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Remember when 1 August meant just one thing?

Published 01 August 2013

The first of August used to mean just one thing for car fans in Great Britain (not Northern Ireland - it has its own system). It was that thrilling day when the new registration plates would hit the road, and the ultimate in one-upmanship would begin. Between 1967 and 1999, in neighbourhoods all across Britain, this day would see new cars appearing proudly sporting their new letters, as the Joneses were overtaken, by the newest, shiniest summer-time motor purchase.

The reason for the 1 August 'plate change was down to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). Since the arrival of the prefix system (ABC 123A) in 1963, the yearly change took place on 1 January - but in a booming market, the spike in demand around the Christmas period that lead-up to a new 'plate was rather inconvenient for both dealers and carmakers. And so, after four years of the new system, it was changed to 1 August - coincident with the trade's quietest times.

And so began one of the motor trade's most welcome - and unwelcome - annual rituals. New plate day. By the late 1980s, and in booming Britain, the August sales accounted for 30 per cent of all new car registrations, and clearly that was getting silly. Especially as so many new car buyers were demanding a Midnight new car delivery, just to maximise the posing potential of their new wheels.

As a kid growing up in this era, 1 August was always an exciting time, as my friends and I would go round new 'plate spotting. I still remember V-day in August 1979, and how a gang of car geeks led by me would traipse around Blackpool town centre waiting for the first V-suffix car to hove into view - and it being a metallic silver Colt 1400GLX sold by the local dealer, JR Cars (now long gone)... Apparently, it's these moments that define us.

In 1983, when we went from suffix to prefix (A123 ABC), the first A-registration car I spotted was a Rattan Beige Austin Maestro 1.3L. Would I remember that today if it weren't such a special day. As mad as it sounds, just about everyone in the UK was swept up by registration fever, from car spotters like me, through new car buyers, and to the dealers. The trade might not have enjoyed building up for the August rush, but you can be sure, they fully enjoyed their swollen bank balances come the beginning of September.

Then, in 1999, it all ended. The trade no longer enjoyed the massive August rush, and persuaded the government to change the system in anticipation of the current system (AA51 ABC), due to arrive in 2001. The last S-, T-, V-, W-, X- and Y-registration cars lasted just six months on the market, as the date changed move to twice yearly - April and September. And with it, the magic really disappeared.

These days, you don't get the same build-up in the weeks leading up to plate change - and it just sort of happens. Yes, there are adverts, offers, and promotions, but the thrill of the new 'plate seems to have long gone. Is it down to the twice yearly change, the fact more people buy new cars more regularly, or just that the current system still baffles many of us? All I do know is that 1 August isn't the same anymore...


Nacho    on 1 August 2013

It's a shame, as a kid I too used to love plate spotting but now, as much as I still love cars, it's just not the same seeing a NU13... it just doesn't seem to stand out as much any more.

Gav    on 1 August 2013

I worked in a BL dealership in those days and it was manic getting them all PDI'd and fixing any bugs the apprentices used to be fitting 20 sets of plates a day to meet the targets

Neil Rapsey    on 19 August 2013

I used to love Aug 1st as we were always on holiday usually down in the south coast, and the excitement of seeing a brand new car was the highlight of the Holiday. Sadly missed now

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