I was talking recently to a friend; one of the more senior members of the classic bike community. When the usual pleasantries were done, we got chatting about one of his bikes, a pre-war classic that's been pretty much biologically attached to him for longer than he cares to remember. After a while, he mentioned that he'd not so long ago been offered the grand (and obscene) sum of £20,000 for the registration number, which is a pointed and highly visible indictment of just how vulgar human ego can be, and just how far people will go to raise their social status another notch.
"It was tempting," he admitted. "£20,000 pounds is, after all, a lot of money."
More than enough, in fact, to buy the bike that the number plate belonged to. And then some.
"But I turned it down," he continued (much to the surprise of his son who had any number of ideas regarding how twenty grand could be spent). "The thing is, I've got everything I need, and I've got enough money to live on, and I've never been very happy about selling the number plates of classic motor vehicles."
I shared the sentiments (of both father and son). It's a long time since I had twenty grand warming my greasy palm. Come to think, of it, I'm not sure I've ever had that kind of money (but I'm pretty sure that if such financial manna ever did fall from heaven, it would be a long time before it escaped the clutches of my fist).
The fact is, money is money. And number plates are just ... well, number plates. And you can live with one and not without the other.
It's a cruel world.
"Having a number plate on your bike is not so far removed, in principle, from having your name and social security number tattooed on your head..."
Now mentioning no names, there are any number of people in the classic bike world, and beyond, happily plundering and ransacking motorcycling history by trading number plates and flogging the spoils left, right and centre to anyone with a pathological need to bolster his or her status by personalising those few random digits and characters that are required by law to decorate the nether end of his or her vehicle.
For various reasons, I've never much been interested in all that, myself. But I'm passingly partial to the idea of twenty thousand quid in my pocket and would sell a lot more than my number plate to get it.
The usual argument in favour of hanging on to original bike registration numbers is the natural human need to preserve history. It's perfectly understandable. Pre-fabs. Steam trains. Toby jugs. Aircraft numbers. Telephones. Books. It's all being preserved, stored, sealed in vacuum bags or between the sheets of acid free paper.
It's all harmless industry, of course, and it keeps you off the street. But what's underpinning it is just death. We're all going to go belly up sooner or later (hopefully later). We're all getting old, and we all want to be young again. But we can't. The tapestry of life is slowly coiling and taking everything with it, and all we can do is try and keep it pinned down by hanging onto every last vestige of history and mortal existence.
Such as number plates, for instance.
It's only when you stand back a little (and see that your pocket is a little emptier than you first realised) that you appreciate the fact that history isn't a static thing. It's changeable. Upgradeable.
This first occurred to me when I bought my BSA WDM20. It was built in 1944 or '45 and wasn't demobbed from the British army until the late 1960s. Consequently it was registered on a "G" plate, meaning 1969. I asked the seller if, by any chance, it had had an earlier number plate. And he said, "Yeah, mate. It was also a "G" plate."
I subsequently learned that that was a more valuable G plate because if you positioned a couple of the letters fairly close together and squinted a bit (and was mildly dyslexic) the number plate, from a distance, looked vaguely like somebody's name (some bloke in Woodford, Essex, apparently).
Sometime later, with the bike safely in my possession and feeling that tapestry of history curling around my ankles, I wrote to Roy Bacon on the Isle of Wight. Roy, aside from being a prolific author, is also an approved dating specialist for historic bikes. I gave him the relevant details and sent off my fiver (or tenner), and duly received a certificate advising me of what I already knew; that I had a 1940s motorcycle that was eligible for a 1940s number plate.
With that, I could roll back a little more of that fabled tapestry to an age before I was born, and thereby satisfy the Gods of nostalgia that I was doing all that I reasonably could to hold back the years.
And then it hit me. The G number plate on the rearmost end of my BSA WM20 is part of the bike's history too. Everything that happens to the bike is part of its history. It doesn't begin and end on the production line, or dealer's showroom, or down at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre. It's a moveable feast, rolling down the road towards whatever fate awaits it. And a few random numbers attached to a piece of pressed steel isn't really going to change any of that. All the fun I've had with that bike had nothing whatsoever to do with the numbers. I don't even like them (but Brian Crichton at Classic Bike magazine does; the first three letters spell out his initials and he's already made me an offer for the whole shebang).
I don't like any number plates. They're ugly things that have got even uglier in this age of speed cameras and traffic cameras (not that I'm likely to trigger any speed cameras on the BSA, but traffic cameras are a whole new world of pain).
Having a number plate on your bike is not so far removed, in principle, from having your name and social security number tattooed on your head, meaning another way of singling you out from the crowd. True, you may well deserve to be singled out. But on the other hand, you may simply be a soft target. And in this increasingly intrusive police state that we're living in, where emails and telephone calls are routinely logged (if not regularly tapped into by the human spy bots at GCHQ), where you can have your litter bin invaded under anti-terrorism legislation, where you can't even lie in the park with a pornographic magazine in your hand without wondering which international security organisation might be scoping in on you from beyond the stratosphere.
Britain today is said to be one of the most probing, snooping, peeking, prying, questioning, nosey nations on the planet. And anything that helps sever the thousands of sly links between the state and the individual has to be a good thing.
But instead, we're largely doing the exact opposite by throwing away continuous scraps of personal information into the invisible net that's scooping it all up, only to be sifted at a later date by whoever's got the time and wherewithal to make use of it (which appears to be an awful lot of people - and a lot of awful people too).
Moreover, when it comes down to vehicle number plates, a large proportion of us are happy to advertise their identities further with (often highly) contrived letters and numerals that ERIC and RO53 and PAUL G. Etc.
Harmless enough at one level. But information has always been power, and power has always been abused. But wait. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, and stop. Aren't we getting a little too paranoid here?
And maybe not. What started out as a diatribe on one subject has somehow mutated into an essay on ... well, something else. Only, there's a link here that could be worth keeping in sight, and a warning too for anyone who cares to heed it.
But imagine this. Imagine if tomorrow the government announced that they were planning to get shot of number plates forever. Imagine if they said we could all unscrew them on, say, Saturday and consign them to the dustbin of history. Would we all cry foul and keep them attached, thereby preserving what is ultimately unpreservable? Or would we sigh in relief and get rid of the bloody things and thereby help preserve what little privacy we have left these days?
Just to keep it all in perspective, a number plate is just a nasty little piece of steel mucking up the lines of a lot of perfectly nice motorcycles.
But twenty grand is always twenty grand.
Copyright Sump Publishing 2012