The Number Plate Game

The Number Plate Game

A little while ago I was sent a couple of photos by one of PetrolBlog’s resident guest bloggers Darren Leslie. The accompanying words described his joy, not only of spotting an Audi 80 of similar vintage to his own, but also wearing a near identical number plate.

This is the kind of joy only a petrolhead would understand. To the great unwashed, a set of seven digits on the front of a car are merely a group of letters and numbers. But to a petrolhead they can unlock joy of unimaginable proportions.

Take Darren for example who went on to describe a childhood game he used to play when travelling in the back of his father’s Audi. You had to find the closest registration mark to the vehicle you were travelling in. Points would be awarded not only for the entire plate, but also on the letter or number section. Bonus points would be awarded if the make and model matched up, with mega super bonus points on offer if it was the same spec or colour.

F225 WRU Audi 80

Darren and his brother weren’t all that good at the game as seemingly nobody in Buckinghamshire bought Audis of late ’70s vintage from the Middlesex area.

So you can imagine Darren’s joy when, after nearly 40 years, he struck the jackpot. Sitting in an unassuming car park in Southampton was the holy grail, a car he had been tirelessly searching for. Seeing the Audi 80 resulted in Darren lifting his jumper over his head, raising his hands in the air and running around the car park shouting ‘vorsprung durch magnifico’. Or something along those lines.

F240 WRU Audi 80

Darren’s tale got me thinking. Number plates these days are a bit rubbish really, aren’t they? I mean the current system, it just hasn’t got any soul. Number plates today are just a shadow of their former selves. Things were much better in the days of the suffix and prefix system – the halcyon days of the British number plate.

In the days of the suffix plate (1963 to 1983), untold joy was on offer with the game of ‘first to finish’. You’d challenge a mate travelling in the same car to follow the alphabet using the suffix letter on other cars. One starts at A and the other starts a Y. First to finish wins.

“You just knew where you stood before 2001”

Of course, if you were travelling with a mate who was unfamiliar with the system and therefore a bit stupid, you’d ensure he started at the letter Z. A guaranteed win for you every time.

You just knew where you stood before 2001. The suffix and prefix system made it easy to identify a car’s age and where it was registered. Where I grew up, JT, RU, EL and FX were the local heroes. And when on holiday in Cornwall, I knew AF and CV meant the car was of Cornish descent. People knew where they stood.

I Spy Car Numbers book

But veering towards a confessional blog here, I also have favourite number plates. Registration marks which I feel look better than the others. Narrowing it down could be a simple process, but to-date I’ve never attempted it. So now, for the first time, I’ll share this skeleton in my closest.

For a start, I’ve always preferred the prefix. The letter before the numbers is a statement of intent. By standing in front of the numbers he’s effectively saying he’s superior. I’m the boss around here. Oh and by the way, I’m not going to get into a debate over the gender of the prefix digit. We’ll just accept it’s a he.

Of the 26 to choose from, we can automatically rule out I, O, U and Z because they don’t exist. And the Q plate is a bit rubbish as it’s predominantly reserved for cars of questionable origin.

“In true Highlander style, there can be only one”

So we’re left with 21. The A can go because for some it had the nerve to replace the much-loved suffix system. And Y can go too for looking like a question.

I’ve never really liked H, probably because it signalled the end of the 1980s.

Some can be ruled out purely for cosmetic regions – they just look a bit rubbish. So it’s goodbye to C, J, L, M, N, P, R, V and W. A ruthless act, but in true Highlander style, there can be only one.

What are we left with? Just B, D, E, F, G, K, S, T and X – five from the 1980s, three from the 1990s and one from the new millennium. The truth is, I like them all, but we need to reach a conclusion. So how about a final three consisting of one from each decade? Yep, that ought to do it.

“I was always a B grade student at school”

But which letter from the 1980s will survive? It’s a tough call. At least it is for me, any normal person wouldn’t be going through this process. OK, time for B to go. I was always a B grade student at school, so I’ve seen enough of them. And a D or E was a fail, so they can go too. We’re left with a battle between the F and G. I love them both. Many of the cars I fancy plucking from the classifieds have an F or a G on the plate. Yet despite my AX wearing a G plate, I’m going for the F.

Of the 90s, it has to be the K. As much as I admire the fight put up by the S and T, when I think of the letter K I think of the Saab 900 Ruby, the Alfa Romeo 164 and the Volkswagen Corrado. When I think of S and T I think of something far less pleasant. So it’s goodbye to them.

So it’s come to this – a straight fight between the F, K and X. It’s a tense moment and I’m spending far too much time pondering the outcome. F, K or X? X, F or K? K, X or F…

*pathetic drum roll*

*nervous silence*

And the winner is – the letter F. Ultimately it has to be something from the 1980s, the greatest era of motoring. So F it is.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the F plate (August 1988 to September 1989). A worthy winner.

I’m now off to get those 15 minutes of my life back. If you want to spend half a second thinking about your favourite plate, let me know. Alternatively, send in the men in white coats.


Written by Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

The chief waffler and person responsible for getting PetrolBlog off the ground in February 2010. Has a deep fascination of cars from the '80s and '90s, especially if they originate from France. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

19 Comments

  1. simonpownall

    We’d play the game where you’d have to make a word from the three letters. The letters would have to be in the correct order,.For example B123SHT could be errr., “shoot”. The winner is the one who came up with the longest word. Bonus points for rude words. Happy days. Actually we still play it. :)

  2. Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

    F is a good choice. My mum had a Fiat Uno on an F. That said, you killed off H (dad’s Renault 19), A (mum’s Citroen Visa) and J (my old MX5), all of which I had soft spots for. And my Beetle is an M-suffix plate.

    I’ve always quite liked L and M for some reason, I suspect because they were the dominant plates when I was really getting into cars. I can remember legions of early Ford Mondeos on M plates…

  3. Rafael

    Send the white coat men to me, too. My cars have had spanish plates, of course, but I always imagined what prefix they wore if they were registered in Britain…Audi 100 2.3: J plate, Nissan Primera GT: P plate, Saab 9000 Aero: R plate, Volvo 850 R: N plate…I prefer “R”.
    I liked that reg system. Spanish plates are rather dull.

      1. Rafael

        The plates stay with the car, and they simply have correlative numbers and letters.
        Before 2001 the first two letters denoted the province where the car was registered, from that year those letters were eliminated, making the plate more anonymous, At least that avoids scratchs in your car when you travel to another province following your football team.

  4. Chris Barker

    My father always believed that the letters were actually acronyms. Never better illustrated than on his second Skoda Octavia diesel estate, registration plate S895 GFM which obviously represented ‘good family motoring’. Like father, like son, I of course understood it that my Mercury Grey 1990 Escort RS Turbo, reg plate H993 ELD, was indeed, ‘every lady’s dream’. Re: the car naturally, not the driver. Fantastic article by the by Gav.

  5. Gorka

    “This is the kind of joy only a petrolhead would understand. To the great unwashed, a set of seven digits on the front of a car are merely a group of letters and numbers. But to a petrolhead they can unlock joy of unimaginable proportions.” Masterpiece.

  6. therealfalk

    our German plates are completely different and I always liked the English plates.
    F it would be for me, simply because of my first name beginning with F, but I would never pay for a cherished number plate.
    H and Q would be cool. H for my first England bought Mini Studio2 and the Q plate for my Mini 25 which I brought with me when entering the country (so much for questionable origin :p).
    nice write up… :)

    1. Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Thanks for commenting.

      I’ve always liked the German plates. Over here you’ll find a number of VW and Audi fans who’ll replicate the German look! German plates do work well on German cars.

      That said, I bet your Mini looks good on German plates too.

      (This comment wins an award for the most German mentions ever).

  7. Robgt

    An acquaintance and his wife both used to work for a large pharmaceutical company based in Nottingham, and in 1996 they got brand new matching Astra 1.4 LS models. See if you can spot the tricky anagram contained within the registration numbers that accurately summed up the cars: both were registered Pxxx CRA.

  8. robgt2

    Oh, and another thing – I too do this game unconsciously. A few weeks ago I was behind another green Skoda Octavia at some traffic lights, and the number plate was one letter different from mine – his was KU02 RLY, mine ends with a Z. Or it did before I put my personal plate on…

    Finally, I’d just like to mention that although the Q reg is a little dubious the only car I’ve ever driven on a Q was a 1983 Ford Sierra fitted with a quad-carb Rover V8 engine and fully prepared for rallying. I’ll happily take that kind of Q-car!

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