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Drivers find cool collectibles on the road

By on July 3, 2014

It starts with a driver spotting an interesting item and deciding to buy it. Then — oh look, there’s another one, slightly different. And that gets purchased too. Somewhere along the way, an interest turns into a bit of an obsession, and all of a sudden that driver is a bona fide collector.

Whether it’s mementos from the road, trucking-related items, or just something that makes that driver smile, traveling around the country offers all sorts of opportunities to find a new treasure and add to the collection. Now the only question: where do you put it all?

Creative License

Ralf Saerback, AOK Trucking

Wanted: A no-longer-in-use vehicle license plate from the state of Texas.

It could be a Don’t Mess With Texas — Keep Texas Beautiful slogan tag from the late 1990s or a red, blue and black general issue plate from the 2000s, featuring a space shuttle, oil derrick and a cowboy. A dark-blue-on-cream Texas Centennial plate from 1936 would be even better but really, any Lone Star state plate will do.

Treasure-Hunters1“Texas is the only plate I’m missing from the states along the old Route 66,” says Ralf Saerback, 44, a New Brunswick, Canada-based over-the-road trucker and license plate collector. “Oh, and Arizona. I have two of the old ones but I need one of the new ones.”

Saerback, who grew up on a farm in Muenster, Germany, and later drove trucks in his native country for 15 years, has been making long-haul trips in the U.S. and Canada for the last six years, most recently for AOK Trucking in Waterville, New Brunswick (Canada). Between stops to pick up and deliver loads of general freight, fresh produce and refrigerated food, Saerback heads off the beaten path whenever possible to look for plates.

“In the U.S., every state has a nickname,” he says. “Kansas is the Sunflower State. New York is the Empire State, and they put it on the plates. It makes it personal. They don’t do that in Germany. The plates are plain and really big. I would never hang one of those on the wall.”

Treasure-Hunters2And though the wall space in his truck’s cab is definitely at a premium these days, Saerback still manages to fit his latest finds somewhere. It’s an impressive assemblage.

Saerback started collecting the plates as a way of marking every U.S. state and Canadian province he visited. One destination he has not visited? Alaska, and the canary yellow and midnight blue plates of The Last Frontier are high on his wish list.

Although he’s hard-pressed to name his most valuable tag, the most historical and perhaps most interesting piece in his collection is likely the New Hampshire plate from 1919.

“To some people, these things are just a hunk of metal,” he says. “But these are part of my life.”
— M.B. Roberts

This Place Rings a Bell

Luis Licha, Celadon Trucking

Treasure-Hunters4 A little more than a decade ago, Luis Licha began collecting ceramic bells in every city and state he passed through. A gift for his wife, the collection quickly began to grow — as did his passion for bells. When the marriage ended, Licha kept the bells.

“I got one from every state I went through, and then started to get them from cities as well,” Licha recalls. “That was more than 10 years ago, and now I’ve got somewhere between 50 and 75 of them.”

He’s still missing four of the upper 48 states, but is determined to get a complete set. No game plan for Hawaii yet, but for it and other hard-to-reach spots he’s aided by friends and family who know an easy Christmas or birthday gift when they see one.

“People will bring them to me, which is great if they are going somewhere that I may never travel to, such as a foreign country,” he explains.

Treasure-Hunters5The collection comes in all shapes and sizes, with an unmarked, pewter bell from Brazil taking pride of place. A bell from his native Puerto Rico features a handle shaped like one of the small frogs that are so common on the island. He’s also got a cowbell that his Mother picked up in Houston as a joke.

To date the collection only takes up half a curio cabinet in Licha’s home, with the remaining shelves devoted to other odds and ends. But as he travels out from his base in Ocala, Fla., Licha says he’s more than ready to keep ringing those bells.

“I really want to find ones now that are unique and different, so it’s getting harder,” he says. “If I have to, I’ll go for the standard one, but I’m really drawn to the weird stuff now.”
— Joe Morris

Semi Tough

John Burton, Holland Enterprises

Treasure-Hunters6 As a newbie driver for North American Van Lines in 1982, John Burton ponied up the cash to buy one of the company’s diecast replica trucks. Why not? It looked pretty spiffy and he was happy to be a driver. Having the truck on display showed his pride in what he did. Each time the company came out with a new model, he got one. He moved to a different trucking company, and did the same thing when they offered model trucks.

“I started going to truck shows and then it seemed that every time I turned around I was buying another truck,” he says. “It’s so addictive.”

As Burton’s collection grew, he started reading about the history of the trucks and gained an appreciation for details. If he found something interesting, he bought it.

“One time when I was working at Werner, I went to a truck show, saw a toy booth there and the next thing I know, I have more than 20 trucks,” he recalls.

Treasure-Hunters7Back at work, as he loaded his haul into the trunk of his car, another driver came over to check them out and asked to buy one. Burton sold him one. Then another driver came by, and another, and before long he had an empty trunk and a pocketful of cash.

“I had to go back to the show and buy more,” he says. “I guess that’s when I knew that I really was a collector.”

His most prized item out of his current collection is a Tonkin tanker. Ask him what color it is and …

“Well, I haven’t actually seen it for over a year and a half. I’m out on the road months at a time, so I don’t have an apartment,” he says. “I stay with my nephew when I’m home, and keep the trucks in a storage unit.”

Burton estimates his collection at about 125 diecast trucks at the moment, and looks forward to adding more after hitting a few truck shows this summer, especially since he missed out on his usual spending spree at the Mid-America Trucking Show this year. He got there later than usual and everything was sold out.

“I’ve never seen that happen before,” he says, chuckling. “Next year there will be no chance of that happening because I will be first in line.”
— Nancy Henderson

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