MANTEO — By the time Becky Luton opened the doors at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 23, 1999, people had been lined up on the sidewalk for two hours, waiting for her to let them in. Christmas was in two days, but no one was looking to buy gifts. After all, it was a DMV office.
Everybody just wanted to clinch the hottest new item on the beach: an OBX license tag. And 21 years later, demand for official OBX plates has not let up.
“It was nuts,” Luton said in a recent interview, recalling that first day. “People came out of the woodwork. They came from Virginia. They came from other states.”
As soon as Santa left and business resumed, she said, it “started gangbusters” again, and interest in the OBX plates has remained steady every year since.
At the start of business on Dec. 23, 2020, Luton said her office had issued a total of 121,935 OBX plates. The Outer Banks, she said, remains the only location in the state with its own standard-issue license tags.
The idea for the OBX plate came from the late state Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, who was struck by the popularity of the OBX logo created in the mid-1990s by Kill Devil Hills restaurateur Jim Douglas.
“He loved the whole OBX thing,” Douglas said, referring to Basnight. “He was quite the Outer Banks advocate.”
In a recent interview at Chilli Peppers Grill & Pupuseria, the restaurant he has owned since 1993, Douglas added he has never received nor asked for any compensation from the state.
“(Basnight) approached me and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about using OBX on the license plates?’ I said, “Sure!’,” Douglas recounted. “People loved the license plate.”
Douglas did, however, happily accept being awarded his own plate – and he still has it. “I got No. 1, OBX 1,” he said. “It’s on a ’99 Suburban.”
Inspired by the black bordered oval white stickers with European country codes — such as IRE for Ireland and F for France — once required on vehicles to identify country of origin, Nantucket, Mass. was one of the first U.S. communities to adapt the stickers to its own locale.
It was during a visit there in 1993, Douglas said, that he saw how its “ACK” stickers were flying out of shops. Brainstorming on the drive home, he came up with “OBX” for the Outer Banks, and within a year was marketing stickers, followed soon by T-shirts, key chains and other souvenirs.
“It was very successful,” Douglas said.
So much so that the three letters have become synonymous far and wide with the Outer Banks.
“It was brilliant,” Luton said of the logo, noting how quickly it took off. She said not long after Douglas started making OBX stickers, she was watching the news on television and noticed that a car stuck in London traffic had an OBX sticker on its bumper.
And it goes without saying that the OBX license tags took the symbolism to a whole new level.
“It is sentimental,” Luton said. “it’s memories. We have people on vacation who arranged their vacation around when it’s time to renew their registration … They want to be reminded of the sun, the sea, the simplicity.”
To qualify for an OBX plate, a person has to have a vehicle registered in North Carolina. But the plate is only issued over the counter on the Outer Banks, not by mail.
It didn’t take long to run through the first 9,999 plates, said Luton, who operates the office, inside Island Pharmacy in Manteo, as an independent contractor for the state Division of Motor Vehicles. As time went on, the state added first one, then two, then three zeroes.
“Then they took the dash out, and we had 9,999 more,” Luton said, “and then we thought they’d be done.”
But requests for OBX plates, by law issued in numeric sequence, continued unabated.
“I told them, ‘You are going to be so harassed if you try to take away our OBX plates’,” she said.
Although some vehicle owners either don’t care, or complain about them being “too touristy,” Luton said, she more often has seen people trade places in line with others to get the number they want, or they’ll come to trade-in their old North Carolina plate for an OBX plate.
One man even tried to bribe her to get the numbers that matched his wedding year, Luton said, describing how he flipped over several hundred dollar bills. And when that didn’t work, she recalled, chuckling, he flashed his badge, apparently hoping she wouldn’t notice that it was for a firefighter.
Now the state has replaced the last digit on OBX plates with a letter, so they can pretty much go on indefinitely. And starting in January, people will be able to replace their old, worn-out OBX plates with their same number, albeit they’ll be the less-fancy flat version.
When Douglas’ father drove him to the Outer Banks in 1987, dropping him off with his bicycle, a handmade windsurfer and $400, the Outer Banks was just starting its growth to becoming a mega-popular tourism destination.
Considering how far OBX the logo has come from the early days, when it was marketed with little signs posted at a couple of local shops: “Get Hooked on the Outer Banks,” Douglas, 58, said OBX grew alongside the Outer Banks. When the market tipped in 1995, the OBX logo went along for the wild ride to the top.
According to a Sept. 29, 2003, article in Triangle Business Journal, OBX-Stocks Inc. generated more than $1.2 million in sales for the company in 2002.
There were some bumps along the way, including court challenges over the OBX-Stocks trademark that limited its protection — ironically, in part, because of its success as a geographic identifier — Douglas eventually sold his rights to his partner, David Watson.
For the record, Watson received OBX 2. And OBX 3 went to none other than the late actor Andy Griffith, a long-time resident of Roanoke Island and generous donor to the Outer Banks community.
And OBX is as hot as ever.
“It’s huge,” Douglas said, especially considering how popular the OBX plate has become. “I think it’s great. People come from all over to get it.”
And the OBX license tags inspired a lot of friendships and community pride for Luton, 65, who has been at the frontlines issuing the plates and serving DMV on the Outer Banks since 1996.
“You know, it’s a comforting feeling to be in Florida and see an OBX plate,” she said. “It’s like a feeling of home. I’m proud that they came out of my office. It feels like my child.”