Last November the father of autonumerology, Noel Woodall died at the age of 82. Noel is credited with creating the market for personalised car number plates in the UK, worth more than £2bn to the Treasury since 1989.
His interest in what grew into a multi-million pound business began in 1960 when he noticed a car driving past with the plate BB 4. He discovered it belonged to a local Blackpool Bookmaker. Thinking other people might also be interested in memorable number plates, he started the first cherished number plate business in the country.
As this was in a time before the Internet, Noel went on a research mission to his local public library, and was surprised not to find a single book on the subject. So, being the entrepreneurial type he put an advert in the RAF’s Air Mail magazine, asking for information about distinctive number plates. He received so much information in response, he decided to compile and publish it in a small book entitled Car Number Galaxy – Celebrities. It cost him £250 to produce, which was 6 months’ wages at that time.
He went on to publish more than 20 books, including Veterans, More Celebrities, Cartoons and a series called Car Numbers, written with Brian Heaton and described by its publishers as “one of the longest running, and most popular publications about vehicle registrations”.
As for me, I grew up with a strong prejudice against preening drivers who paraded around the streets with vanity plates adorning their shiny cars, like some kind of automotive bling jewellery. I couldn’t think of a more idiotic way to waste money than to ‘invest’ in an ‘IAM GR8’ plate.
So, I was glad to read that even people involved in the industry recognise its controversial nature. Piers England an auctioneer from the DVLA’s auction company admitted, “We call them marmite products – you either love them or hate them.” To quote one contributor to an online discussion “When I see a vanity plate, I think only one thing: ID 10T”.
List of the 10 most expensive plates sold by the DVLA
- 1 D – £352,000
- 51 NGH – £254,000
- 1 RH – £247,000
- K1 NGS – £231,000
- 1 O – £210,000
- 1 A – £200,000
- 1 OO – £197,000
- 2 O – £142,000
- 6 B – £130,000
- 1 HRH – £113,000
So how then can I even start to justify my recent purchase of N11 1NFO for my humble Skoda Octavia? The answer is a combination of my failing memory and local car park rules. Until recently there was an opportunity to end a shopping trip in town with a good deed by handing over my parking ticket to a new arrival. The grateful recipient could then benefit from whatever time remained.
The local council became aware of this ‘good Samaritan’ behaviour and decided they were losing valuable income. The solution was to introduce shiny new ‘intelligent’ ticket machines which required your car registration number in addition to payment. This was printed on the ticket to prevent it being transferred to another car. So no more ‘random acts of kindness’ in the council owned car parks thank you very much.
As well as being frustrated by this meanness of spirit, this change led to a challenge for me. Sadly I have never managed to memorise any of the number plates of any of the various cars and motorbikes I have owned since passing my driving test back in 1976. So I would either have to park with my bumper in view of the ticket machine or keep a note of my number to hand. A third and unexpected solution was to buy a new plate with a memorable number.
After much internet research and even more soul-searching I was finally ready to go ahead and join this group I had enjoyed despising for so many years. The change in my thinking came about when I realised a personalised plate was just about the only way to express personality and even humour on a product that is standardised and factory produced. If you own a Ford Mondeo it looks just a like any other Ford Mondeo apart from a limited range of colours. Although I did see a chrome-plated car the other day which was so bright it actually hurt my eyes.
But just having an initial or two, combined with a number seemed to be a wasted opportunity. And I began to take notice of properly memorable numbers I came across in my travels. Whilst cycling through the East End of London on a ‘Boris bike’ I spotted SK1NT on the back of a brand new Rolls Royce. A nice example of four wheeled irony. I also saw a rather surprising DARR0N on an Audie A4 queuing to get out of Legoland.
My challenge was to see if I could find a memorable plate amongst those listed at the DVLA starting price of £250. Needless to say, there wasn’t anything close to ‘librarian’ at that price. I compromised on a combination of my initials and info (my chosen profession), with an additional redundant ‘I’ stuck in the middle.
The irony of this story is that by the time I had deliberated, purchased the number, had the plates made up, sent in the forms, and finally got out my screwdriver and physically replaced them, the council had changed their parking policy. Outraged shoppers had bombarded the local council with complaints and the local newspaper had picked up on the issue. After initially robustly defending their new ‘fairer’ policy, the politicians realised they were on a losing wicket and eventually caved in. So now when I go shopping I no longer need to enter my number plate into the ticket machine, undermining the original reason for personalising my car’s identity.