I recently got new license plates for the first time in awhile. This wouldn't normally be noteworthy, but since my car is a horrible pile of poo, something as simple as replacing license plates turned into an all-night project. The front plate was easy, but the rear? No such luck.
For starters, the plate screws had rusted, and were stuck in place. As I tried to turn them, the captive nut they screw into broke free, and I was left simply spinning the screw in place without being able to loosen it. Easy fix, though, I'll just find some way to get to the back of the plate from inside the trunk, right? Wrong! There's no possible way to do that. At all. The only way I'd be able to get the old plate off would be to remove the plate holder panel.
After some research, even that turned into a nightmare. In Ford's infinite wisdom, the entire bottom half of the trunk lid (plate holder, plate light, reverse lights, trim, and two body panels) is a single integrated piece. Removing it requires the removal of ten nuts, six screws, a few dozen plastic tabs, and all wiring/bulb sockets for the aforementioned lights. Oh, and there's a layer of adhesive, which forms the seal for that panel, so even after removing all the hardware, it's a difficult and nerve-wracking process to pull the panel away from the trunk lid without breaking it.
As if all that weren't enough, there were complications due to age and poor design. The nuts that hold the panel on? Instead of being attached to proper bolts, or even just using bolts/screws to hold the panel on, the nuts attach to threaded studs. One end of the stud is threaded into the plastic panel, like a screw. The other end sticks through the trunk lid, and a nut goes on it to hold the panel down. This is a bad idea to begin with, because plastic is naturally softer than metal, and it's very common that, in the process of removing the nuts, the stud will come completely out of the panel. This happened with about half of them. And there's more, but I didn't discover all the little problems until re-assembly.
The big problem presented itself when I got to the last two screws to be removed. They were behind the license plate, which I couldn't remove. The plate is held at the top by screws, and at the bottom by clips. So, I did all that work only to be left with a chinese puzzle; I couldn't remove the plate without removing the panel, and I couldn't remove the panel without removing the plate. Since I wasn't putting my Lupinia plates on another vehicle right now, and they're super-cheap to just get another set if I want, the license plate lost. I pried it away from the car, destroying both the license plate and the bottom part of the bracket in the process, and removed the last two screws.
At this point, I discovered the true stupidity in this license plate holder design. The screws don't go into anything particularly sturdy, they go into square plastic clips, which are held in place solely based on the fact that they're square. To make things worse, the plastic is extremely soft, and the part that fits in the square hole doesn't even have corners. The end result is a captive nut that strips with so little force that, theoretically, the act of simply installing a license plate and turning the screws a little too tight could destroy the stupid little clips. Brilliant design, Ford, A+.
With more time and less frustration, I probably could've come up with a more elegant solution, but by this point, I was extraordinarily pissed off and quite cold. So, after two trips to Lowes and one trip to Advance Auto, I had a universal plate bracket (half-style, like what many new cars have on the front), and some hardware to attach it. I basically just screwed it straight into the plastic panel behind the plate, using enough screws to make it secure. The second trip to Lowes was for washers, because I had only a quarter-inch of clearance behind the panel for the screws to stick through, but they didn't have screws short enough that had large enough heads to hold the plate holder.
Re-assembly should've been the easy part, but it was even worse than dis-assembly. Remember those studs I mentioned? The reason so many of them came out of the plastic was because the nuts rusted onto the studs (they're outside the main trunk seal). And, even with a healthy dose of PB Blaster (amazingly awesome penetrating oil for unsticking rusty hardware, it's leaps-and-bounds better than WD40), I was only able to free a few of them without completely destroying the studs. Since they're threaded on both sides, the only way to hold them with my vice grips to torque the nuts was to clamp onto the threads, and a few of them twisted, completely destroying the threads. On top of that, several of the screws screwed into flimsy plastic anchors (like drywall anchors), and about half of them were either destroyed just by the process of removing them, or somehow went missing during disassembly. I had to use bolts and nuts to secure them.
Overall, the process of replacing my rear license plate took five working hours, $12 in hardware, three store trips, and about a full additional hour of research just to figure out how to disassemble the trunk. And I'm left with a trunk lid that may or may not seal properly, held together with a frankenstein combination of original hardware and miscellaneous parts I had in my hardware bin. Thanks, Ford.