Blog: Dave LeggettThe Great British August registration plate changeover

Dave Leggett | 6 September 2011

I was reminded earlier of the August retail binge of old in the UK car market. At its height, getting on for a quarter of the annual market was accounted for by the August rush to get the next year's registration plate letter. The changeover on new registration plates kicked in on August 1 every year.

The auto industry had mixed views on the August rush. Those VMs with a high proportion of sales in the UK said it played havoc with stock management and put them at an unfair disadvantage versus competitors for whom the UK market was less important. Some dealers said they would actually quite like to take their summer holiday to coincide with school holidays and spend time with the family. Others loved the buzz of August; a good August and September could break the back of the year's sales targets. The mad rush meant some good margins could be had (though early summer and especially July was conversely slow). The police, I seem to recall, argued for the retention of a 'year identifier' in the plates as many a witness to a crime would recount along the lines: 'It was a big getaway car officer, red, maybe a Ford, not sure...but it definitely was a D-reg.'

The thing was, the all-important year-identifier letter sat at the end of the registration characters' second string on the plate (registration 'number' suffix) preceeded by three numbers, and that lasted until 1983 I think, and then they reversed the format and simply put the letter at the beginning as prefix - so it was pretty easy for the brain to log and note, even if the rest of the plate was an unmemorable character jumble.

And some punters would happily order to get the coveted new letter on the plate, car proudly displayed on suburban driveway on those first few August days. And there were things like midnight driveaways of cars on new plates from dealers as August 1 ticked in...the memories are coming back.

Alas, the government eventually changed the system in the late '90s; there are now smaller and more manageable peaks. I expect it was the sensible thing to do all round. And now August accounts for less than 3% of the UK's annual new regs. September (a '61' plate, since you ask) is a big-ish month now, along with March, as the registration plates change twice a year (but it's a double digit number that is positioned more centrally in the plate). The dealers can get away to Pontins with the wife and kids in August after all.

On a more serious note, it will certainly be interesting to see how the September market shapes up in Britain. This from David Raistrick, UK Manufacturing Leader at Deloitte, sounds pretty upbeat and at odds with some of the gloomy economic data around lately:

“August generally represents a relatively small share of the new car market with September being a far more crucial month for the automotive retail industry. On average around 350,000 new cars are registered. After nearly a year of falling sales, I expect September to mirror the August increase and we are likely to see numbers slightly up from last year. This is due to a number of different factors including several new models coming on stream, interest rates remaining low and a 'tipping point' having now been reached – the point where it makes sense to buy new, with private consumers having held off for a considerable time. I also see the fleet market remaining firm in September."

UK: August car market up by 7.3%


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