Behind the scenes at the DVLA's £5.1m number plate auction

I’m stood next to the DVLA’s expert auctioneer, Gary Earle, watching a determined bidder sat at the front of the room and bidding on a personalised plate: ‘111 OM’. It looked like he was going to get it for a couple of grand, but now phone bidders are pushing the price up. His mannerisms are those of someone who’s nervous. As bidding comfortably exceeds £5,000, he looks like he’s already over-budget, but doesn’t want to go home empty-handed.

The bidder holds his nerve, however, and the hammer falls in his favour at £8,800. That’s nearly £11,500 by the time you add auction fees and VAT on top.

As soon as the auction’s over, he’s out of the room with a grin on his face. I chase him out to ask why on earth he’s just spent more than £10,000 on a piece of paper (you have to buy the plastic plates separately).

“I already own another one very similar to this,” Oliver Morgan tells me. I clock a North-Eastern accent – we’re in Hertfordshire – and ask him how far he’s travelled to buy ‘111 OM’.

“I drove down from Durham,” he says. “I could have bid online or over the phone, but I missed the deadline to apply for registration and I didn’t want to miss the plate.”

Has he got an equally flashy car to put the plate on? “I’ve only got a work van, but that’s got my other plate on it. This will probably go on my girlfriend’s car for now.”

With that, he hits the road.

Tell me about a number plate auction

Behind the scenes at the DVLA's £5.1m number plate auction

The DVLA held five live auctions in 2016, with the final auction at The Hanbury Manor Hotel near Ware in Hertfordshire. An impressive £5.1 million was raised over the three-day sale, taking the total made from number plate auctions in 2016 to £25.6 million.

By the time costs for venue hire, staff and the like are taken out, that money goes to the treasury. There’s a lot to be made from vanity, it seems.

The auctions move around the country, usually located at upmarket hotels where bidders can turn buying a number plate into a few days away.

How does the DVLA choose the number plates?

How does the DVLA come up with the number plates?

“Coming up with 1,500 registrations can be a big job,” DVLA Personalised Registrations manager Adam Griffiths says. “All registrations we auction have never been on a car before. We basically think of them out of thin air and check records to see if we’ve ever sold them, or if they’ve ever been assigned to a vehicle.

“If there’s no record, we can sell them.”

Number plates have to follow certain approved formats, however, mainly to prevent them getting confused with similar-looking plates. So, ‘1 AAA’ is plate, but ‘1 A1A’ isn’t. Registrations beginning with ‘O’ weren’t issued for a long time as it looks identical to ‘0’, but the DVLA has been introducing them to auctions in recent years.

The team will also look at requests from members of the public. If someone wants a plate, and it’s never been sold or assigned to a vehicle, the DVLA can put it up for auction.

Buyers have to be careful, though. While it’s tempting to re-arrange a plate by moving or adding a space, doing so is classed as misrepresentation and can cost you a fine of up to £1,000. You may also have your plate confiscated by the DVLA. If you’ve spent thousands on a registration and tweaked it to look like your name, this could hit you hard in the wallet.

Top 5 registrations sold at Hanbury Manor

Top 5 registrations sold at Hanbury Manor

These are the most expensive plates sold at the Hanbury Manor sale. The hammer prices don’t include VAT (20%), buyer’s premium (8% + VAT) and an assignment fee (£8), so can cost thousands more than initially appears.

1: 911 O – £33,500
2: 110 A – £31,000
3: 400 B – £29,400
4: 993 TT – £28,000
5: 120 C- £27,600

Other highlights include ‘LAM 805V’ (£26,100), ‘488 M’ (£15,500) and ‘GG66 GGG’ (£11,200).