license plate remains readable even with the tailgate down! And, if you look at how the license plate lamps are positioned, you can see they’re set at a 45° angle so both plates receive bountiful illumination:

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What I find fascinating about this solution is that it seems like such an extra burden to put on the car’s owner when a simple hinged setup would work. In fact, later DS and ID Breaks did just that–you only needed one plate, like every other freaking car in the world, and the license plate (and light assembly) just hinged to the right angle, like how Minis and Volvos and Subaru Brats and other cars handled this same problem:

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See? Just a hinge is all that’s needed. I can’t help but wonder what kind of hoops you’d have to jump through to get an additional license plate in Europe; maybe it was easier back in 1960s Europe or America, but I know if I had to get a second rear plate for a car I drove now here in my state of North Carolina in this year of our lord 2022, it would require a hell of a lot of phone calls and explanations and likely multiple long, tedious trips to the DMV and probably some specialized office in the middle of nowhere. And I’m still not sure you could legally do it.

I’d also like to point out that Citroën also seems to have tried just splitting the difference and mounting one plate at a 45° angle:

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That works, too, I suppose.

So, I gotta hand it to Citroën’s franc-pinchers for coming up with a way to add a clever feature to a car and yet managing to make the buyer pay for it and do most of the work needed to make it a reality. That’s impressive.

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44 Responses

  1. >>> hoops you’d have to jump through to get an additional license plate in Europe; maybe it was easier back in 1960s Europe or America,

    Back then, in the UK (this is a UK model), you just went into your local Halfords (automotive and bike store), walked up to the counter and said: “please make me a rear license plate with this combination of letters and numbers on it”. They would make the plate and sell it to you. There was no check that you were entitled to use that plate.

    This was a common occurrence , because trailers did not have their own plates: one put a plate on the trailer with the towing vehicle’s registration on it.

    1. I had to get a new one about ten years ago (hit a pheasant), and there was an extra check. The Halfords bloke said “is this your car”, I said “yes” and he went off and made the plate.
      It seems to be really easy to swap your plates for someone else’s, but it doesn’t seem to go on that often. Partly I think because it’s really easy to look up the make/model/colour of a car based on it’s registration.

    2. I was watching a video on a Scammell Scarab (a little British 3-wheel shunting truck I’d never heard of before), and it had a second detachable plate on the back just to put on the trailer.

    3. I think they’re third-party provided in France as well. What I’m seeing on the later, California-registered model is a kludge Citroen came up with for the US, Japan and other markets where the government registration agency supplies the actual license plates and getting an extra one involves no small amount of bureaucracy.

    4. This is amazing – I’d always wondered why you’ll occasionally see pics of old E-Types (or XKEs as you’d call them I bet) with the front plate designation being what looked like a sticker affixed on the edge of the hood.

      Or the number/letters on the front grill of Number 6’s Lotus Seven. 😉

    5. Here in Ireland it’s much the same, or at least it was when I lost the front plate on my brother’s piece of shit Hyundai after driving through some light flooding. In fact, when I went to the motor factors, got the plate, affixed it to the crap can, then drove around, little did I realise I was driving with two number plates that didn’t tally. Had to go back to the factors to get a new one. I seem to recall it costing around €7.

  2. The Subaru Baja had the swing rear plate, right?

    I seem to recall it being a feature they trumpeted at the time, as if there were a lot of people transporting 2x4s in their Baja. I mean, people who don’t come here.

    1. Yeah, the Baja had a swing down rear plate but I don’t recall seeing it on the BRAT. Early BRATs had the license plate in the tailgate though, so maybe I just never realized it could fold down on them?

        1. MN too. I lost the plates to my car because it sat on a salvage lot too long while I argued with insurance about totalling it. When I went to get them replaced they just issued completely new ones.

          RIP my nice plates that ended in 69. 🙂

  3. “I can’t help but wonder what kind of hoops you’d have to jump through to get an additional license plate in Europe” – There are actually no hoops to jump through in Germany…there are license plate stores where anyone can have any license plate reproduced. It just won’t have the stickers from the govermant on it making it official. These “unofficial” license palte are used on tow-hitch mounted bike racks, for example, which obsure the official license plate.

  4. Wait… did it really have one meter of legroom in front of the rear seat? Also I really like the stow ‘n go seats in the trunk. Maybe the designer of the Zafira rode in a Citroen DS Break as a kid.

  5. The most elegant solution appeared on the 1951 Pontiac Chieftain Streamliner Wagon with the Plate and tail lights dropping down on hinges to be seen from the rear with the Tail Gate down. Genius.

    But for some reason I do love a complicated solution.

  6. “I’d also like to point out that Citroën also seems to have tried just splitting the difference and mounting one plate at a 45° angle”
    I’m not convinced that isn’t just an odd reflection, and is still two 90° plates

  7. There was an ID break parked in front of Szimpla Kert in Kazinczy Utca in Budapest. That was when Budapest was Budapest, and Hungary was a wonderful free country and not yet Órbanistan.

    The break was an imposing sight in the Jewish quarter. I don’t remember which plate setup it used though.

  8. To get a third (or fourth, or whateverth) licence plate in Germany is easy: you just have one made, either at a shop or online. No questions asked.
    The thing that would be tricky is to have the official seals applied to it. And that would be nigh impossible, but it would probably not be necessary either, as one of your back plates (the one normally visible) would have the seals if anyone wants to see them. The second one for better visibility would be akin to extra plates that people fix to bike racks mounted to the tow hook, which conceal the “main” plate. Those don’t need seals.
    I say “seals” because back plates need to seals: the official registration seal, and the vehicle inspection sticker. Front planes only have the registration seal.

    1. I noticed this on our trip to Switzerland a few years ago. Every receiver hitch-mounted bike rack had both a plate and full set of rear lights attached. I assumed it must be a law that you’re not allowed any obstruction of indicators/plate.

      I also discovered how to accidentally turn off the DRLs on the rented Nissan Qashqai. This will get you pulled over, upon which your wife will have difficulty finding the registration papers in the deep dark cave of a glove box, causing you to sweat for a few minutes, wondering if you’ll be seeing the inside of a Swiss jail!

      1. Oh, I am sure there is a law about not concealing plates or lights behind fixtures like bike racks. In both Germany and Switzerland. For a European, it is pretty inconceivable for such a law to _not_ exist.

        1. I’m sure such a law exists most places in the US too, it’s just very rarely enforced. Although I have heard of people with big racks getting pulled over.

          Yes, the double entendre was intended. 🙂

  9. Making things easy and simple were never parts of the Citroën way of thinking back then. They were designed to make it comfortable to use and drive.
    So where you would maybe get your hands dirty, making sure a hinged numberplate were in the right position, Citroën just made it, so you didn’t have to touch anything.

    It’s strange with the DS: The regular four door is just so beautiful. But any variants just look like ugly mutated monsters. That goes both for the open Chapron one and the station wagon. And the short wheelbase rally versions.
    So to give Chapron the freedom to start almost from scratch with the SM, was a brilliant idea. It has the same gear box and hydraulic system, but can’t think of much else carried over from the DS.

  10. In France, you can easily make a 3rd plate for a trailer that is under 750kg, bike rack etc. They are not delivered by the state but made by dealers, locksmith shop etc. If you want to cover your car with plates, I think you can.

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