MOTORING / Alphabetical disorder: Buyers are about to rush for new K-registered cars. This yearly binge distorts the market, says Roger Bell

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BRITAIN'S annual car-buying binge starts at midnight next Saturday, 1 August, with the arrival of new plates. Proud owners of the coveted K - the prefix registration letter for the next 12 months - may not be feted to excess by dealers (remember the champagne delivery parties of the Eighties?) but there will be many early risers flaunting one-upmanship.

Nearly a quarter of all new cars sold in Britain this year - almost 400,000 out of an estimated 1.6m - will be registered in August, many of them in the first 10 days of that month. 'We've got used to the rush,' says a spokesman for the vehicle licensing agency in Swansea, at the sharp end of the August anguish. Extra staff have to be recruited to cope with the workload.

Cash-strapped dealers bear the brunt of this peculiarly British streak of motoring madness. Showroom staff, idle for much of the year, are rushed off their feet at holiday time. 'It's a bloody nuisance,' says a manager of a large VW/Audi dealership, expressing the trade's view of our unloved car registration system. A Nissan salesman elaborates: 'It creates enormous cash-flow problems in June and July, when sales are very slack. We've got three times the normal stock of cars and nowhere to park them. It's just chaos - financial and logistical. We'll deliver 60 cars on 1 August, compared with the monthly average of 20-25.'

But the motor trade, reeling from the recession, will nevertheless welcome August's sales bonanza. Without it, many dealers would go to the wall; a lot already have. Trade-ins will

treble, creating a forecourt log-jam and a field day for used car bargain hunters. Not for them a new K-reg model that may have been languishing in a field before receiving a rushed pre-delivery check and an impersonal handover to its new owner. Quality gives way to quantity in August, to the advantage of few.

The cachet of a number-plate that identifies your wheels as spanking new seems to have intensified during the recession. 'People were looking round the showroom in February and March for a car to buy in August,' the Nissan salesman says, 'and we've never seen that before.'

In 1979 (suffix V reg), August accounted for only 12.5 per cent of annual sales. By 1983, when the prefix A came in, it was up to 20.9 per cent. Last year, the percentage had increased to 23.1. This year, 25 per cent of new cars are expected to be August-registered. Status symbol apart, there is a fiscal advantage in a later registration letter; a J-plated July vehicle will be worth less when traded in than a K-plated August one of the same mileage and condition.

'August has become a monster,' says Ford's PR manager, Harry Calton - and a burgeoning monster at that. On current projections, top-heavy August will account for close to a third of the year's new-car sales by the end of the decade, leaving the flanking months so flat that action is being called for to spread the load. In the late Eighties, when Ford was more concerned with supply than demand, it was not opposed to an August fillip; special stocking costs were outweighed by extra sales and profits. Not any more. 'The recession has moved the goalposts for us,' Calton says.

Volkswagen/Audi's managing director, Richard Ide, agrees. 'Through the recession, the August distortion has increased; it is delaying some purchases and drawing others forward. The network cannot easily cope under these circumstances.' Ide is not necessarily against the sales stimulus of an August peak, but he describes the present situation as 'difficult and expensive to live with'. In the end, it is the customer who pays for high distribution and funding costs.

Pre-recession, Ford believed that the year-letter registration boosted overall sales. Not so Rover, which still contends that the present system gives a competitive advantage to the multinationals (like Ford and Vauxhall) as well as to importers (such as Citroen and VW), who can better prepare for the British boom when markets elsewhere are slack. There is also a manufacturing bottleneck to contend with. 'We don't like it because it concentrates production into such a short period of time,' Dennis Chick, a Rover spokesman, says. 'We'll consider any change away from August.' Ford does not advocate dropping the prefix letter that identifies a vehicle's age, but it would prefer an October-based year. Production for August sales needs to be forecast in February, when marketing's crystal ball is cloudy; by April/May, the view is much clearer. October would also avoid clashing with the holiday peak. Inaccurate forecasting means disappointed customers on the one hand, unwanted stock - and what Ford terms 'extreme marketing measures' to shift it - on the other. Not that heavy autumn discounting is unwelcome to buyers seeking a good deal.

Vauxhall favours retaining the present August change-over, which it reckons is worth 160,000 sales a year to the industry, mainly because one in 12 buyers change their car annually. Would they bother if no one could tell?

For the first five years of the present registration system, from 1963 to 1967, the suffix letter was rolled over on January 1, concentrating business at the start of the New Year. In a bid to spread sales, to create two peaks, the letter switch was moved to August. And there it has stayed.

But why have an age code at all? Other countries manage perfectly well without one. According to the report of a consultative group appointed by the Department of Transport, the primary objective of a registration plate should be 'to identify vehicles for the purposes of law enforcement, vehicle taxation and road safety'. The police insist that the prefix letter helps with snap identification and the tracing of car owners. Knowing, say, that an offending car was not merely a Cortina but a G-reg Cortina considerably narrows the field. The DoT is not consistent in its support of police requirements, however. It would not be selling off 'personalised' number plates if it were.

Several systems have been considered and rejected. One was to supplement the suffix letter with the month of registration (much trouble, little benefit); another linked the prefix letter to no specific date (why bother?). The idea of issuing licence plates to owners rather than to cars was also spurned. Advocates of a regional registration system, like those used in one form or another in Belgium, France,

Germany, Italy and the United States, were also disappointed. Rover once suggested a combined regional/age format - for example, A 1234 BC, where BC represented an area and A was a rough age code, to be changed only when all the local numbers had been exhausted. Ford was opposed to the idea. So was the consultative group.

While there are many critics of the present system, there is no strong consensus for an alternative. 'There is dissent among manufacturers and importers,' says Graham Dymott of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the body that represents both. 'We eventually threw the whole thing back at the government and told them to make up their own minds.' The SMMT does concede, though, that year-coded plates have led to a grossly distorted market. 'In an ideal world, we'd do without them.'-

(Photograph omitted)