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Posted by Sean Cooper

What do you buy someone who’s difficult to buy a present for? It’s a problem most of us experience from time to time, especially at Christmas. Well, according to the DVLA, it appears more and more people might be turning to buying private registration plates as presents.

Of course, plenty of people might be buying them as presents for themselves, but the increase in sales during the 2019 Christmas period over the same period the previous year is still pretty remarkable.

Christmas sales

Between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, more than 2,000 private plates were purchased. Whether they were desperation purchases being snapped up by last-minute present hunters or self-congratulation gifts for new car buyers is hard to deduce, but the figures represent a serious uplift in sales over 2018.

My money would probably be on a lot of them being desperate – or actually pretty inspired – last-minute purchases because 1,581 were sold over the period covering Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That’s something worth thinking about next year. While you and your family are tucking into your turkey and all the trimmings, some people are online buying a rude, funny or memorable number plate for themself or someone else.

What’s perhaps hardest to work out is why this year there were so many more people buying private plates on these days than the year before. It wasn’t even a small but noticeable increase either, as around three times as many were sold last Christmas than the previous year.

Over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2018, around 600 private plates were sold, according to the DVLA. And if you want to see evidence of some serious desperation, some 91 personalised number plates were bought prior to 9 am on Christmas Day itself.

It’s only speculation, of course, but it’s probably a decent bet that the more than 650 numbers bought on Boxing Day were the result of some very lucky people receiving a new car as a Christmas present from someone very generous the day before.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the busiest day over Christmas for the sale of private plates was Christmas Eve, where almost a thousand units were sold in just that one 24-hour period.

It isn’t just the truly desperate who are turning to personalised plates at the last moment as the ideal Christmas gift either. Between the 1st and 25th of December 2019, more than 32,000 numbers were bought in what turned out to be a truly bumper month for registration plate sales.

Although it wasn’t referring specifically to Christmas time, recent research has shown that three out of every four drivers would prefer to have a plate on their vehicle that refers in some way to their name. Of course, people don’t just have private registration plates to refer to their name in some way. Many also buy them to represent who they are, what they do, what they’re interested in, or just to avoid giving away the age of their vehicle.


The DVLA’s chief executive, Julie Lennard, said of the Christmas sales bonanza: “With millions of registrations available to suit all tastes, and with prices starting at £250, there’s still time to find that perfect present – even if it is on Christmas morning.”

The price of a private plate from the DVLA might start from as little as £250, but that figure can rise extremely quickly when it comes to those that are most sought after.

So far, the most expensive plate sold by the DVLA was “25 O.” To the layman, the number 250 on a registration plate probably indicates the owner will have paid a lot of money for it, but little else. Could it be a house number, how many millions the owner has in the bank, or could it mark some sort of milestone? In fact, it turns out it relates to the classic Ferrari 250 GTO, and it then becomes clear why it went for a simply staggering £400,000.

In 2018, a 1962 Ferrari GTO brought a world-record price when it was sold at auction by RM Sotheby’s in Monterey, California. The final price was $48.4 million, which is the most anyone has ever paid at auction for a classic car. If you have a car worth that sort of money, a price of £400,000 for a suitable number plate probably feels a bit like small change.

Other plates that have sold for vast sums include “1 D” which went for a staggering “£285,000” in 2009, and “51 NGH” that sold for £200,000 three years earlier in 2006. These plates are now big business, and since the DVLA began selling personalised plates in 1989, almost six million have been sold.

More than 400,000 are sold every year, and these annual sales are worth more than £100 million. In 2017 alone, the DVLA raked in more than £111 million from printing private plates, so it’s a serious chunk of revenue for the agency these days.

More than a vanity purchase

Some 69 percent of respondents to a DVLA survey said they’d buy a private plate due to a personal reference such as a name or initials, while six percent said they’d buy one for their business and 17 percent said they’d buy one as an investment.

The investment angle is an interesting one, and it’s one of the more compelling reasons for buying a private plate. Although like any investment, values can go up and down – and they do – one of the cool things about a registration number is that it can’t be stolen in the same way many other things can be.

Obviously, someone can steal the actual plate from the front and back of a vehicle, but it’s the registration that’s worth the money and not the physical plate itself. If you paid £50,000 for a personalised number and someone steals the plate from your vehicle, you’ve probably lost no more than the price of having another one printed, which is about £20 for a pair, not the £50,000.

The rules

“DVLA’s sale of personalised registrations began in the days when the only way to place a bid at the live auction was to attend in person,” said the DVLA’s Julie Lennard. She went on to add, “We now live-stream every auction, giving bidders the opportunity to bid for their dream registration online from our live auctions, as well as the many millions we have for sale on our website.”

So, you can buy one online from wherever you have access to a mobile phone, tablet or computer, there’s instant confirmation of the purchase so you don’t have to wait for it to be delivered, and it can’t get lost in the post or stolen? No wonder so many people are seeing private registration plates as the perfect gift for someone special.

There are some other things that have to be taken into consideration though. A plate is valid for up to ten years without it being assigned to a vehicle, so you could buy one as a gift for a teenager or young adult who doesn’t even own a car yet and they could put it on a vehicle when they eventually get one.

Plates issued by the DVLA can only be used on a vehicle that’s being registered, taxed and used in the UK, but it cannot be put on a vehicle that’s older than year indicated by the plate. For example; you might have a plate with the first four characters YE55 from between September 2005 and February 2006, but you wouldn’t be able to put it on a registered before September 1st 2005.

However, if you bought a car today in 2020, there’s no problem putting that plate on it. Even though some people might think your brand new ride is actually 15 years old, of course. The rule here is that you can’t register a number to a vehicle that could make it look to an unsuspecting buyer as though the vehicle is newer than it really is when you’re trying to sell it.

If you’re buying a brand new car you can assign any registration number to it that you own, or one that someone else owns who wants to put it on your car for you. That’s why it can be such a great gift, and why so many people are now waking up to what a great idea it is for those hard-to-buy-for friends, relations and loved ones.

Be prepared

One word of caution I have to give you though relates to when you’re buying a car and you want to have your plate put on it. Don’t leave it until the day you go to pick up your new car to tell the dealer you have a private plate you want assigned to it, at least, not if you’re expecting to drive away with that number on it.

Assigning a plate to a car is a lot easier and more convenient than it used to be, by a long, long way these days. However, if it’s on another car already or the car you’re looking to buy has already been registered with another number, it’s not something that can be rectified as quickly and effortlessly as buying a private registration number online is in the first place.