Proposals for a shake-up of the system include the introduction of American- style "vanity numbers" which would allow car owners to select any combination of up to seven characters - at an additional cost and subject to availability.
At present, anyone wishing to personalise their plates can buy "cherished numbers" - such as Jimmy Tarbuck's CO M1C. The options are, however, restricted by a system which identifies the year of first registration by the first or last letter, and the area in which the vehicle was first registered by the last two or three.
There is what the Department of Transport described as a "healthy market out there" for personalised plates. Exchange and Mart has pages of advertisements for personalised plates from pounds 50 to pounds 500. According to the Guinness Book of Records, K1 NGS is the most expensive plate ever, fetching pounds 231,000 at Christie's in 1993.
Launching the consultation paper yesterday, Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, said that the annual peak in new car sales - a quarter of all new cars are snapped up in August - was "inefficient" and "costly" to the motor manufacturers and traders.
The four possible alternatives proposed by Sir George were: an age-based system, a system based on geographical areas, a combination of age and area identifiers, or a system with no age or area identifiers.
The present system is due for revision in 2004, when it comes to the end of the alphabet. If significant changes were to be implemented before then, Sir George would be calling on the motor industry to finance the additional costs involved.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is keen on a quarterly change in number plates to eliminate the "August hump". "The present system acts against the interests of the manufacturer, the dealer and - most importantly - the customer," said Ernie Thompson, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. "What is needed is a new system of registrations which will spread the flow of new-car sales more evenly throughout the year."Reuse content