Cowland on Cars

Gold plated: Are you as obsessed with private plates as I am?

by Paul Cowland
2 November 2022 4 min read
Gold plated: Are you as obsessed with private plates as I am?
Photo: Matt Howell

They’re two small pieces of plastic at each end of our cars, yet nothing telegraphs your social status, humour or petrolhead credentials in quite the same way as a personal plate. Serial DVLA account purchaser Cowland ponders why.

There’s nothing guaranteed to split an audience – or Twitter feed – quite like a ‘cherished registration’. We simply can’t get enough of these numerical niceties – or indeed nasties, and depending on your viewpoint, they’re either unspeakably naff, or absurdly cool.

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Me? I absolutely love them. But then, I also believe that adding acres of fibreglass and a set of split rims makes most cars look better, so perhaps I’m not the arbiter of good taste that you might be looking for on this matter. My learned colleague Tom Barnard certainly is however, having shown that he really is the knowledge of all fonts.

One thing’s for sure, our annual purchases of these recognisable rectangles does wonders for our balance of payments. In 2019, 30 years on from when it started providing personalised registrations, the DVLA announced with hand-rubbing glee that it had generated £2 billion for the Treasury, after flogging 5.9 million private registrations.

With our beleaguered economy in mind, you wonder why on earth the DVLA doesn’t follow other countries like the US, Australia and even our ex-colony of Malta in letting us have whatever we’d like to display on our motors. Within reason, of course. There is a reason that P155 OFF never made it into the DVLA auction catalogues, after all.

In other countries, you can simply pick any non-offensive word, check it’s not already been issued, pay a small premium, wait a week or two, and then have literally the exact word displayed on your car. It’s genius. Want ‘LAMBO’ on your Aventador? Then simply go ahead and buy it. Whereas, over here, you’d have to buy LAM 80, and it won’t come cheap, or L4 MBO if your cloth was cut a little more finely. Either way, you’d spend an utter fortune to end up with a plate that doesn’t quite spell what you wanted it to. And, should you decide to naughtily squeeze up the gap between those letters, you can bank on a set of flashing blue lights to tell you that you shouldn’t, followed by a possible fine, and even the DVLA telling you that you’ve lost the plate altogether. That’s right: read the small print. You never actually buy a registration from the DVLA. Merely the right to display the number, and that’s something that can be removed at any time.

That’s always been the slight hypocrisy of the British system. Forget the dealers, as wonderful as they are. They’ve always been able to spin a profit on a plate because it loosely resembled a word, and all power to them. But now? The DVLA has got in on the act, running national ad campaigns for plates that mildly resemble car or family names, funny words, or current trends, charging four or five figure sums for the privilege. Yet, should you try to make the plate look like the word they just charged you a premium for, they’ll take it away again.

The very British problem is that in creating this super-heated marketplace of marks, with house-like price tags, the DVLA can then never climb down and undermine the economy it has created. The current record for a plate that looks a lot like the word it’s meant to be was £308,253 in December 2021 for DEV 1L. In Malta, were it to be available, such a reg’ would cost £1200. And as for the gent that paid over half a million pounds to most tastefully add 25 O to his entirely appropriate – and very beautiful – Ferrari, you might well imagine that they wouldn’t be entirely calm and composed should a simpler ‘250’ ever be released.

There are still bargains to be had, particularly if you’re a lateral thinker and good at Scrabble. The DVLA registration site still contains several gems if you don’t mind sifting through a few pages to find what you’re after, and for just a few hundred pounds, you can save yourself answering all sorts of questions at car shows. Admittedly, I’ve possibly been a little loose with the spacing, but the £400 addition of ‘V8 0BVS’ to my TVR Cerbera has helped inform many curious souls who always used to ask which engine it has, and after the Sport bumper and rear light upgrade on my debadged E36 Coupe confused many BMW fans, the £250 upgrade of ‘M3 ISNT’ seemed to swiftly put matters straight. Ebay can also be a home for bargains too, and although you have to squint a bit, the £300 ‘DUB573P’ plate – that’s ‘dubstep’, for the uninitiated – which I acquired to add to my Max Power era Rieger Calibra seems absolutely perfect. Simply add clouds of vape-smoke and copious bass to complete the comedy picture.

Private plates really can be an enormous amount of entertainment and for many of us, they add that final finishing flourish to our car. And for each one you buy, you’re helping to put Great Britain PLC back on its feet, adding cash to the country’s coffers to help pay for the police officers to eventually fine you for any plate-related offences you may have committed along the way. It’s a circle of life, of sorts.

Read more

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  • Sam Grange-Bailey says:

    I LOVE a private reg, especially when they’re a bit of fun. I’ve also cleared up confusion at car meets with B21MBO on my C4S and have just bought D21TSY for my 968 Sport (£250 each). My favourite (car dealers) reg is on my Shadow – UR F4IR, which isn’t transferable, so I can’t sell the car, because I love the plate….step too far?

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