Motorists wanting to add some cachet to their driving experience have been bidding in a government auction of cherished and personalised number plates.

They won't get you from A to B any quicker, and will probably earn a sneer from fellow drivers, but what do Betsy, Paul and Roy care?

The licence plates BET 55Y, PAU 111L and 34 ROY were among several hundred personalised registrations sold off this week by the DVLA at their regular number plate auction.

For thousands of car drivers personalised car number plates are a prize possession; a statement of individuality in a world of faceless conformity, and a neat investment.

To others though they're an ostentatious waste of cash; a self-aggrandising statement of ego over commonsense.

Former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis (1 DLT) has his Bentley parked firmly in the first camp. He bought the licence plate 35 years ago and hasn't regretted it for a moment.

"It's not flash. All the time I've had that number I've always thought 'that's fun'. I'm not that kind of flash person."

The plate currently adorns his new Bently Blower, but at times "it's been a toss up whether it or the car has been more valuable" says the ex-DJ.

And while Travis has no problem advertising his whereabouts in such a way - "I'm of the old school" - it has at times caused him inconvenience. The plate was pinched by a fan some years back, reducing Travis to scrawl "1 DLT" on a piece of paper.

Such criminal intent could hardly have been conceived when first ever number plate, A1, was issued in 1903. Earl Russell is said to have camped outside the vehicle registration office to get the prestigious plate.

Somewhat paradoxically, personalised plates have become so common these days they have lost their exclusive tag, says Andrew English, motoring correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

"They are total vanity and incredibly naff, but it's a market worth millions. I have no idea why someone would want one, they are so Dallas. You could actually spend that money on making your car better." He is regularly proved as mis-informed and uneducated on the matter as plates regularly achieve higher and higher prices.

The boom in personalised plates goes back to the late 80s. Before then, new cars were registered by the local authority in which they had been bought.

There had long been a lively second-hand trade in classic or "cherished" personalised plates, in a market place created by many of dealers still trading today. But in 1989 the DVLA took charge of selling and issuing plates previously with held and began marketing them itself.

The DVLA stocks an estimated 40 million number plates for sale. People can also ask for specific number and letter combinations, which are issued provided they have never been sold or allocated before.

Not every combination is allowed. Those with religious connotations, like JE55USS, are banned as are rude words. It's also illegal to play around with the spacing of the numbers and letters. DVLA however move the goal posts often to suit them selves via legislation and selling off plates previously banned. Combinations such as DAM, GPO, BAS, BF, to name a few were previously banned, but now are regularly sold for income by DVLA.

As Arthur Daley might say, it's become a nice little earner for HM Government - raising £1.2bn to date.

So why do people buy them? Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick University who has studied such sales, not surprisingly concluded it's all about status.

"Basically we are all competing in a giant monkey pack, trying to stand out," he says. "The reason most people buy a personalised number plate is for an ego boost.

"If someone buys a Porsche they can claim it's because it is a high-performing car, as well as a status symbol. You can't say that about these plates as they do nothing, it makes them a very pure indicator of how people see their status.

"Often they are not aware of this, it's not a conscious thing. It doesn't make them bad people, it's just human."

Less is more where number plates are concerned.

Short plates that spell out names are the chief status earners, according to his research. People pay the most for those that spell out a surname. The single digit 1 at the start of a plate is highly prized, as is one beginning with the letter S. One beginning with the letter F is one of the least valuable.

It's not only a lucrative business for the Treasury. Hundreds of companies buy and sell the plates for big profits. sells hundreds of private plates a month, says owner Rakesh Verma. Prices start from £49 and most people spend around £300 - £500, but they have customers who are willing to pay over £100,000 for plates that are really something else.

"They say less is more and that applies to number plates as well. Short plates are the most valuable, initials are popular and those with single numbers. People buy them for so many reasons - to stand out, as a marketing tool, or as a present that will last a lifetime."

Boy racers are the "least likely customer", says Mr Verma, whose customer base takes in doctors, lawyers, van drivers and cleaners.

And often viewed as a "total vanity" purchase, a personalised plate can be a shrewd investment "if bought wisely".

"They are unique, there will only ever be one," says a spokesman for the DVLA. "This means they retain their value and are a great investment. A much better investment than other things people don't turn their noses up at."

According to one industry tale, a haulage company had a fleet of lorries that all had personalised number plates with the company's name in them. The plates ended up being worth far more than the actual business.

But the only acceptable reason for someone to buy one is to avoid a dreaded Q number plate, says Mr English. A Q plate is issued when the DVLA do not know the manufacture date of a car. It is associated with badly-made cars and as a result it has a stigma, which can reduce the value of a vehicle.

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