The number plate bazaar
The craze for fancy number plates seems to be a universal phenomenon.
Photo: Kumaran Sathasivam
Cashing in: An advertisement for numbers in the U.K.
CERTAIN vehicle numbers are considered so desirable in India that there is a great demand for them. These "fancy numbers" are mostly ones that are easy to remember, such as single digit numbers ("1"), numbers with identical digits ("6666"), numbers with consecutive digits ("1234") or palindromes ("7557"). Because of the demand, there may be a special procedure for obtaining one of these numbers at the Regional Transport Office (RTO). They may be issued only at certain times, and there may be a considerably larger fee to be paid for them. These fancy numbers are of course only the last four numbers of the present format. The other numbers and letters of the registration number are not considered to contribute to the "fanciness".
The previous number format had three letters followed by up to four numerals (TNW 2816, for example). There was then the possibility of getting a number with your initials if the three letters were the right ones, but this was a purely personal affair. The number was not a real fancy number and had no market value unless the numerals were exotic. A true fancy number, on the other hand, can get you a higher value for your vehicle when you decide to sell it.
This curious enthusiasm for fancy numbers, strong enough to translate into sums of money, would appear to be a highly irrational phenomenon and a typically Indian one. But no, we are not alone. At least one nation, the United Kingdom, has an even greater preoccupation with vehicle numbers. In fact, a combination of circumstances has led to the development of what could be described as the British Number Plate Bazaar.
First, the British car number format: the very first British car numbers ran from A1 to Z999. Then double letters were added that indicated place (ASM, BSM, CSM, etc.), with a maximum of six digits per number plate. When all possible numbers were used up in this format, in 1964, a date letter was added after the six digits, such as in ABC 123 A. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z were not used so as to avoid confusion. So in 21 years they ran out of numbers and reversed the format so: A 123 ABC. By 1998, more cars were being registered in a year than could be accommodated with a single letter. From the R prefix on to the end of the alphabet, there was a single letter prefix for six months. A different system was required, and the present format came into existence. It has seven digits, for example UV 02 UBJ. The first pair of letters is the place indicator. The two digits indicate the year, and the last three letters are random. Thus a rich variety of letter - digit combinations may be seen on number plates in Britain.
Second, it is possible to obtain number plates of cars that have been scrapped or withdrawn from use and are recorded at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) as no longer in use. There is only one restriction on this: the number plate may only be transferred to a car that is as old as or newer than the number plate. In other words, it may not be transferred to an older car, thus implying that the car is newer.
Third, the British people display ingenuity in creating names out of the letters and numbers. "1" becomes an "I", "0" becomes "O", "12" can be read as "R", "13" can be read as "B" and "4" can be read as "A". There is no end to the tricks. The shape, spacing and size of numbers and letters are laid down in law, but owners change these to make the numbers appear different. They even place the screws that hold the number plate in place close to a number or letter so as to change its appearance. For example, the number 1 next to a screw may make it look like the letter L. Thus "C 1 OWN" becomes "CLOWN" and "BES 51 E" becomes "BESSIE". As a former police inspector expressed it, the police do enforce the regulations but not with undue diligence.
Originally, people were only looking for plates with their own initials (if your name is D.H. Lawrence, you might fancy DHL 1) or their names (C 14 UDE, CLAUDE). The demand for such "personalised" numbers is still great. But what is more, jokesters go for number plates such as IAM 12. Other interesting numbers include SAO 1 L, which appears as SA OIL and is said to belong to a Saudi Arabian diplomat, and COM 1 C (reading as COMIC, apparently belonging to a famous comedian). In 1989, the DVLA began auctioning special registrations. This set off a craze, and the prices for the initials and funny numbers have increased enormously.
A few years back, the Observer published the story of a bankrupt man who borrowed money to buy a car with the number NKB 1 for £3500. Two weeks later, through a small advertisement in The Sunday Times, he sold the number alone for £23,500. This, however, was definitely not the greatest price paid for a number plate. "NIGEL" is said to have sold for £69,000 and "JULIE" for £85,000. "KINGS" is said to have been auctioned for £235,000. When they went for auction, SAUCY (S 4 UCY) was estimated at £75,000 to £100,000 and DISNEY (D15 NEY) at £95,000 to £110,000.
It is therefore not surprising that in the U.K., there are people who make a living selling number plates and there are companies dealing in car registration numbers. Entire pages of British newspapers are devoted to advertisements offering car numbers. Nothing in Indian papers quite compares with the offerings of the British Number Plate Bazaar.
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