Change our number plate? RU MAD?

No matter how we register cars, the anorak element will remain, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
Pick up a copy of Exchange and Mart, any copy, and turn to the voluminous used-car section. Under the makers' names - Ford, Jaguar, Mercedes- Benz, Toyota, Vauxhall - the small ads scream for attention under the imprint of ink-smeared fingers: "E-reg, tidy motor, fsh, genuine two owners", "G-reg, immaculate, always garaged, no canvassers", "K-reg, high-mileage, hence price, no time-wasters".

This alphabet soup spills down the columns of cars for sale, for the British car buyer, and motor trade, is clearly obsessed with registration plates. We scour the classified ads knowing our Fs from our Es, if not our Ps from our Qs. Q, by the way, is applied to cars bought abroad, while P may well be the last in the current series of alphabet-prefix British registration plates.

The Department of Transport, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and the car industry are currently discussing the future of the number plate. From August 1997, it is likely that number plates will change on a quarterly rather than on the present annual basis. The reason is simply that the annual change in registration letters, which has taken place since January 1963 (shifting to August in 1967), has encouraged an upsurge of sales in a single month to the detriment of business during the rest of the year.

Buyers, it seems, must have the latest registration. Why buy an N-reg car on 31 July when you can impress your fellow cul-de-sac residents with a P-reg the very next day? This might sound silly, but when has our relationship with the car ever been rational? In the uncertain waters of the second- hand car business, the difference between an N and a P is a gulf in our imagination as wide as the English Channel. The former may be in better condition than the latter, yet, in most cases, it will be cheaper: all logic goes out of the windscreen where registration plates are concerned.

That this is true is proved by the extremely silly prices car owners will pay for "personalised" plates. DVLA (the Swansea-based licencing authority) makes a small fortune for the Government by auctioning used- vehicle registration numbers at venues throughout Britain; to date, DVLA auctions have raised pounds 100m, with individual bidders paying up to pounds 20,000 for plates such as JG1.

To most of us, this is a form of madness; bad enough being asked to pin a name-tag to our lapels at a conference without having to tell the world who we are when driving home. There are, however, many motorists only too keen to manifest their monicker - pop stars, DJs, property developers and advertising execs only the loudest among them.

Most of us do not care one way or another, or not unless we are landed with a plate that makes us look even sillier than a pop star; there are some that include words like MOO or MUD, suitable for dairy farmers, perhaps, but surely not for us smart urban professionals (who would do better with SUP or YUP).

Even so, there are number plate games many of us (those with the child still in us) enjoy playing when driving abroad. In Italy, for example, you can keep passengers awake by asking them to play the guess-where-the- car-in-front-has-come-from game. NA stands for Naples, SI for Sienna, VE for Verona and so on (cars registered in the capital are less discreet, boasting a fully spelt-out ROMA). This is diverting, not least because we can construct fantasy lives about the Veronese or Neopolitan families swerving across our path in a foot-on-the-floor Fiat Cinquecento. We can learn to raise our fingers in crude response as Italian drivers do, and shout "typical Neopolitan" or "typical Roman", even if we have no idea what a typical Neopolitan or Roman is like.

The French opt, as one would expect, for a rational system of car registration based on the logical division of post-revolutionary France into geometric departments. Here, numbers rather than names are the rule - we know a Parisian by the code 75.

We tell Bavarians from Westphalians from stylish, information-packed German number plates, while in the United States, we are offered a succinct character profile of individual states even before we cross the border - Florida, as many license plates brag, is the "Sunshine State" (promising lazy, hazy, crazy summer days) and Texas is the "Lone Star State", a law unto itself. Rhode Island plates carry the scary imprecation "Live free or die".

Run-of-the-mill British plates may appear to be arcane, yet they too tell policemen, motor traders and the sad sort of person who collects street-lamp numbers where a car originally came from - NKX and PPP means the car is from Berkshire, while ABH is a car from Buckinghamshire. But you would never guess.

Now that our system of registration is about to change, what sort of number plates might we opt for? We could choose a pretty system like the Italians. Alternatively, we could plump for a supermarket-style bar code. Caught up in the world of instantly accessible information, we might go the whole hog and choose plates that tell the world who we are in no uncertain terms - name, city of origin (us and the car), occupation and blood group in case of accident. Or we could, as Americans already have (at extra cost), decide on unique scripted plates that tell it like it is: "I'm Mandy, fly me" is one I've seen in Texas, but I wouldn't be surprised to read some day in London's West End: "Let's do lunch", or in Leicestershire: "I'm a big cheese", or in Blackpool: "I've seen the lights." This might sound potty, but it would make each car memorable and easy to recover, while scanning the ads in Exchange and Mart would be a good deal more fun than it is now.