Inside the secret world of heritage plates as $10m detail spotted on Aussie car

The interest in heritage plates has boomed over the past three years, with some valued at millions of dollars at auctions.

For car enthusiasts, a luxury vehicle is hard to miss when parked on the side of the road, but not everyone would necessarily notice the truly valuable detail on a Mercedes recently spotted on a quiet Melbourne street – and it speaks to a surprisingly lucrative and growing trade among car lovers.

Heritage plates, sometimes referred to as numerical plates, is a booming market that's increased in popularity in recent years and sees some number plates sell for millions of dollars at auctions or via private sellers.

The premise is simple, the lower the number, the higher the value. And today, the black VIC 1 plate is said to be the most desirable and expensive out there. It was recently spotted parked on a Melbourne street and is reportedly owned by Peter Bartels, who was previously the CEO of Coles as well as iconic Aussie beer brand Fosters.

VIC1 heritage plates on Mercedes Benz car.
The VIC1 heritage plate, said to be worth over $10 million, was recently spotted on a quiet residential street in Melbourne. Source: Facebook

The premier plate is said to be worth well over $10 million, according to Ramy Attia, from Heritage Only, a premium marketplace for heritage plates. But plate enthusiast and collector Lachlan Quayle says you could probably see it sell for as much as $15 to $20 million at auction.

"It's sort of based on recent sales, so the closest thing to sell at auction is VIC 14, which sold in 2022 for about $2.4 million," Lachlan, from Melbourne, told to Yahoo News Australia. "Heritage plates start off that low, let's call it $25,000, all the way up to tens of millions [for the single-digit plates]". Explaining its value, he said it's "a lot like real estate. If you buy in the good areas, it goes up over time."

What are heritage plates?

Anything from 1 up to 285,000 is considered a heritage plate in Victoria — the state, along with NSW, driving much of the demand — with single digits the most sought-after. They were the first ever number plates issued in the state and were available between 1932 and 1939. Each one was made by hand and adorned the cars of VIPs and distinguished Victorians. Now Heritage Plates are held by VicRoads and are drip-fed into circulation, and are only available to purchase via private sellers and auction houses.

Drivers love spotting 'very rare' plates

While spotted regularly on the roads, they're pretty hard to snap up. "Quite commonly, all the single digits are sort of held tightly by families and they usually get passed on from generation to generation," Ramy Attia explained. "So it's very rare for any of these ever to actually hit the market and become available for purchase.

"Basically, once you have it, you'll be holding on to it for a lifetime. And I guess that's why number one is the most desirable."

Heritage number plates on luxury cars.
Anything from 1 up to 285,000 is considered a heritage plate. The lower the number, the higher it's value. Source: Facebook

A close second would be VIC 8, Ramy and Lachlan agreed because it has "significant value to the Asian culture" Ramy explained. "Eight is a bit of a symbol of prosperity and wealth. So the Asian culture resonates with the number eight quite well," he said. "But again, the families that own these plates, it's one plate in a massive collection, and these plates will never change hands."

Heritage plates popular among investors and collectors

So why are they so popular? Well, the reason is two-fold. Firstly, they're a status symbol. "Everyone can save up to buy a Porsche or a Ferrari, but not everyone can buy a heritage plate," Ramy said. "It's one thing to have the money to buy the plates, it's another thing to have the opportunity to buy them".

Plus, they increase in value over time with some collectors and enthusiasts arguing they're a more valuable asset than property or shares. "There is no land tax, stamp duty, council rates or management fees which makes them a unique asset," Ramy argued. "They're an investment".

Heritage number plate VIC1.
VIC1 number plate is considered the more valuable in Australia and dates back to the 1930s. Source:

For Lachlan, a collector himself, "it's the rarity and the stories behind them" that make them so appealing. "Either the family or a business person owns the plates because some of them are quite expensive. They've got a lot of stories behind them," he said.

The 23-year-old runs a popular Facebook page, Exotic Car Spotting Australia, which currently has over 12,000 members. His passion for plate spotting started roughly seven years ago and started with a love for cars.

"I've always been interested in cars, then I started to notice single-digit plates. It was only when I grew up a bit and started to earn a bit more money that I could actually start to buy them". He is one of the thousands of Aussies with an interest in heritage plates.

"We've seen plates shoot up 200 per cent (in value) in a two to three-year period. And with that attracts more people into the market," said Ramy, who runs online auctions. "I still think even now the market's quite underpenetrated. A lot of people still don't know what these plates are. Slowly the market is growing and they are getting a lot more attraction."

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