Personalised plates celebrate vanity. They also make a sound investment but, as David Wilkins finds, they don't come cheap

Stephen Downes paid £45,000 last month for a number plate. That's more than most of us will ever spend on a car, and the sort of money that not so long ago could have bought a house. So what was so special about it? Well, Mr Downes is an Arsenal fan, and the plate he bought was 'AR53 NAL'.

Stephen Downes paid £45,000 last month for a number plate. That's more than most of us will ever spend on a car, and the sort of money that not so long ago could have bought a house. So what was so special about it? Well, Mr Downes is an Arsenal fan, and the plate he bought was 'AR53 NAL'.

Now I don't want to be fussy, but the plate doesn't actually quite spell 'Arsenal' because you have to imagine that the '3', a sort of back-to-front 'E', is a proper 'E' - although for a devoted fan that's probably close enough. But there are some plates that don't require you to exercise your imagination.This was true of the combination I always coveted as a boy; 'DAV 1D', or another one I used to see all the time in Essex on a Series 1 Jag XJ6, 'MAX 1E'. 'COM 1C', associated with Jimmy Tarbuck and 'MAG 1C' - Paul Daniels - fall into the same category.

I discovered how valuable a plate of this type can be during research at two number plate dealers' web sites, mark hunt.co.uk and reg4vehicles. co.uk. Both had 'DAV 1D' on their databases at prices above £200,000. Sadly, that means my dream plate is about as attainable today as it was in the days when I still relied on pocket money. Meanwhile, another personalised number plate company, Regtransfers.co.uk has offered another football-related personal plate - 'X1' ('the perfect eleven') at an even higher price to Chelsea's wealthy boss, Roman Abramovich. Apparently, they haven't had a response yet; perhaps even a Russian oil tycoon has to think twice before splashing out the £500,000 price that Regtransfers.co.uk have put on this plate. If 'X1' really does fetch half a million, it will be the most expensive UK number plate ever, comfortably eclipsing the £325,000 that 'K1 NGS' fetched a few years ago. Billionaires and northern entertainers like Tarby and Paul Daniels are probably typical of the sort of people we imagine to have personal plates; larger than life characters, who are successful and want to show it off in a way that does nobody any harm and may prompt the occasional smile.

But the rest of us are getting a taste for personalised plates too. Len Stout, marketing manager at Regtransfers.co.uk, which has produced an entertaining book about the stories behind some interesting plates - Fanatical about Number Plates, by Ruby Speechley - took me through some of the reasons why customers are prepared to pay for a personal registration.

Most buyers, apparently, just want to personalise their cars by having an otherwise standard plate that includes their initials. These can be bought for as little as £200. Customers who are prepared to spend more may be able to spell their names on their plates; there are few 'perfect' combinations like 'DAV 1D,' so sometimes you have to use your imagination a bit - a '5' for an 'S', 'A' for a '4', and so on.

Northern Irish plates, with their 'I's and 'Z's are rarely seen in the rest of the UK and have become a popular and inexpensive way of disguising cars' ages. They are often seen on older, well-preserved Mercs and BMWs.

Commercial customers who want to advertise their business also buy special plates. Mr Stout cited 'CO51 BED' (used by a bed company) as well as 'LAV 1', 'BOG 1' and 'DRA1N', which belong to Pimlico Plumbers in London. This brings us to another category of demand - for plates that are humorous or saucy (perhaps that should be 'S4 UCY', a combination one of the number plate dealers has on offer at the moment).

One number plate website, reg4vehicles.co.uk has a 'naughty plates' section, which can only be accessed by navigating past the warning: "Please note that this section contains sexually oriented car registrations which even some of the most hardened motorists may find offensive."

Surely, nobody is going to be too upset by 'R4NDY' or '51N' (yours for £55,000) but I always thought the DVLA screened out any plate that was genuinely naughty. I can only assume that the Swansea plate watchers have led rather sheltered lives or take a strictly literal approach to their work, as some of the registrations that have slipped through are very rude indeed if you screw up your eyes and exercise a bit of imagination (an 8 for a B, a 6 for a G, that sort of thing).

A final motive for buying a personalised plate is the hope that it may rise in value. According to Mr Stout at Regtansfers.co.uk, '1 NU', which was sold for £2,400 in 1995, would now be worth more than 10 times as much, while 'WKS 1', sold in 1994 for £2,200, has seen a six-fold increase.

Apparently, given their rarity, these earlier plates are the ones that are likely to continue to rise in value in the future. More recent plates may not have the same investment potential, but offer a cheap way to personalise your car.

Either way, plates are now big business for the DVLA. Regtransfers.co.uk has grown since the Eighties to become a 24-hour operation employing 85 staff. Regular releases of fresh batches of registrations keep the whole business going. You may have seen the recent DVLA advertisements, featuring Roland Rat, for previously unissued 'E' plates from the Eighties. From December, customers will also have a chance to nab the first '05' registrations.

I had never considered buying a personalised plate, but after an entertaining afternoon trawling the registration plate dealers' websites in search of W1 TTY combinations I think I M1GHT PO51BLY be in danger of catching the bug.

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