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Registration plates: The good, the bad and the most expensive

Registration plates: The good, the bad and the most expensive

Unless you have super-cool personalised versions, you probably don't give that much thought to your vehicle's registration plates. But this fairly innocuous sequence of letters and numbers not only provides our vehicles with a trackable identity; in some cases, it can prove to be a real gold mine.

Cracking the code

British car registration plate labels.
Image by CnbrbOwn work, Public Domain
Image source

The very first number plates were issued in 1903 following the implementation of the Motor Car Act and consisted of a one or two letter code and a sequence number from 1 to 9999.

After making his butler queue overnight at the London County Council offices, the first car number plate 'A1' was issued to the Earl Russell.

The code indicated the local authority issuing the plates and went by size of population. But, the expanding motor industry meant a new scheme had to be implemented in 1932.

You weren't able to tell the age of a car until 1962, when the suffix indicated the year of registration. A similar system was introduced from 1983 and 2001.

Nowadays, number plates are made up of seven characters: two letters referring to a local DVLA office to indicate a region; two numbers that change every six months to indicate when the car was first registered; and three letters that are issued randomly.

Road rules

It's not just a coincidence that all number plates look the same. Department of Transport regulations set out the way number plates should look so they're easy to read by cameras and computers used in Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems and by other road users.

It's illegal to drive a car with altered plates and being caught doing so could lead to a fine of up to £1,000.

So, what exactly are the rules? Number plates must:

  • Be illuminated at night
  • Be legible and not obscured by dirt
  • Be manufactured to British Standard specification
  • Meet DoT regulations when it comes to size, colour, font and spacing

The only optional decoration permitted on number plates is the EU or national GB/England/Scotland/Wales emblem, which must be in the standard position on the left of the plate.

The registration game

As all number plates have to meet the same requirements, it's perhaps not surprising personalised number plates have become increasingly popular as people want to make their new pride and joy stand out from the crowd.

But just how much are people willing to spend on their perfect plate? Just take a look at this:

  • Abu Dhabi businessman Saeed Abdul Ghaffar Khouri paid £7.25m to obtain the number plate '1'.

  • Ferrari dealer John Collins paid £518,000 for the number plate '25 O' which now sits on Eric Clapton's former Ferrari 250 SWB worth £10m.

  • Bradford businessman Afzal Khan paid £440,625 for the plate with the Formula One initials 'F1'. He has since turned down a £6m bid for the sought-after number.

  • Bought by an anonymous bidder for £404,000 in 2008, 'S1' is thought to be Scotland's first-ever number plate. The bidder said he was going to put it on his old red Skoda.

  • Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the number plate 'VIP 1' for £285,000 in 2006; it had previously sold for £62,000 just two years before.

  • Whether you're willing to spend thousands of pounds on a particular registration, want to treat yourself to a personalised plate, or are happy with what you've got, just remember they're a legal requirement and obscuring it from view can result in a hefty fine.

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