When John Collins put down the phone after a number plate auction in 2014, he felt a sudden wave of buyers’ remorse.
“Bloody hell, what are you doing?” he thought, minutes after bidding £518,000 for the 25 O registration and setting the record for the most expensive ever sold in Britain.
Personalised number plates have become a massive industry since the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency started selling them in 1989. Billions of pounds have been raised in the space of a few decades.
But even in the unpredictable world of auctioneering, car registrations have brought more than their share of surprise successes and high-profile flops.
“Sometimes you can get completely caught off-guard,” said Jon Lee, who spent four years as a DVLA auctioneer. “You start at £800, expecting it to either make the reserve price or not sell. Then the next thing you know you’re at £30,000, £40,000, £50,000.”
Part of the reason for this is that it can sometimes be difficult to anticipate what a grouping of letters and numbers will mean to a particular bidder. Although, some registrations are consistently popular, such as names. When SOP 71E was recently bought for £9,300, it was likely sold to a Sophie or someone who liked her a lot.
Plates where the only number is “1” have also proved a magnet for collectors. No one wants to spend tens of thousands of pounds only to be number “2” or “3”.
But although personalised number plates can be about status and self-promotion, the quirky or bizarre registrations often attract the most interest.
At one auction, Mr Lee found himself overseeing a bidding war that broke out between two plumbers for 701 LET – or “Toilet”.
The most expensive plate at the DVLA’s most recent auction in mid-October was 8 CH, a pun on the letter “H” sound. At over £56,000, it went for 25 times its starting price.
By contrast, the regal 1 HRH was expected to shatter the then-record of a quarter of a million pounds when it was auctioned in 2009. In the end it failed to live up to expectations and went to a Berkshire businessman for £113,000.
Prospective buyers can request a specific registration from the DVLA. However, it is advertised before the auction to whip up interest, meaning someone with deeper pockets could turn up on the day and claim it, leading to sometimes frantic environments. Mr Lee said some bidders simply get carried away.
“Some people could go with a budget, say, of £10,000. Once they’re there, they see somebody wanting something that they really want, something they’ve really waited for,” he said. “If you’ve got two people that have got a lot of money, and that word means a lot to them, you could be in a bidding war before you even know it.”
The biggest bidding wars tend to centre around number plates that match a car’s make or model number.
At last month’s auction, 812 N – a complement to the Ferrari 812 “N-Largo” – sold for £10,800. 250 P, which is likely to end up on an open-topped 1960s Ferrari of the same name, sold a day later for £13,600.
It stands to reason that Ferrari owners are both able and willing to spend money on their cars. But after Mr Collins’ mammoth bid in 2014, the DVLA must know that such plates sell particularly well.
The 25 O plate proved a honeytrap for private collectors who wanted to mount it on their Ferrari 250s: a classic series which includes some of the most expensive cars ever sold.
Mr Collins, a Ferrari dealer from Glasgow, competed with around six other bidders who peeled away as the price entered uncharted territory.
He entered the auction with a self-imposed ceiling of £250,000, but said afterwards that he was like a “dog with a bone” and could have gone up to a million pounds.
“Once I was up on that level I was like, ‘No, I’m not letting it go,’” he said. “The atmosphere was electric because they’d never expected it to go there.
“You keep telling yourself, ‘One more bid’. And a couple of times I think I said, ‘No, that’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m out – okay, one more bid.’
“You hate it and you think you’re almost getting it. Then at the last minute somebody jumps in and then somebody else jumps in. In the end I just wore them out.”
Mr Collins later attached the number plate to a Ferrari formerly owned by the guitarist Eric Clapton.
Half a million pounds down, he consoled himself. “I thought, does it look good on the car? And I kept telling myself it’ll look great – what does it matter?”