Last of the midnight madness

James Ruppert talks to the drivers in a spin over their plates

A great British tradition came to an end yesterday morning. For the motor industry it was the last time that 1 August would be so significant. For more than 30 years the registration number suffix, then prefix, ascended the alphabet each August, giving the car trade a huge sales boost. It also gave car buyers a chance to indulge in a uniquely British manifestation of one-upmanship by being the first to be seen driving the latest registration, regardless of the fact that these are not necessarily good buys. And with the last R plate, buyers were as eager as ever to show off their brand new cars by picking them up at 12.01am on Friday morning.

Dees of Croydon, a large Ford dealer, has been making the most of the August plate change since 1992, by putting on late-night entertainment. "We used to do it all in the showroom: barbecues, steel bands and that sort of thing. But it got too crowded," said managing director David Dees. "In the last few years we have taken everyone down to TGI Friday's where there is a real party atmosphere and much more room to give the customers a proper send off."

Dees' private retail customers, rather than company car drivers, constituted the majority of the 1 August audience. As they arrived at the showroom, the customers were genuinely pleased and excited to be there, dropping off their old cars in part-exchange and then signing on the dotted line for their new R plate. Not everyone, though, was that bothered by the significance of the plate change. "Tomorrow is the first day of our holiday," said Miss Robinson who was there with her mother to collect a Fiesta Flight. "There was no alternative, we'd planned to go touring in Cornwall and what better way to do it than in a brand new car?"

Asif Hassanair liked the atmosphere and the fact that the late-night collection meant "no disruption to my schedule. I've got a meeting tomorrow and there was no way I could have picked up my Galaxy during normal working hours".

Teresa French, awaiting her Fiesta Fusion, was refreshingly honest about the occasion. "I've never done this sort of thing before, but I must admit that when I'm out in my new car tomorrow everyone else in the traffic will be pointing at me and saying `Look, there's an R reg'."

Sue Salisbury was feeling tired, but thought the evening's event heightened the anticipation of getting her Escort LX. "I've taken the day off work tomorrow to get used to my car, and I should think a lot of my friends will be wanting a ride so that they can say they've been in an R reg car."

However, for Gary Higginbottom it was all something of an anti-climax. "For a start, I'm replacing my three-year-old Probe with an identical one along with my private registration plate, so it won't even be on a R plate."

General manager Tim Pickering emphasised the practical nature of staging this midnight event. "It means we have 45 fewer cars to deliver tomorrow." Then he set about shuttling everyone to the restaurant. Inside, David Dee greeted everyone at the door. They were given a TGI key fob and a quiz to keep them occupied while waiting for their buffet. Entertainment was laid on with, with the bizarre sight of balloon vehicles being made.

But that was nothing to the events that followed as the cars were collected in the rain-soaked car park where Friends of the Earth had turned up. To the chants of "Ford are climate wreckers", Dees customers drove gingerly past 50 placard-carrying protesters. Anna Stanford, Friends of the Earth's climate change campaigner muttered darkly about "Ford putting profits before the planet".

For Dees' sales staff it was the end of a very long day. And they were back to the showroom at 8am on Friday to hand over more cars. Sales Executive Graham McKean regretted the end of the August registration fever. "This was something special for customers and it gave them a reason to change their cars. Now they'll only trade in if there's a new model. Pity."

The signs are that the last motor trade August will go out with a bang. Sales have been increasing each year since 1991 and are likely to top half a million for the first time since the boom year of 1989. The plan is that the annual August rush will be replaced by a spring and autumn plate change to use up the remaining letters, after which a regionally based registration system will be introduced. In true British tradition, that is likely to create a whole new number plate snobbery of its own.

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