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An excited murmur can be heard around the auction room as lot 623 is put up for sale.

The reserve is £3,300, but I am told that the final price could reach six figures. That would buy you an extremely nice car, exotic holidays for the rest of your life or, in some parts of the country, a decent-sized house.

Yet all the winning bidder will take home today is three letters and a number, embossed on to a plastic rectangle.

A mock-up of how a Royal carriage would look with the personalised numberplate 1 HRH. The regal-sounding numberplate is the star attraction at an auction of prestigious registration numbers

A mock-up of how a Royal carriage would look with the personalised numberplate 1 HRH. The regal-sounding numberplate is the star attraction at an auction of prestigious registration numbers

Like the little boy in the fairytale who shouted that the Emperor had no clothes, I have an irresistible urge to point out that whoever bids on this must be crazy, but this might be unwise given my present surroundings.

Sitting in a conference room at a hotel in the Northamptonshire countryside, miles from anywhere, I'm surrounded by auto-numerologists, as fans of personalised car numberplates style themselves.

They are here for the latest auction of prestigious registration numbers by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and today's star attraction is lot 623 - the regal-sounding 1 HRH.

These aficionados of 'cherished numbers' - a British euphemism for what the Americans call 'vanity plates' - are undoubtedly an egotistical lot. But who could possibly be vain enough to put 1 HRH on their car?

At least I'm confident of one thing: no one will be bidding on behalf of the Queen.

The official limousines in which she travels famously have no numberplates. As for the vehicles Her Majesty drives in private, she is as likely to put 'Liz' and 'Phil' sunshades across the top of her windscreen as she is to advertise her presence with the registration 1 HRH.

Paul Daniels, pictured, with Debbie McGee, has MAG 1C has his numberplate

Paul Daniels, pictured, with Debbie McGee, has MAG 1C has his numberplate

A few of the minor royals are possible contenders - perhaps Her Royal Pushiness Princess Michael of Kent - but I suspect the buyer will be a commoner and probably a celebrity.

After all, the tradition of registration numbers being adopted as status symbols by the famous and wealthy dates back to 1903, when numberplates were introduced in Britain.

The first issued in London was A1, registered to the 2nd Earl Russell, who was so keen to acquire it that he camped out for the entire night before its release.

He sold it four years later, but should perhaps have hung on to it. A1 is now worth more than £1 million and is rumoured to be owned by the brother of the Sultan of Brunei.

Over the years, many stars have followed in the Earl's tyre-tracks. Anyone who saw the Rolls-Royce EM 100 on the streets during the Seventies knew it belonged to the late Eric Morecambe. As for COM 1C, that is still a sign that Jimmy Tarbuck, and his distinctive comedy, may be dangerously close at hand.

Slightly harder to work out is RU 12 - the registration number of Danny La Rue - but MAG 1C (Paul Daniels) and H41R DO (hairdresser Nicky Clarke) are more blatant advertisements for their owners' talents.

The sporting world has not lagged behind when it comes to vehicular one-upmanship, with Wayne Rooney buying the numberplate WAZ 8 for his £174,000 Aston Martin.

As for David Beckham, he has already acquired DB 7, but perhaps Victoria will persuade him that 1 HRH is the only registration suitable for Britain's 'second royal family'.

Whoever the eventual winner is, the prospect of buying 1 HRH should get bidders going like nodding dogs on a parcel shelf. That, at least, is the prediction of Damian Lawson, marketing manager for the personalised registrations department of the DVLA.

'Last year, the registration 4 HRH went for more than £400,000 at a private auction, so who knows what we'll get for this,' he says.

Since 1989, when the DVLA first realised that there was money to be made in selling off 'cherished numbers', it has raised some £1.4 billion from its auctions, held six times a year at venues throughout the country.

Like the other numbers sold, 1 HRH has a less-than-glamorous past - it dates back to the era when numberplates were issued by local authorities rather than the DVLA. Far from having any royal connections, 1 HRH was simply one of a series registered by Hull Borough Council in 1946.

Hairdresser Nicky Clarke advertises his talents with H41R DO on his car

Hairdresser Nicky Clarke advertises his talents with H41R DO on his car

Like many others at the time, the burghers of Hull withheld 1 HRH from release because it was clearly a special number, but they seemed unsure what to do with it.

Other numbers were not issued, because there weren't enough cars on the road to need them - and when the DVLA was set up in 1965, it inherited 1 HRH and millions of other unreleased numbers.

Today, the DVLA has a huge surplus of such registrations dating back many years. Damian Lawson draws on these, and the best of the new numbers scheduled for release every six months, to put together a catalogue which will best exploit the vanity of British motorists.

Once he has chosen crowd-pullers-such as 1 HRH, he searches the list of voters and phone books to find out what initials and names are currently most popular.

'Surnames change over time, reflecting what's going on in society,' he says.

'I've been doing this job for 12 years and I've noticed personalised plates becoming hugely popular in the Asian community. Our record sale so far was 51 NGH, which was probably destined for someone called Singh and went for £254,000.

'First names change in frequency, too. This sale, I've included KYL IIIE because Kylie Minogue has made that name popular for women who are reaching the age when they might want their first personalised numberplate.'

Lawson also considers letter and number combinations which spell out different words. Since the UK registration system forbids more than three letters appearing consecutively without intervening numbers, auto-numerologists have long-convinced themselves that certain numbers can replace different letters of the alphabet.

In their world, a 4 resembles an A, and a zero can take the place of a D. This works, just about, but does a 2 really resemble an R, or a 3 stand in for an E?

Sir Ian Botham, AKA Beefy, apparently believes so, his personalised numberplate being B33 FYS, and devoted angler Chris Tarrant is another willing conspirator, with CHU 88 supposedly spelling the name of his favourite fish, chubb.

It's difficult to imagine why anyone would want the numberplate 23 BO (reserve £2,500) or the seemingly related 5TINKS (reserve £350), but these are listed in the sales catalogue.

The low reserve prices of some of these plates suggest that buying a personalised registration is no longer the preserve of the very rich.

These days, it seems that any T0M, D1CK and H4RRY can put their mark on their car and earn the envy, or scorn, of their neighbours.

Eric Morecambe had a Rolls Royce with EM 100 as its registration number

Eric Morecambe had a Rolls Royce with EM 100 as its registration number

Personalised registrations are now so popular that regtransfers.co.uk, the country's largest dealer, operates an online numberplates museum, runs a club for fans of personalised plates and even, heaven forbid, publicises an annual rally at which there are competitions for the best registration numbers.

So what is their appeal to people like Ray and Ann Bowen, property developers from Stoke-on-Trent? They paid £1,000 at the beginning of the auction for the plate A130 WEN which, in numberplate lingo, spells A Bowen.

'I suppose we must be posers,' says Ray, who already owns R130 WEN - that's R Bowen to the uninitiated. This is currently on his eight-year-old Vauxhall Corsa, which has 144,000 miles on the clock.

Like many people, the Bowens regard buying a personalised registration as a good investment yet, as the sale of 1 HRH gets under way, there is soon a reminder that the value of even the most sought-after plates is subject to luck and whim.

For all the ballyhoo surrounding its royal associations, two Sikh businessmen, from Edinburgh, begin bidding in the auction - completely oblivious to the meaning of HRH.

Dildar Singh and Mohammed Akram are setting up a company called International Holdings Real Estate and have spotted 1 HRH as a close approximation of their new company's initials.

Kylie Minogue's first name has become popular - prompting the registration number KYL 111E

Kylie Minogue's first name has become popular - prompting the registration number KYL 111E

'We had no idea there would be this much interest,' Akram explains later. 'We set ourselves a limit of £15,000, but got carried away.'

That is rather an understatement. A few nods of Singh's head and the partners soon reach a bid of £85,000, before they are seen off by a late bidder at the back of the room.

He, in turn, succumbs to an anonymous businessman from Surrey, who is bidding by telephone and finally wins 1 HRH for £113,000.

This astonishing price reflects the buoyancy of the market for personalised car registrations, in spite of the credit crunch.

'The kind of people who can afford to pay six-figure sums for these plates are not really affected by the recession,' says Lawson. 'What we have noticed is a drop in sales at the lower end of the market.'

I'm still not convinced about the value of personalised plates but, as the rest of the auction passes in a blur of numbers and letters, I am disturbed by an interview in a back issue of the magazine published by regtransfers.co.uk.

Full of features about the world of numberplates, it includes an interview with ventriloquist Keith Harris, side-kick of Orville, the bright-green bird with the squeaky voice.

He paid £1,400 for the registration number OR VIL and attached it not only to his own vehicle, but also to the miniature car 'driven' on stage by Orville.