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Success on a plate for car trade.

Byline: By John Cranage Automotive Correspondent

The motor industry is gearing up for one of its big sales days of the year tomorrow when the new "56" registration plates appear on the road.

Carmakers and dealers are banking on buyers doing their bit to help pull the industry out of a prolonged downturn in sales.

So far this year, new car registrations are lagging about four per cent behind last year and the industry is braced for total 2006 sales in the region of 2.35 million.

That would be well below the 2.58 million cars sold in the UK in 2003 but healthily ahead of the figure of just over two million recorded ten years ago. Since 1999, car registration plates have changed twice a year, in March and September.

The industry no longer sees the old August 1 once-a-year sales bonanza, which means that the peaks and troughs are more evenly spread through the year.

It also means that private buyers are no longer driven to "keep up with the Joneses", says John Phenix, operations director at Midland contract hire specialist Ryland Unity.

Sales to private buyers are now more in line with the fleet and company car sector of the market which leans more toward a year-round business.

"The shift in culture has meant car-buying patterns have begun to plateau. Although we will still see volumes increasing in both March and September, it is less significant than before the new system came into play," Mr Phenix said.

Nigel Wonnacott, head of communications at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: "Tomorrow will certainly be one of the big days of the year for the trade.

"Plans are afoot for dealers to hold parties for customers at midnight on the 1st. We predict that about 400,000 new cars worth about pounds 6 billion will leave the forecourts.

"The market will be down on this time last year but September is still a month of optimism for the motor industry."

Volatile fuel prices and rising interest rates combined with a general downturn in consumer confidence have certainly dented new car sales over the last 18 months.

That translates into fewer buyers who are prepared to take out loans or write cheques against their own bank balances.

The CBI, the country's biggest business organisation, is not expecting too much in terms of car sales next month.

Its latest quarterly distributive trades survey - an authoritative report on the state of the retail sector - yesterday said that motor traders have not been sharing in the surprisingly robust upturn in sales.

Dealers "clearly do not think" that tomorrow's new registration plates will change the downward trend with those expecting a fall in year on year sales outnumbering those predicting an increase, the CBI report said.

Trevor Finn, chief executive of Nottingham-based Pen-dragon, the country's biggest dealership group, said that despite the downcast market tomorrow will still be a big day for the trade.

From the manufacturers' Don Hume, spokesman for Jaguar and Land Rover, said: "March and September are now our highest sales months of the year and we are hopeful that next month will be successful for both marques."

Registration plates first appeared in 1903 as a means of identifying vehicles that had broken the law or had been involved in an accident

Using the sequence A 1 to YY 9999, they ran until 1932 when more cars dictated the need for more letters and a new series running from AAA 1 to YYY 999 was introduced

Despite the use of minor variations like reversing the order of letters and numbers or adding an extra number, the relentless rise in vehicles forced another change in 1963, when a suffix letter was added after the numbers

This suffix changed every year and marked the first time that the age of a vehicle could be seen at a glance, starting the process of owner one-upmanship

From 1983 the suffix became a prefix and the letter "Q" was introduced for kit cars or imports

1999 saw the introduction of twice-yearly registration to avoid the annual August bulge created by the desire to be seen to own a brand new car

The current system of two area-identifying letters, followed by a year indicator and three random letters was introduced in September 2001 with "51"
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 31, 2006
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