What's up with license plates in the UK

I was watching the British car show Fifth Gear on SpeedTV last night and they had a segment on buying vehicle number plates. I was completely confused. The piece was about getting a good deal on a cool number plate at auction. Some of the plates went for a few thousand pounds! These were not for collectors- but for use on cars.

Can someone explain the license plate situation in the UK (or all of Europe for all I know) and fill me in on why one would pay so much for a plate when perhaps you could just buy a vanity plate?

There was a thread about this a few weeks ago. The reason seems to be that in Britain you can’t just have any sequence of letters and numbers you like - the standard format merely happens to throw up some ‘interesting’ numbers which people are prepared to pay good money for. I understand that in at least some of the States you can pretty much have any combination of letters and numbers you like, within reason, for a modest fee.

Brief explanation of the number plate (license plate) system:

Plates are assigned to a vehicle when it is first registered. They have a year identifier so you can tell how old the vehicle is*.

I’m not going too far back in history, so I’m only explaining the latest two systems here.

From 1983, the plate looked like A 123 BCD.

The “A” is the year designator. That incremented by one letter each year (certain letters like I, O, U, Z etc were left out).
The numbers are issued consecutively. Numbers 1-20 and special ones like 111 and 999 were held back as “cherished” plates.
The group of three letters (actually the last two of these letters) are assigned to vehicle registration offices. So, e.g. A 453 FTH and A 165 NTH come from the same area.

Actually, from about “T” the letters were changed every six months instead of every year, the upshot being that we ran out, with “Y” being the letter for the first half of 2001. (In fact, Mar-Aug 2001. This system was designed by British civil servants…)

So, the current system was introduced. This looks like AB 04 CDE.

The first two letters are local identifiers, with the first letter identifying the big region (e.g. L for London, S for Scotland etc) and the second the individual office.

The numbers are the year, being the last two digits of the year for March to August, and the last two digits plus 50 for September to the following February. So we are currently on 04, which will change to 54 from 1st Sep, and then to 05 next March. Stupidly, we missed the 01 as we were still using the old “Y”, so we started in Sep 2001 with 51. Go figure.

The last three letters are random.
So, you see, it is not often get a meaningful plate. And any that do look promising are held back by the DVLA (licencing authority) to sell at a huge price.

For example, AA 51 NGH went for a big price, no doubt to some wealthy Indian businessman.

  • Not strictly true, as you can buy a cherished plate and put it on a car, but only if it is older than or the same age as the car. You can’t make the car look newer than it is, by, for instance, putting an Y plate on a 1995 car.

So what’s so wonderful about that plate? To me, that’s as appealing as the next-in-the-pile “4KPE212” plate that graced our recently squashed vehicle. Does some part of “AA 51 NGH” hold significance to wealthy Indians?

Around here, people tend to go for something suggestive of names or a phrase, as long as it fits into 7 characters. Just gotta wonder how many tickets the holder of “AHEDOFU” gets. :smiley:

I have a question about the letter I and the number 1, or O and 0? Are these used interchangeably on UK plates?

People tinker with the positioning and font of letters. So 51 NGH can be made to look like SINGH. Strictly it is illegal, but the police generally turn a blind eye.

Think a little leet-speak-ish, where the ‘5’ becomes an ‘S’:
A A Singh

People also tinker with where the retaining screws are positioned, eg to make a 1 look more like an L. Also technically illegal.

Singh is one of the most common surnames among Indians, at least in the UK. I assume “A. A.” were his initials. (I may not be right about the first two letters. It could have been MR 51NGH, but I forget.)

The “old-style” plates gave some better combinations, such as MAG 1C and K1 NGS. I don’t think they ever issued PEN 1S, though, or P155 OFF :wink:

The new ones are fairly lame in this respect. Dyslexic girls might like LE51 BAN, or Roman Abramovich (billionaire Russian boss of Chelsea football club) could wait until next year and get RU55 IAN.

Technically no, but the font that is used does not distinguish between them.

For this reason, I and O were never used as year identifiers, although they are used in the three-letter groups, for some reason.

However, “I” is not used in the two-letter area identifier of the new-style plates, to avoid confusion between, say, LI04 ABC (new style) and L104 ABC (old style).

They’re making their own plates to use in place of the provided ones?

They’re not provided in the way American ones are. Any garage can make them up. The rules have been tightened in recent years, IIRC the garage now being required to check documents to ensure you are entitled to the plate in question.

(The most expensive plate on record appears to be K1 NGS, which sold for £239,000. :rolleyes: )

The actual plates aren’t provided by the DVLA. When you buy a car, they cost extra. If they get broken, you have to buy a new one yourself.

Until a few years ago, you could go to any garage and get a set of plates made up, with no proof that you even owned that number. You could get them down in all kinds of wacky fonts, mess around with the spacing, and so on. You could even make your own, by buying blank plates and sticky letters and numbers.

In 2001, though, along with the new style plates, the government specified a particular size and font for the number plates, and brought in stricter controls on who could make the plates - garages needed a licence, and motorists had to provide proof of entitlement. In practice, though, for cash in hand you can usually get round the rules still.

I remember reading a news story a few years ago about Texas vanity plates “TEXAS” and “TEXAS1” going for some silly amount, at least in the $10,000+ range.

Who bought that? Queen Elizabeth?

An anonymous bidder. Unfortunately. There’s no way of finding out the owner of a valid plate.

WAG, it was a middle eastern oil magnate. (It was back in 1993, so Russian buyers are unlikely.)

I always wondered why British license plates looked so, unofficial, almost homemade compared to US ones. They sort of are!

Although all fifty states have their own rules, messing with plates here is a very big no-no. My brother had a VW dune buggy and he got a ticket because his plate was welded on. Didn’t matter that this made it more secure, in NY license plates cannot be welded, wired, tied, glued, clamped etc. They must be bolted on.

About 15 years ago there was a small controversy in the state of Maine. They had a lobster separating the letters & numbers instead of a dash. A lot of people felt it was a snobbish symbol of the rich and painted over it. Eventually a judge ruled that as long as it didn’t cover the information it was a legitamite form of protest.

Do plates in the UK stay with the car? Because in NY (and I always assumed most states) plates stay with the owner when the car’s sold.

Yes, they stay with the car. If a car is offically taken off the road, the owner has the options to transfer the registration to another vehicle, register his wish to retain it, or can sell it (if it’s worth anything). ‘Antique’ ones can be worth a fair bit, not because they spell out a word or anything, but simply because they are rare. If someone’s done up an old wreck, for which the registration wasn’t retained, they either need to buy another old number, or suffer the indignity of a new plate on an old car.

But as I understand it, you can’t put a new plate on an old car - because plates can’t be used to make a car look newer than it is. So in fact I believe you have to get a new “old” plate issued.

So, in the US and other places where plates stay with the owner, I assume there is no “new car rush”? In the UK, there’s always been a big rush to buy cars with the new year letter. Admittedly this is slightly less now with the six-monthly change-over, but there’s still a perceive prestige to having the latest plate.
(My plate is LD04 ***, signifying that it was registered in the London area between March and August 2004. The number part changes to 54 on 1st September, so another five days and I no longer have a “new” car :frowning: )

There’s ‘dateless registrations’ which have three numbers and three letters, all randomly assigned. There’s also “Q plates”, which are for cars where the date of manufacture is unknown (most commonly used for home-built cars)

In New York, which is annoyingly beauraucratic, license plates which aren’t immediately going to be registered to another vehicle must be turned in for destruction. Once you cancel or transfer the registration you have ten days to turn them in and can be fined like $5/day if you don’t!

Growing up it was always hush-hush if you had old plates lying around. The were, in essence, contraband material!

Again I can really only speak for NY state but here license plate numbers usually mean absolutely nothing. They’re not related to the car or owner. They’re mass produced (often in prisons) in advance so the DMV has stacks of them and you just get the next set of numbers in line.

Some special cars get special plates. In NY if the first letter was a Z that used to mean a rental car. A lot of states stopped doing this after criminals began targeting rich tourists this way.

Registering a ‘home built’ car in New York State?!? Boy that would be a good one! :smiley: