Why number plates add up What does your car registration say about you? Helen Monks discovers it depends on how much you can afford

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Is a personalised car number plate a good investment? "You can't flash your building society book or your share certificates at people, but your special number plate makes a public statement about you and it increases in value," Eric Craggs, chairman of National Numbers, the number-plate dealer says.

Although few people would cash in savings and investments to build a portfolio of special number plates, if buyers choose carefully, they can add an extra dimension to their vehicle with what can prove a robust asset. But the market is split into several categories, each with certain trends determining which plates are most likely to increase in value.

The "cherished plate" market covers 1904 to 1963. These have no letter denoting the year and is at the highest end of the special plate market. Mr Craggs says: "The cherished registration marks have all increased in value, some to an incredible extent. Even the last marks issued are now approaching 40 years old, with the earliest ones being almost 100 years old. In the trade, we liken this to the antiques market."

For example, FJP 6998 was issued in the 1940s and sold in 1993 for £1,800. It is now worth £3,800, an increase of 111 per cent. Plate GH 315, issued in 1930, sold for £3,000 in 1992 and would now be worth £6,000.

The suffix year-letter plate market is the area National Numbers feels is most suitable for the new investor with less to spend, because some, including those which spell out names, have grown substantially in value. KEN 405P sold in 1991 for just under £600 and today a similar plate would be expected to fetch £1,000. SUE 390W, sold in 1998 for £850 and now would be worth at least £1,200, National Numbers says.

As with the original cherished plates, the shorter the plate, the more desirable it is. Mr Craggs warns that plates with year-letter prefixes are considered the mass-market product of the number-plate world and many examples will not increase in value.

But he adds: "There are some classics, like most of the 'A' series: even A3 JMB, purchased for £145 in 1991, would now retail at £1,500, a 10-fold increase. Prefix plates worth investing in tend to represent names. One of the most expensive plates sold was K1 NGS, at £250,000."

Prefix plates were replaced in 2000 by a new type of mark which includes two area-identifier letters at the front plus two numbers, for example, 51 for September 2001, followed by three random letters. This has led some plate-chasers to be more creative in their interpretation of new format offerings, where numbers can be read as letters. These include JO51 EPH and MU52 PHY, for Joseph and Murphy.

As a rule, Ruby Speechley of the plate dealer Regtransfers.co.uk says: "When considering buying a personal registration mark for investment, don't make the mistake of buying a plate that is individual only to you. Think ahead: who will be interested in the number when you come to sell it? The more people it appeals to, the better."

Ms Speechley says an example of a plate without good investment potential is N1 WHC. It apparently belongs to Willie Carson, the former jockey and BBC presenter. WHC are his initials and the N1 stands for "number one champion jockey", which is dear to him, but has little wider appeal.

Plates such as F14 MES (FLAMES) and M4 TCH (MATCH) are a much better investment choice, Regtransfers.co.uk says. Although they are not top-of-the-range plates, they spell words that could have meaning for buyers.

F14 MES was purchased in January 2001 for £3,500 by a fireman and sold this year to Feature Fireplaces in Harrogate for £7,995. M4 TCH was bought in August, 2001 for £2,300 by a father for his football-mad son, and is now on the market for £23,500. Buyers could include sporting stars or dating agency tycoons.

There are several ways to buy your special plate, either through private companies or the Government, through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). The DVLA offers prefix and new-style personalised registrations for sale over the phone from £250. It also organises auctions for the more desirable offerings.

'I bought mine for £1,100. Now it's worth £350,000'

IF YOU were to see a vehicle on the high street with the number plate POP 80Y (POP BOY), you may be tempted to crane your neck to see which star was relaxing in the back seat.

But if it were to stop at the traffic lights, you would see 49-year-old Stuart Ogilvie at the wheel. He lives in Edinburgh, but is about to move to Portugal to develop property. Stuart expects his number plate to make him a fortune.

"Fifteen years ago, I bought it for £1,100, but it has been revalued at £350,000," he says.

The plate is likely to go for even more and, Mr Ogilvie says, may prove one of the most expensive to come to market. Interest in it has been generated with the help of Regtransfers.co.uk in the UK, and Mr Ogilvie's contacts in the United States and Japan are continuing to increase the premium.

He was a car salesman about 18 years ago and it was a motor-trade contact who brought his attention to the plate. A couple of weeks ago, Mr Ogilvie bought JRO5S. Any takers?

Registration mark transfers: the rules

* Registration marks are legally owned by the Secretary of State for Transport: it is the right to display the mark on a vehicle which is granted or transferred.

* You cannot use a mark to make a vehicle look newer than it is. You are allowed to use an older registration.

* Registration marks which have never been used on vehicles are issued as certificates of entitlement (V750), renewable annually for a fee of £25 per year.

* The donor must be either MOT-tested and taxed, taxed and MOT-expired or MOT-expired and tax-expired for less than six months.

* A fee of £80 to the Department of Transport is payable for a vehicle-to-vehicle transfer and £105 (£25 of which is the actual registration fee) is payable for placing the mark on a retention certificate. The certificate is valid for 12 months and can be renewed annually for £25 per year.

* A donor vehicle must be subject to MOT testing at some time. A registration mark cannot be transferred from a car to a motorbike but can be transferred from a motorbike to a car.

Contacts

* Cherished Numbers Dealers Association 01494 433035 www.cnda.co.uk;

* DVLA 0870 6000 142 www.dvla.org.uk;

* Ebay www.ebay.co.uk;

* National Numbers 01642 363 738 www.nationalnumbers.co.uk;

* New Car Registrations 0870 7876121 www.new-car-registrations.co.uk;

* Regtransfers.co.uk 01582 477 333 www.regtransfers.co.uk.

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