Sunday, 24 January 2016

The numberplate game (trivia!)

Once upon a time, British registered cars produced hours of harmless fun on long car journeys. Anyone else remember the numberplate game?

As someone who can't read or write on a car or a bus (and that includes scrolling on a screen) without becoming a biohazard, long car journeys as a passenger, or even short trips on slow-moving buses, are tedious for me. I can't remember how we came across it but at some point in my childhood we discovered the numberplate game, which passed the time. British numberplates used to include the whole range of numbers from 1 to 999 and you had to spot them in numerical order (so you were not actually collecting numbers, as such, merely looking out for the next one and moving on: no writing involved!)

The old system was replaced in September 2001, a few months before my son was born, and my first thought was They Have Spoiled The Game! Surely it would soon become impossible to play, as older cars disappeared from the roads. Not only that, a few years later the government introduced a scrappage scheme intended to boost the sales of new cars by encouraging people to part with their old ones. I therefore didn't attempt to play the game with my own child. The new registration scheme doesn't lend itself to any very obvious equivalent, as although it has been in place for over 14 years there is quite a limited range of numbers (so far, only 02-15 and 51-65). The previous sequence with prefixes A-Y ran from 1983 to 2001, and before that there was a sequence with suffixes, from 1963 (ish) to 1982. Earlier than that there were also plates with up to three numbers.

On a longish walk down a busy road a few weeks ago for some reason the game popped into my head, and I noticed that many of the cars passing me had pre-2001 plates. I started wondering whether it would still be possible to play the game after all (surely not? How many people have cars that are over 14 years old? OK, I do, but surely it isn't typical?) I then had a little bet with myself, that if I should happen to see an old car with a number 1 I would start again and see how far I could get. Within ten minutes I had seen 1, 2, 3 and 4, in that order. Do not make bets with yourself.

I don't know that I am really obsessive enough to carry on with this all the way to 999, but observations over the past few weeks have led to some surprises. There really are lots of old cars still on the road. Why? Is it a Cardiff thing? Is it just that the economic recovery hasn't reached Cardiff? Do we have better car mechanics than other places? Is it that people may be in work, so have the money to run a car, but are not affluent enough to borrow money for new cars or to buy them outright? A stroll around my neighbourhood revealed over 100 pre-2001 registered cars, with a surprising number of those coming from the pre-1983 sequence. There are even a few which predate the A-Y suffixes, so these vehicles are over 50 years old. Some of them are the classic makes which clearly really do last, but others are not so obviously so (although it is not a bad guide to which manufacturers are good!) I am certainly not going to feel so self-conscious about my own old car in future. While there are, as you might expect, older cars in down-at-heel areas, you will also find them in some more comfortably-off districts, perhaps because there are elderly drivers there who are not quite ready to stop driving altogether but think it is not worthwhile to invest in a new car. In some streets you will pass a row of cars in which all or nearly all are over 14 years old. There are some exceptions (personalised numberplates, or people who have chosen to keep a favourite number from car to car, so the car is not as old as its registration makes it appear) but even so, it's obvious that many people do not change their car at anything like the rate which car manufacturers might hope for. How do they keep going at all, if Cardiff is typical?

The game is really just a harmless pastime, but it does have the side-effect of making you quite observant. Woe to anyone who commits a crime if their car happens to have a number close to one someone playing the game is looking for (although you might feel a bit silly confessing - "Yes, I'm sure the number was 121, I remember because I've been looking for 120 for days and it was annoying seeing the next one"). As far as I can remember, the rate of spotting numbers is not dissimilar to what it was back in the 1970s. More cars on the roads compensate for the new ones which don't count.

I haven't given up yet - a month-long wait for one number nearly made me forget the whole thing, but yesterday I saw the next two numbers within seconds of each other, so I might carry on for a bit longer, and marvel at what I've discovered about the car market in the meantime.