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Letter from Europe

1 August 1997

by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

Welcome to the first of what I intend to be a regular feature keeping our readers in other parts of the World up to date with what's happening in Europe. Let's start with a true British oddity-personalised registration plates or number plates. It is huge business in this country. Something rare and unique such as a number plate which simply says A1 is worth in excess of 50 thousand dollars.

Even the Government got involved in making some extra money. Let me quote from their blurb: "we feel that the appearance of the new R prefix (from August 1) should be a cause for notice and admiration"...minimum price about 600 dollars plus 120 dollars assignment fee, which-again, according to the Government agency "will attract appreciated glazes". So now you know.

There are companies specialising in number plates, one of them, Elite, is selling "R" registrations from 1200 dollars upwards depending on what they judge to be desirable. In fact R1 JAN is offered for a staggering 7500 dollars. The funny thing is that someone will pay that sort of money for it.

The other oddity which the motor industry is fighting-with one arm-is this whole business of new letters on the 1st of August every year. Such is the snobbery associated with owning a new car and hence the much desired "R" plate that something like a quarter of all new cars are sold during August. Dealers up and down the country have parties on the evening of July 31 with food, drinks & jazz bands so that Mr. & Mrs. Jones can be the very first "R" people in their street as they hit the road on the stroke of midnight.

Strange? Bizarre?

Can I understand it? No!

This happens every single year, next it will be the turn of the "S". The downside of all this nonsense is that dealers are under tremendous pressure to prepare thousands of cars in a very short space of time. Consequently the cars which are rushed through for August 1 tend to be less well prepared than at other times.

Don't for a minute think that this is unique to any particular brand. People will have Ford Escorts and Mercedes SLKs on the very first day. The purchase price of the car has nothing to do with it.

Talking of which let me remind American readers just how lucky they are. In Britain the very same Boxster which you can buy for approx. 40 thousand dollars cost 40 thousand pounds in England which at today's rate is 65 thousand dollars! And there is a long waiting list! In fact people in this country pay so much over the top that it is simply scandalous. I just saw an ad for a Dodge GTS Viper, the asking price is 160 thousand dollars. There was another under the heading "performance cars"(!) :rare opportunity-Chrysler Stratus, 2.5 litre V6, all usual extras, 10 thousand miles on the clock-are you ready for this: 36 thousand dollars and it is left hand drive in a country where normally the steering wheel is on the right. The mind boggles.

SLKs are also very much in demand with prices 25% over manufacturers' retail. 63 thousand dollars was the highest price I saw.

Apart from that the news is that if you are lucky enough to have dollars or pound sterlings then for the first time in years you can have a seriously nice time in Europe. The pound for example was worth about 7 French francs, right now it's 10. A huge difference. The dollar took for ever to get back over 1.50 D marks, it is now over 1.80 heading for 2. On the other hand if you are planning a trip to London or New York then your marks and francs will buy you that much less.

I will return to the cost of motoring in Europe, a word of advice if you are used to US gasoline prices-make sure you've got enough money!