To see what it felt like yesterday I visited to our local Ford dealer, Highbury Ford, the largest in central London. They had been there at 9pm the night before when our dog got his evening walk and they were back again by 8am when he got his morning one. By the end of the day the six sales staff will have cleared about 150 cars. Another 60 had been driven on trade plates to their new owner's driveways in the previous couple of days, so upwards of 200 cars from this dealer, out of a total of about 1,000 sold to private customers each year, will have had their first formal outing yesterday. More, of course, will be sold during the rest of the month.
Who wants a P-reg car on 1 August? The young and quite rich, wanting to display their wealth? Doubtless the marketing departments of the manufacturers have their profiles of the typical 1 August purchasers, but the impression of Linda Wise, sales executive at Highbury Ford, was that there was nothing flashy about the people who took delivery yesterday. It seemed to be mostly older people, 50-plus, and it was the Fiestas and the Escorts that were going out pronto. The people who bought the Scorpios or Probes were quite happy to take delivery later in the month - they were not fussed which day they arrived.
So maybe getting a P-reg car on 1 August is like the National Lottery: one of those demonstrations of ordinary human behaviour the chattering classes find hard to understand. As a cross-check I called in at the showrooms of Jack Barclay, in Berkeley Square, where they sell 20 per cent of the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys in the UK. Despite the fact that I was unlikely to shell out pounds 150,000 on a "pre-owned" Bentley, I was greeted with just as much courtesy as at Highbury.
It has so far been a good year for Rolls and Bentley, with sales in the first six months up 26 per cent, but there was less of a hubbub. At this level, the P business is a non-event. That is partly because Jack Barclay prides itself on preparing pre-owned cars so beautifully that many customers mistake them for new. So the two unregistered, glistening and seemingly new Bentley Continentals in the showroom were actually second-hand. It is partly because people rich enough to buy a Rolls or a Bentley are not wildly impressed by a P-reg anyway. But it is mostly because these people already have their own registrations anyway. As Lynette Gridley, Jack Barclay's marketing manager, explained to me, two of the three cars waiting to go out would do so on "cherished" number plates.
What a wonderfully flexible, expressive language English is. Not "personal", certainly not "personalised", but "cherished". And that is really the right word to describe not just personal number plates but the whole P registration phenomenon. For many people the car is not just another boring consumer durable: it is valued, it is enjoyed, it is cherished.
Politicians would do well to remember this. It has long been fashionable among the prosperous left to belittle the motor-car. In the 1960s the Guardian took this attitude to its logical conclusion by appointing a motoring correspondent who couldn't drive. But recently the latent hostility has sprouted a series of suggestions designed to curb car use: motorway tolls, a levy on cars entering city centres, taxation on employee-parking provided at the workplace, curbs on out-of-town shopping centres, and so on. Labour has floated the idea of some kind of differential car tax, designed to penalise gas-guzzlers, though the Tory decision each year to increase tax on petrol by 5 per cent more than inflation may prove a simpler and more effective way of achieving the same end.
But this overt hostility towards the car - however fashionable - is politically dangerous. There are powerful arguments for curbing pollution by improving and enforcing emission controls, though diesel buses and taxis are a more obvious source of pollution in many city centres than private cars. There are even more powerful arguments for any measures that improve road safety, in particular the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. But that is common sense. Having transport ministers (or indeed shadow transport ministers, for this is more of a problem for Labour than for the Tories) who are intuitively opposed to the principal means of transport is a bit like having motoring correspondents who don't drive. You are not understanding what ordinary people want.
This is going to become more of an issue as the election looms. Like tax, it is dangerous for Labour; to be branded as anti-car is analogous to being branded high-tax: both are issues where the British talent for hypocrisy is evident. People say they would like curbs on the use of private cars and greater subsidies for public transport, just as they say they would pay higher taxes to support better public services. But when people vote on tax at an election, or vote with their chequebooks on 1 August, they do something different.
Meanwhile we need to crack the ludicrous inefficiency of the 1 August rush without spoiling the fun. Various ideas are being considered, with the short-term remedy of changing the year letter more frequently, say every three months. I have a suggestion, inspired by my visit to Jack Barclay. It is that everyone should have a cherished number plate. Instead of having to bid for numbers like P155 OFF (actually, I gather that one was banned on grounds of taste), we would simply choose one when we get our first driving licence and then keep it for life. It would be the ultimate in democracy, everyone a winner. What is more, it would be easier to remember it when stopped by the police.
Best P-registration buys: Section Two, page 16Reuse content