Why All Private Number Plates are not Created Equal

You can pay anything from as little as £25 to many hundreds of thousands of pounds for a private registration number here in the UK, but have you ever wondered why one number can be so cheap and another so extraordinarily expensive? It’s probably easy for most of us to understand why a plate such as F1 would probably command a record price if it was put up for auction while something like MH21 OPV would be worth very little. But what’s the difference between a plate valued at £895 and another priced at £4,500?

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Forget about rarity

If you’ve ever looked into buying a private registration number, you’re probably well aware of how much prices can differ from one number to another. In most aspects of normal life, rarity is often a cause of inflated prices. The fewer there are of something the more expensive they usually are, and when there’s only one of something the price can sometimes become positively extortionate.

Forget all that when it comes to private reg numbers because every single one of them is unique and a one-off. Just think about it for a moment; every single registration number is unique by its very nature. Every number being unique is the whole point of them so that every vehicle can be identified by its own unique number.

So, if rarity isn’t the driving factor between the vast differences in private registration number prices, then what is?

Numbering systems

Although every registration number is unique and therefore every number is as unique as every other one, rarity does come into it when it comes to the different numbering systems and the number of numbers that were available under each system.

The whole reason we have had to go through several different systems is they eventually run out of available letter and numeral combinations, and when there are more vehicles requiring numbers than a system has available a new system has to be implemented to provide more unique number combinations.

When registration numbers for vehicles were first introduced in 1903, they consisted of a one- or two-letter code followed by a sequence number from 1 to 9999. Obviously then, if you want as short a number as possible it would be one letter and one number. There would, therefore, only be nine numbers to go with each available letter, so they would be rarer than those with one letter and two numbers, and so on.

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But if you think that’s the end of it and you can now make an informed decision about which of the two numbers is the most valuable, then think again. For example, A1 is always going to be incredibly valuable as it was the very first number issued in 1903, but would M1 be worth more than S1? And before I go into any of the longer reg numbers, wouldn’t you agree that F1 is always probably going to be worth more than any other one letter and one number combination other than perhaps A1? This is where desirability starts to come into it.

The desirability premium

Desirability and demand are what drive the value of registration numbers more than anything else, but even this isn’t as straightforward as you might imagine. After all, what’s desirable to one person or what means something to one person might not be of much interest to anyone else.

If we refer back to the plate F1, it’s obvious this is an extremely desirable plate for anyone connected to or interested in Formula One motor racing. And as there’s an awful lot of money in Formula One, if the plate ever comes up for sale again there will be a lot of very wealthy people who would be interested in bidding for it and the price could end up being anything.

Then again, could some other number plates be even more desirable and potentially even more valuable? How about 1 BMW for example? There are a lot of BMW owners out there and a lot of people connected with the brand, and as it’s such a luxury brand, what would that fetch if it came on the market? You could be forgiven for assuming it wouldn’t be as expensive as a shorter number plate such as 1 JS, but if more people are interested in the brand BMW and want 1 BMW than there are people with a connection to the initials JS, then 1 BMW could go for more. On the other hand, it might not.

Sticking with the BMW theme, how about M5 BMW? The owner of a BMW M5 might want that plate because it’s more specific to their particular model than 1 BMW, and in that case, they may be prepared to pay more for M5 BMW. All things considered; all you need to get a record price for anything is a situation where you have two people with extremely deep pockets bidding on the same thing and both are determined to own it.

The good news

Don’t go away from this with the impression that any private reg number you might be really interested in will inevitably cost a fortune because that can be far from the case. If you want a registration number with your initials and your name is John Smith you’re probably going to have to dig deep because it’s one of the most common names in the country. However, if your initials are something like CKU you’ll probably be able to pick a plate up with those letters for a bargain price.

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Of course, a private number can be significant to you for all manner of reasons or even none at all. I’ve just bought my first private number and it has a letter followed by two numbers and three more letters. The first letter is my wife’s first name, the two-digit number is the day of the month my mother and father both had their birthdays and a house number I’ve lived at twice, and the three letters at the end are one of my all-time favourite rock bands.

That plate cost me £165 plus VAT and the assignment fee for a grand total of £250. It means something to me and it doesn’t give the age of my vehicle away as my new car was registered a few weeks before the next plate change. And when it all comes down to it, the main reason the majority of people have private plates is so onlookers can’t tell the age of their vehicle by looking at the number plate.

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