Number plates are becoming, well, a tad obscene. Not in the words being presented, which are usually vetted by the authorities (Western Australia has decided to skip general distribution of plates starting with F entirely) but in the prices being paid for them.

At the last Shannons auction of historic and heritage number plates $2.45 million was paid for the NSW heritage plate ‘4’.  At the one before that $745,000 was paid for plate ‘29’, and at the one before that someone parted with $170,000 for Victorian plate ‘282’. NSW 280 fetched $130,000 earlier this year. Peter Bartels is reported to have knocked back an offer of $1.5 million for his heritage Victorian plate ‘1’. That makes it worth about eight-and-a-half times more than the $176,000 Mercedes C63 AMG it adorns. Doubtless after the sale of ‘4’ he will be revising the strength of that offer.

It was the French who developed the idea of number plates in 1893 followed by Germany in 1896. In America vehicle identification of this nature did not start until 1901 when owners of cars in New York were directed to display their initials on their cars, but by 1903 this had become unworkable and sequential numbering was introduced. In Australia, New South Wales began issuing plates in 1910. Victoria’s most famous number plate, the ‘1’ now owned by Bartels, was produced in 1932, but there was disagreement about who should get it, the governor, the premier or the police commissioner. The issue was settled by locking it in a vault. No one got it until 1984 when it was sent to auction. It then changed hands a number of times before going to Bartels.

Vanity plates, which carry a fee over and above vehicle registration, were started in 1969 in New South Wales with two letters followed by three numbers, and usually the letters were the car owner’s initials. The idea proved extremely lucrative for the NSW state government and other state governments around the country didn’t waste time jumping on the bandwagon. Now a huge number of styles, designs and colour combinations are available at extra cost throughout the states and territories. Western Australia embraced the idea late but when it did, it opened its arms.

06 Plate NSW 260There are so many styles of plate in Western Australia, both vanity and general issue, that it becomes downright confusing. For example while Perth registrations are 1, followed by three letters and three numbers, most plates issued in rural areas identify the council the car is resident in. Cars from Kalgoorlie carry ‘KBC’ plates (Kalgoorlie Boulder Council), cars from Bunbury carry ‘BY’ and just to make things a little harder, cars carrying WA number plates come from south-west town of Manjimup, overseen by the council of Warren.

Australia also picked up the American idea of having slogans on plates. It hasn’t always been a hit, especially in Western Australia where an early slogan ‘Relax in a state of excitement’ was discovered to have been copied from a slogan used in Texas. ‘Home of the America’s Cup’ was also unpopular with the not inconsiderable number of people over there who had an issue with Alan Bond, to the point where West Australians were offered the option of having a plate with or without a slogan.

I’m mentioning Western Australia a lot. If you’re getting the impression that they’re a stroppy lot over there, especially about their plates, well they have a record of refusing to cooperate with attempts to introduce national standards.

Slogans on plates started in America where they have been controversial since 1928, when fishermen in Massachusetts blamed their low catches on the motor vehicle registration authorities after the image of a codfish was added to the state’s number plates. The image of the fish was deemed too small, and it was swimming away from the “MASS” lettering on the plate. Given the clout of the cod fishing industry the plate was upgraded to a larger codfish swimming towards the MASS identification. The effect of this on the state’s catches is not recorded, but the fishermen stopped complaining. About number plates anyway.

Published July 2017, updated August.