Personalised plates netted £122,000 for the government last year
Motorists wanting to add some cachet to their driving experience have been bidding in a government auction of personalised number plates.
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
They won't get you from A to B any quicker, and will probably earn a sneer from fellow drivers, but what do Betsy, Paul and Roy care?
The licence plates BET 55Y, PAU 111L and 34 ROY were among several hundred personalised registrations sold off this week by the DVLA.
For thousands of car drivers personalised number plates are a prize possession; a statement of individuality in a world of faceless conformity, and a neat investment.
To others though they're an ostentatious waste of cash; a self-aggrandising statement of ego over commonsense.
Former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis (1 DLT) has his Bentley parked firmly in the first camp. He bought the licence plate 35 years ago and hasn't regretted it for a moment.
"It's not flash. All the time I've had that number I've always thought 'that's fun'. I'm not that kind of flash person."
The plate currently adorns his new Bently Blower, but at times "it's been a toss up whether it or the car has been more valuable" says the ex-DJ.
And while Travis has no problem advertising his whereabouts in such a way - "I'm of the old school" - it has at times caused him inconvenience. The plate was pinched by a fan some years back, reducing Travis to scrawl "1 DLT" on a piece of paper.
Personalised number plates are nothing new
Such criminal intent could hardly have been conceived when first ever number plate, A1, was issued in 1903. Earl Russell is said to have camped outside the vehicle registration office to get the prestigious plate.
Somewhat paradoxically, personalised plates have become so common these days they have lost their exclusive tag, says Andrew English, motoring correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
"They are total vanity and incredibly naff, but it's a market worth millions. I have no idea why someone would want one, they are so Dallas. You could actually spend that money on making your car better."
The boom in personalised plates goes back to the late 80s. Before then, new cars were registered by the local authority in which they had been bought.
There had long been a lively second-hand trade in classic or "cherished" personalised plates. But in 1989 the DVLA took charge of issuing plates and began marketing them itself.
The DVLA stocks an estimated 25 million number plates for sale. People can also ask for specific number and letter combinations, which are issued provided they have never been sold or allocated before.
Not every combination is allowed. Those with religious connotations, like JE55USS, are banned as are rude words. It's also illegal to play around with the spacing of the numbers and letters.
WHAT WE BUY
A surname plate is worth more than a first name one
Short plates are more valuable than long ones
Plates bid for at the end of an auction sell for less than those at the start
Source: Andrew Oswald and Matthew Corder
As Arthur Daley might say, it's become a nice little earner for HM Government - raising £1.2bn to date.
So why do people buy them? Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick University who has studied such sales, not surprisingly concluded it's all about status.
"Basically we are all competing in a giant monkey pack, trying to stand out," he says. "The reason most people buy a personalised number plate is for an ego boost.
"If someone buys a Porsche they can claim it's because it is a high-performing car, as well as a status symbol. You can't say that about these plates as they do nothing, it makes them a very pure indicator of how people see their status.
"Often they are not aware of this, it's not a conscious thing. It doesn't make them bad people, it's just human."
Less is more
Short plates that spell out names are the chief status earners, according to his research. People pay the most for those that spell out a surname. The single digit 1 at the start of a plate is highly prized, as is one beginning with the letter S. One beginning with the letter F is one of the least valuable.
It's not only a lucrative business for the Treasury. Hundreds of companies buy and sell the plates for big profits.
ThePrivatePlateCompany sells 400 private plates a month, says owner Marin Davies. Prices start from £185 and most people spend around £300, but he has customers who are willing to pay over £100,000.
"They say less is more and that applies to number plates as well," says Mr Davies. "Short plates are the most valuable, initials are popular and those with single numbers. People buy them for so many reasons - to stand out, as a marketing tool, as a present."
Boy racers are the "least likely customer", says Mr Davies, whose customer base takes in doctors, lawyers, van drivers and cleaners.
Such plates are often considered naff
And often viewed as a "total vanity" purchase, a personalised plate can be a shrewd investment "if bought wisely".
"They are unique, there will only ever be one," says a spokesman for the DVLA. "This means they retain their value and are a great investment. A much better investment than other things people don't turn their noses up at."
According to one industry tale, a haulage company had a fleet of lorries that all had personalised number plates with the company's name in them. The plates ended up being worth far more than the actual business.
But the only acceptable reason for someone to buy one is to avoid a dreaded Q number plate, says Mr English. A Q plate is issued when the DVLA do not know the manufacture date of a car. It is associated with badly-made cars and as a result it has a stigma, which can reduce the value of a vehicle.
Below is a selection of your comments.
The article does miss one important point about personalised plates - they hide the age of your car. You could be driving something 5 or 6 years old, but if it's a current model on a personalised plate it might just be "new".
Mike Hughes, Guildford, UK
I changed my name by deed poll to my R123 HVP. How personalised is that? Cool, eh?
R123 HVP, York
Surely Personalised number plates have an advantage. If you see a plate that actually says something it is easier to remember if there has been an incident.
J Holder, Worksop
I saw a black cab in Trafalgar Sq with the reg plate 'T1P ME'. I thought 'well I would if I didn't think you were just gonna waste the money'.
When I see a vanity plate, I think only one thing: ID 10T
Nick Goodall, Southampton
The best personalised plates I've ever seen were on a slightly tatty looking, gold 4x4...PL4Y3R. Ah hem. Yes. Too many hip-hop videos me thinks!
Personalised plates are CL8R1Y a very poor idea but it appears they are becoming more and more common to express ones individuality. I am most put off by the illegal ones, ie the ones which are clearly personalised with illegal spacing and characters to boot, generally attempting to spell the owners name. The police are clearly turning a blind eye to this ever increasing strange practice by the less fortunate's.
I had friends in Vancouver B.C that had a messy divorce, she got his Merc 600 SEL. In its day it was an exceptional car. Jill had a personal licence plate made for the car, "WAS HIS" I use to have a quiet laugh to my self each time I saw Jill driving that boat of a car.
I always think they are amusing and want to shout out the "name" of the person if thats what the plate is about.
I wouldn't have one for all the T in china though naff or what!
Mike Dakin, Matlock/UK
We've got private plates - they cost a few quid and we think they make the car look nicer. Instead of having a government issue random set of characters taking pride of place at the front and back of our cars, we have a plate than means something to us. And let's face it - if you don't care how your car looks then why bother even washing it - and no-one complains at that do they?
Most of the time when i see these i just think 'what a pillock' especially when they've tried to use a 3 as an E or some such nonsense but just occasionaly one will amuse me.
They're only naff when the Darren's and Dave's bend the letters or put the screws through in such a way to make them read as something they're not, otherwise they're just a bit of fun. The best one around here is a Jag with A17 NOB on it; the guy has added " after the 17!
Duncan Barnes, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey