This article was originally published in The Age on 16 March 2008.
It covers some of the fallout from VicRoads aborted attempt at introducing the “V Series” number plates.
These plates could be best described as a hybrid between Victorian enamel heritage plates and Queensland “Q Plates”.
Car buffs’ VICtory may see state lose V-plates
MAKE no mistake, Duncan Ansell loves his blue SL55 sports convertible, but it’s the 220 square centimetres of black steel fixed to its front bumper that gets his motor racing. His “Vic 7” number plate, the first privately registered number plate in Victoria, is estimated to be worth at least $1 million — more than three times as much as his Mercedes.
And he’s not about to let a VicRoads plan to produce an imitation of his prized number plate drive down its value. Together with panel beating business owner and fellow plate collector Martin Stone, Mr Ansell has begun legal action against VicRoads over its plans to issue a series of lookalike “V-series” plates. The new plates are hand-made, coated with the same vitreous enamel as their heritage counterparts and feature the same white number styles and the same brass eyelets. The main difference is that they have a “V” and a white panel on them, while the traditional plates are all black and only have “VIC”.
Original heritage plates — with one, two or three digits— are more than just status symbols for the petrol-headed sections of Melbourne’s monied elite. The plates’ rarity, combined with their historic significance, has made them serious investments. VIC 1, owned by former Fosters and Coles Myer boss Peter Bartels, is reputedly worth $2 million. Even the more lowly VIC 390 fetched $101,000 at auction earlier this month.
When Mr Ansell and Mr Stone saw the advertisements for a VicRoads auction of the lookalike plates, they were appalled. They feared the release of a series of lookalikes could halve the value of their heritage plates overnight. Mr Ansell owns VIC 20 as well as VIC 7. Mr Stone owns 15, 19 and 47, along with six three-digit plates and some six-digit plates.
On the advice of intellectual property lawyer Tony Watson, of Middletons, the pair sought a Federal Court injunction preventing VicRoads from going ahead with the planned auction of the V-series plates.
Within a fortnight, Mr Ansell and Mr Stone were sitting nervously in the back of the Federal Court as the Middletons team argued that the new plates looked so similar to the originals that their release would be misleading or deceptive and that the average person might confuse them. The release of the V-series, the lawyers told the court, would devalue the originals because potential purchasers would not pay as much if they could buy the same number in a V-series for less.
The lawyers claimed that the sale of the plates would breach the agreements existing when the numbers were issued — in some cases as far back as 1910 — and when the collectors bought their plates at auction. The booklet for the 1984 auction at which Mr Ansell bought the VIC 20 plate from VicRoads billed the 48 historic plates on sale as “valuable collectors’ items offering a unique opportunity for investment”. It said successful bidders would have “the permanent and exclusive right” to the use of the identifying number on the plates.
The Middletons team also argued that VicRoads’ conduct in the matter amounted to “misleading and deceptive conduct” under the Trade Practices Act.
Mr Ansell and Mr Stone won the first round of their court battle. The Federal Court’s Justice Richard Tracey examined both the original plates and the replicas and stated that, in his opinion, the V-series plates were “remarkably similar” to the heritage plates. He then granted the injunction, forcing VicRoads to withdraw the V-series from auction.
But the real legal battle is just beginning. Over the next few weeks Mr Ansell and Mr Stone will file statements of claim and gather more evidence. The two collectors will be seeking permanent orders restraining VicRoads from offering any more V-series plates for sale, and from issuing any other plates which are similar in overall appearance to the heritage plates. They will also seek damages and their own costs.
First they will have a session of mediation with VicRoads. If they fail to settle their dispute, the matter will go to trial.
“Purchasers of these plates have relied on VicRoads’ representations as to the investment opportunity,” Mr Watson said. “They certainly didn’t expect that VicRoads would diminish the value of the asset that they had purchased by seeking to sell plates so strikingly similar.”
Mr Ansell and Mr Stone are rallying fellow heritage number plate buffs and seeking donations for a $200,000 fighting fund for the case. Car wash company owner Tony Stephens — owner of five plates including Vic 27 and Vic 37 — is already on board. As are the two collectors’ expert witnesses: broker Mel McLennon, an expert on the plates’ sale values, and plate buff Maurice Mangiagli, who has written one book on the history of Victorian number plates, and is working on a second — a history of Victoria’s first 100 plates.
You can view the original article here.