Motoring: No more number plate snobbery

BRITAIN'S MOTORISTS have long enjoyed an irrational love affair with their number plates. Perhaps because for years the Government made it so awkward for anyone to acquire a different number, to retain it, or to transfer it to another car, very few people made the effort. Those that did became members of a small but elite personal number plate club.

But with the introduction of the year identifier number plate system, a new number plate snobbery was introduced. With the identifier changing every August, the neighbours couldn't possibly fail to notice when a new car arrived next door.

In no time at all, the desire to enjoy the maximum one-upmanship value meant increasing numbers of new car buyers insisting on delivery on 1 August.

The motor trade loved every minute of this annual madness, soaking up the benefits of a Christmas that for them came in summertime. Convinced that the year identifier boosted new car sales by encouraging punters to change their cars more often, dealers and manufacturers enthusiastically supported the whole mad ethos.

Until such time that a full 25 per cent of the year's total new car sales were crammed into a single month. The sheer volume of transactions in August - not to mention the fact that trade came to a virtual standstill in June and July - was becoming intolerable.

And so this August's S-plate will be the last annual identifier. From now, registration numbers will change every six months, starting with the T-plate in March 1999 and the V-plate in September 1999. There is no U-plate, nor for that matter, will there be a Z-plate, so this sequence will expire in March 2001 with the Y-plate.

After that, the system will change again. The new plates will start with three randomly selected letters, followed by two identifier numbers and then two further letters which will denote where the car was first registered.

The thinking is that two numbers will be less obvious than the old single letter as a year identifier, and therefore having a certain plate on the front of the car will become less critical for social climbers.

"The six-monthly identifier aims to smooth out the August sales peak following requests from the manufacturers", said Transport Minister Gavin Strang as he announced the changes earlier this year.

It will certainly do that and more. In future, August is going to be one of the quietest months of the year.

According to Glass's Guide, the motor trade "bible" of used vehicle values, the new system will create car sales booms in September, January and March.

Adrian Rushmore, Chief Editor, says: "September will be the best new car sales month and January and March will be evenly matched at first. In time, however, as fleets change over from their traditional August cycles, sales in March are likely to match those of September, creating twin peaks instead of the current one."

He warns, however, that there is a downside to the new system. Values will fall as a direct result and so dealers will be offering less generous trade-in allowances.

And even new car values may fall too, given that a car will only be "new" for six months under the new system, rather than a full year under the old year identifier. Because the market is fundamentally image-driven, this means increased depreciation in the first six months.

None of this is likely to cause the slightest lack of sleep to the Treasury's accountants who worked out some years ago that a new voluntary tax could be introduced by the simple expedient of selling number plates to the highest bidder.

When the S-Plate numbers first went on sale, the DVLA sold pounds 5.5 million worth in a week. "The new format can only fuel demand for these old, more flexible numbers", said Byron Roberts of the DVLA. "Business is booming".

Martin Derrick