Choose the right customised plate, and you could be quids in, says Ruby Speechley

This month sees the launch of the 2005 plates and yet another list of numbers that you wonder who'd pay good money for. Would you stump up more than £1,000 for WH05 AGE? Or an inflated £5,995 for OO05 NOW, so you can drive around saying, "Ooh, snow"?

This month sees the launch of the 2005 plates and yet another list of numbers that you wonder who'd pay good money for. Would you stump up more than £1,000 for WH05 AGE? Or an inflated £5,995 for OO05 NOW, so you can drive around saying, "Ooh, snow"?

Dealers are reporting a small rise in the purchase of these new-style numbers, but much higher prices are being achieved for the older plates, making them the serious choice for serious money.

Since the DVLA started selling number plates in 1989, car owners in the UK have spent more than £860m on them. In the past, DVLA held separate auctions - the "Classic", for all the best plates, and the "Custom", for lower-value numbers.

A year ago, these merged into one sale, which, according to Rod Lomax, the publicity officer for the Registration Numbers Club (RNC), indicates that they are running out of "good" plates to sell. Perhaps this is why the best ones that are already out there are now rising in value.

The RNC was formed in 1977 to protect the right to hold and transfer personalised number plates. "For the true 'cherished number' enthusiast," Lomax explains, "the original issues - without a suffix or prefix and especially with a '1', a low or a neat number - are the ultimate, and will almost certainly gain in value. They just don't make them like that any more."

Roger Silcock, a former diver-turned-professional ocean yachtmaster who lives in Cornwall, decided to break into a trust fund set up for his children to buy WET 1 and 1 WET. "For a family like us," says Silcock, "these are perfect. My son Ewan teaches sailing and my daughter Adrienne loves windsurfing. I think it's a far better option than stocks and shares."

While an independent financial adviser would be unlikely to suggest that you sink your pension into them, number plates can be a popular gift, particularly for children and grandchildren. Liberty Peek from Bedfordshire was just 21 months old when her grandparents bought her L16 ETY, hoping that it would grow into a small nest egg for her. Michelle and Lance, Liberty's parents, decided that it wasn't too early to let her use the number. "We've put it on her toy car - she loves it already."

The plate VIP 1 is one of the most prestigious available, and has certainly made good money. Originally issued in 1984 for the Pope's visit to Ireland, it sold in 2000 for £85,000 to Andrew Thompson from Fulmer.

He said, "I loved it - so over the top. But my girlfriend thought it looked tacky." Since then, the plate has changed hands and is back on the market, this time for £250,000.

Or buy a plate like A 10, which sold in 2003 for £30,000, and there's no doubt that you're buying a special number. Like A 1, A 10 was one of the first numbers issued in London in 1903. The short plates remain the most desirable.

Talking of money, Marion Money from Gravesend might have liked the plate MON 3Y, but as that was unavailable, she's still pleased she settled for her initials. Money paid £7,500 for 1 MPM in 1998, and recently sold it on for £25,000.

You can make a profit on fun plates, too. Mark Skeggs, a fireman from Hertfordshire, paid £3,500 in 2001 for F14 MES, to go on his red Ferrari. Twenty months later, he sold it to Feature Fireplaces in Harrogate for £8,000.

And what of those new-style numbers? Stephen Downes, an Arsenal fan from Essex, bought AR53 NAL at auction in October 2004 for £45,000, the highest price paid so far for a new-style number. It was certainly quite a loyal thing to do - even for a fan who believes that Arsenal will be on top for a very long time to come.

Other investors are thinking ahead for similarly winning combinations with the help of a dictionary. Peter Doherty, from Hayes in Middlesex, used an online crossword solver to find PO51 BLY, which he promptly bought. Will Doherty make a profit? Well, possibly.

The dealer Regtransfers offers advice on its website (www.regtransfers.co.uk), although it, like other specialists, clearly has an interest in selling you a plate. It suggests setting aside a minimum of £10,000. "Getting the right advice is key. Speak to an expert before parting with any money," says Len Stout, the company's marketing manager. Ivan Scott (nickname "Ivy"), from Burnley, is pleased he took that advice. He waited 17 years to own 1 VY, for which he paid £15,000. Eighteen months later, he sold it for £30,000.

When choosing your number plate, think ahead. Who will be interested in it when you come to sell? Don't be tempted to buy cheap plates and then add a screw here or a bit of tape there. No one will be fooled, and it's illegal. Much better to spend a bit more MON 3Y. After all, if you don't shell out enough to get a plate with wide appeal, it probably isn't going to raise much more than a smile.

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