Small numbers equal big dollars

THE lower the number, the taller the price that's the golden rule in the car the number plates market.

For example, Victoria's heritage "1" number plate owned by former Fosters and Coles Myer boss Peter Bartels is worth more than $1 million. How much more depends on a market that places a premium on heritage number plates although not quite as much as before the recession hit.

The Victorian number "18" plate is for sale at $800,000, but the advertiser admits it might make $200,000 less on today's market.

Plate 216 is tipped to reach $55,000 at a coming auction but a year ago it would have made $85,000.

While the seriously rich joust for heritage number plates, other number plate fanciers and dealers match wits and wallets in the flourishing custom plate market. The status of a memorable or just plain offensive plate can derive from "beating" the VicRoads censors.

The road authority has a strict policy on what can and can't make it onto a plate based on what is considered offensive, and with good reason. Without the number plate watchdog, there would be Victorian cars with plates like GSTAPO, LEGLIS, MURDA, all of which have been recently rejected by VicRoads.

But BALSAC, GUNJA and PB4UGO slipped under the radar and onto the streets.

Number plate collector and enthusiast Maurice Mangiagli spotted those three recently and says they are among the more memorable he has seen.

"A lot of the people who buy these number plates do it for a fashion statement," he said. "A car is the next big purchase after the home. It's about people wanting to dress up their cars and making a statement about themselves."

VicRoads says more people than ever are seeking a personal touch. The road operator says it sold 25,000 custom number plates last financial year, the most since it started offering them in the 1970s. It would not reveal the exact revenue figures for previous years but, with a custom plate selling for $495, it is clear that the premium paid for them has poured millions of dollars into road upgrades and safety campaigns.

Then, of course, there is the secondary market. Higher prices are found online where number plates like CATSFC and GIRRLY are offered by private sellers for $5000. For the criminally minded, FUGETV (sic) is a steal at $2500.

But as the economy has slowed, so has the resale market, says dealer Mel McLennan. A year ago he was selling 40 plates a month on his website but that has dropped to 20 a month. Prices have dropped, too.

Mr McLennan says plates crowd the market because some sellers refuse to adjust prices to reduced demand. "Number plates are really toys when times are tough, people stop buying toys."

There are four types of sought-after plates: those that fit a particular car model like RROVER, those that fit a business like EXCAV8, those that have a name or quirky message and heritage number plates.

While non-heritage plates can sometimes fetch big money DOTCOM is being advertised for $400,000 in NSW, for instance historic number plates are the most secure investment. The day will come when Mr Bartels' Vic 1 plate will be worth closer to $2 million. And the other low numbers will have price tags that reflect their rarity.

"People think they will get big prices for different combinations but it rarely happen ... the money is usually only in heritage number plates," says Mr McLennan. But, he says, regardless of what sort of plate it is, "the whole thing is driven by ego".

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