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The September number plate change

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If you’re thinking of buying a new car and venture into a dealer showroom over the course of September, you’ll be forgiven for thinking the world’s gone a little crazy.

There will be more balloons on display than usual, windows will be festooned with new banners, salespeople will have wider smiles on their faces and a more pronounced spring in their step. There will be more customers milling around, sitting in cars, kicking tyres, thumbing through brochures, agonising over paint charts and discussing the best possible monthly finance deals.

Welcome to the arrival of the 68-plate change.

September is a monster month for the car retailing sector. It’s the last big push of the year from dealers and car manufacturers as they move to ensure as many new cars are driven off forecourts before the autumnal slowdown as budgets turn to Christmas.

Traditionally, September is a good time to buy a car. It’s when car manufacturers push the boat out in terms of low-rate personal contract purchase (PCP) schemes and bundling deals to include service plans, extended warranties, GAP insurance and even free fuel!

There will certainly be no escaping the marketing messages as multi-million pound budgets will be invested in advertising campaigns across every conceivable platform.

To celebrate the plate change, The Car Expert offers this round-up of what makes September so special.

Mazda CX-5 68-plate September

How the plate change started

The first number plate to be issued was DY1 in Hastings in 1903, just ahead of it becoming mandatory for all new car purchases. The most famous plate from that year though is A1, the first plate to be issued by London County Council. The plate was acquired by Earl Russell who apparently queued overnight (or got his butler to queue, depending on which version you believe) to secure it.

The plate is still in use today (apparently on a Mini Cooper S) having changed hands for significant sums over the decades with one valuation placing it at £10 million!

Various numbering systems ran between then and 1963 when the annual year identifier was introduced, a move which resonated with British car buyers as the newness of their car was for all to see on driveways across the country.

Annual plate-changes through this period ran from January to December until 1967 when it moved to August.

The numbering system placed the year identifier at the end of the registration plate, starting with the letter A and working through to Y in 1982. From 1983 to 1998 the identifier moved to the start of the number.

The current biannual system

As car sales grew, the annual plate-change in August caused an administrative and logistical nightmare for dealers and manufacturers, as it created an enormous peak of sales in August and September, declining to a dearth of sales from May to July as no-one wanted to buy a new car that would almost immediately have an ‘old’ number plate. This prompted the introduction of the twice-yearly system (March and September) in 1999 with the T-plate.

The first of the new-style plates debuted in September 2001 with 51, surely a bitter disappointment for anyone buying a car back then as it wasn’t obvious the age identifier was the number 1. This was not helped by the run out of the old system which meant the March change in 2001 was Y, the last of the letters, rather than 01.

It began to make more sense from March 2002 with the 02-plate, with buyers quickly realising that if they purchased cars from March then everyone, especially the neighbours, would know they had a new car; a consideration as important as make, model and colour for many British buyers! No wonder March became the most popular of the two months.

The system took a little while to bed in and the removal of the annual peak saw the creation of two sizeable peaks instead, which when combined now account for over a third of all annual new car sales!

Whether moving from annual to twice-yearly was a success is a moot point. While dealers and car makers like the heightened activity six months apart, they would probably benefit from a system which more evenly distributed sales to avoid the inevitable quieter months of February and August where buyers tend to stay out of the market.

Yet the current system benefits from built-in longevity which will see it run until the 00-plate in September 2050.

Mazda CX-5 with September 68-reg number plate

What do the number plate combinations mean?

Some of those apparently random letters that make up registration numbers are precisely that, although some have a clearly defined purpose. We have covered it previously in our detailed explanation of how the British number plate system works, but here’s a quick summary.

The first two letters are an area code. The first letter is the most important with A standing for Anglia, B for Birmingham, C for Cymru through to Y for Yorkshire. Unusual ones along the way include F for Forest and Fens (Nottingham and Lincoln) and G for Garden of England (Maidstone and Brighton).

The second letter previously referred to the local Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) registration office, although these all closed in 2013 as the process moved online. However, the convention continues with the dealers issued letters according to their traditional area code.

The two numbers are the age identifier, with 68 representing registrations during the six month period from September 2018 to February 2019.

The last three are random but are issued in batches to dealers, which is why you’ll probably see similar letter sequences on new vehicles awaiting collection. Incidentally, the DVLA has measures in place to stop any potentially offensive combinations being generated.

How big will September 2018 be?

It will be sizeable, but not as massive as it has been in recent years.

As the new car market got back on track after the recession, the plate-change months grew dramatically. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the month of September peaked in 2016 with 469,696 registrations.

The first of the two plate-change months remains the biggest with March 2017 holding the all-time record when 562,337 cars were registered. That total is unlikely to be beaten, as buyers in 2017 were encouraged to purchase ahead of new Vehicle Excise Duty (road tax) rates applied to cars registered from April.

With the current slow-down in new car sales, March 2018 dropped to 474,069 and September is widely expected to be down year-on-year, a factor exacerbated by a shortage of some engine derivatives as a result of all new cars having to comply with WLTP (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure) type approval from 1 September. This could see September drop below 400,000 for the first time since 2013.

However, don’t let that spoil your buying pleasure and proudly displaying your 68-plate car for all to see!

The latest from The Car Expert

Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and has been a senior motoring journalist for over 25 years. He has written extensively about the automotive industry as editor of both Company Car and Motor Trader where he won the coveted Newspress Business Publication of the Year Award. His work also appears in Fleet World and Fleet World International. In 2016 he was part of the founding team behind the relaunched London Motor Show.