In the U.S. They are called “Vanity Plates” but here in the UK they go by a variety of different names such as “Cherished Registrations”, “Personalised Plates” or “Private Number Plates”. Love them or hate them (and they do seem to polarise opinions more than Marmite!) there is no denying that they are becoming more and more popular with around one in ten cars on UK roads now wearing private plates. Of course, things were rather different in the early years of motoring when compulsory registration and numbering of motor vehicles was met with much opposition but even then some far-sighted individuals recognised the unique charm of certain numbers and in 1903 the 2ndEarl Russell queued though the night outside the council offices in order to claim the very first London registration number “A1”. This was promptly fitted to his Napier. When later registration numbers appeared which correlated with the initials of car owners, a whole new industry was born and long before the advent of the internet, specialist dealers were seeking out some of the best numbers and offering them for sale to an eager band of motorists keen to ensure that their vehicle registration number made a positive statement about them. In many cases, such a registration number was regarded as a status symbol, a sign of success possibly along with a little one upmanship.
Cars have always been known by their registration numbers and we all recall that of our first car and that number plate possibly even contributed to the car’s nickname. The cars of others were also often recognised by their number plates and at one time in London many of the emergency service vehicles, along with police cars, bore registration numbers including the three letters “BYL”. This is often cited as a possible reason why the Metropolitan Police became known as “The Old Bill”. There are also reports that, at around the same time, the West Yorkshire Police were due to take delivery of a fleet of new police cars but the Chief Constable at the time refused to accept them due to the fact that they bore the Leeds registration letters “MUG”.
There are of course only a very limited number of vehicle registration numbers which offer letters corresponding with initials along with a low or distinctive number and such plates always command a high price but many buyers have chosen a slightly different way of adding a little of their own personality to their vehicle by selecting a plate showing their occupation or interests. Some of the best known are those of Jimmy Tarbuck who felt that he should remind the world that he is a “COM1C” (allegedly) and the late Paul Daniels who’s tricks involved MAG1C (but not a lot!)
At one time there were moves to prohibit the retention and transfer of vehicle registration numbers but someone in authority realised that the sale of such numbers could provide a useful source of revenue for the treasury and the D.V.L.A. now offers a wide selection of personalised registrations either directly or through approved agents like Carreg. All number plates must comply with specific requirements in terms of font, size, style and spacing but fans of private plates are often experts at selecting a letter and number sequence to convey a meaning.
And the good news is that buying a private number plate has never been easier. There is certainly no need for queueing like Earl Russell and even the scanning through lists of available numbers is no longer necessary. Many of today’s best private number plate sellers have websites offering to search for suitable numbers at the click of a mouse. The best sellers are members of trade bodies and can ensure that the whole process proceeds without a hitch.
So are private plates cool, fun or naff? … It all depends on the plate chosen!