The world’s most expensive car has a very improbable number plate

A WORLD record £37m auction price for a car was paid in the US last week for a Ferrari 250 GTO. It gave whole new meaning to the term precious metal. One of just 36 ever made, the 1962 model can accelerate from 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, has a top speed of 174mph and was described as “the holy grail of classic cars”.

In the mid-60s a 250 GTO might have sold in the States for just $18,000, though each buyer had personally to be approved by Enzo Ferrari.

Here’s the really remarkable bit, though – the Italian-built world beater has long had a County Durham registration plate – LUP 77C – and no one can begin to explain why.

Curiouser and curiouser, the car was built in 1962 and raced immediately afterwards, but the C-suffix indicates a vehicle not registered until 1965.

Those were the days when UK towns and counties had what might be termed a personalised registration – HN was Darlington, PT Durham City, BR Sunderland, AJ North Yorkshire and so on.

So who’s been driving the sedate streets of County Durham in a motor described by Popular Mechanics magazine as “the hottest car of all time”?

Previous British owners have included JCB chairman Lord Bamford and Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, former boss of L’Oreal. Former Northern Echo photographer Ian Wright – to whom thanks for the steer, as a more automotively-instinctive column might suppose – wonders if it might have been the young Lord Londonderry, from the hedonistically heady days of Wynyard Hall.

We’ve spoken to long-established Darlington car dealer Tony Wardrop, owner of the 1925-registered TW 11 – a plate worth, in isolation, very much more than LUP 77C. “These things always appreciate until you try to sell them,” he says.

Tony can’t remember the top price for which he’s sold a car, but the most he’s paid was, back in 1990, £34,000 for a silver Mercedes as a silver wedding present for his wife. Nor can he imagine who the Ferrari’s owner might have been.

Wheels within wheels, can anyone point this one in the right direction?

THE Ferrari’s seller was Greg Whitten, a former chief software architect at Microsoft. Telephone bidding at RM Sotheby’s began at £27m and rose in $1m increments. The sale, says the This is Money website, attracted buyers “with the deepest pockets on the planet,” though one website visitor was unimpressed. “Not for me, there are no cup holders,” he wrote.

“The classic race scene is too dangerous to enter such a prized model,” said Dr Whitten. “Some of these people don’t have respect for the car. If they crash, it’s no big deal.”

GTO stands for Gran Tourismo Omologata, which from Italian translates as Grand Touring Homologated and in laymen’s terms is inexplicable.

The most expensive registration sold by the DVLA – 25 O – is also, unsurprisingly, on a 250 GTO. After starting with a reserve price of just £4,000, it was bought four years ago by a Ferrari dealer for £518,000.

The previous highest auction bid for a car was £29.5m, also for a 250 GTO, with six Ferraris in the all-time top ten. The others are a 1939 Alfa Romeo Lungo Spider, a Jaguar D-type, an Aston Martin and a Merc.

Another GTO is said privately to have changed hands for around £50m earlier this year. It probably didn’t have a County Durham registration, though.

IT’S nearly a year since last we looked at car number plates, the correspondence shamefully neglected.

William Baker Baker, near Richmond, spotted XII BEE, took a while but translated as Queen Bee – “a lady driver, naturally”.

Bryan Folkes spotted 747 COW and for reasons unimaginable assumed that to be a lady driver, too. “I wonder what the story was,” he adds.

Paul Wilkinson in Knaresbrough recalls that AJ1, the first North Yorkshire registration, was held by Viscount Downe of Wykeham Abbey. “The Downes had the whole series of AJs up to about AJ8, I think, spread across the vehicles on their estate from smart limos to a tractor.”

It’s William Baker Baker, however, who may have spotted the ultimate – on the Mayor of Barnsley’s chauffeur-driven Rolls. It’s simply THE 1.

MANY years ago we wrote of a car dealer in Blackhall, near Hartlepool, who owned registrations from 1 UP to 7 UP and might have thought the first of them pre-eminent until they popularised the pop.

Then, last year, we bumped in Stanhope into 90-year-old Dorothy Morton, owner of 32 CUP and in no doubt that the registration was worth a great deal more than the car was.

“I get honked everywhere I go, especially by lorry drivers on the motorway,” said Dorothy, from Etherley, near Bishop Auckland. “They always seem disappointed when they overtake and discover there’s a 90-year-old woman at the wheel.”

She’d owned the registration since 1947 – “an Austin, I think” – though, incorrigibly, we failed wholly to note what the present model was.

The registration plate’s bequeathed equally between her two daughters. One day 32 CUP is going to overflow.

IF not quite a Ferrari on a farm track, the column a couple of months back raised both a glass and an eyebrow at the opening of Lord Elliott’s – “café, bar, rooms” – in a former street corner pub in Shildon.

The old King William Inn had been empty and boarded for ten years. “All it takes is someone with a bit of vision, a bit of get-up-and-go,” said Tyneside businessman Peter Elliott, who has a similar place in Wallsend.

“Craft” beer was £4.20 a pint. Now it’s closed again.

“We have realised that another cafe and bar is not what the area wants or needs,” says a statement on Lord Elliott’s Facebook page.

After a major refurbishment they now promise a “wee” one and to reopen in a few weeks as a tea room. It may be more the old town’s cuppa.

…and finally, last week’s column returned to what we termed the pesky apostrophe. Should it be declared redundant?

Malcolm Dunstone hoped not, but conceded that these days it appears optional – “hence Brands Hatch, Barclays Bank, Diners Club and Harrods are without apostrophes, but Christ’s College, Guy’s Hospital, Lloyd’s of London and Sadler’s Wells theatre still have them.”

His email headed “Desperate Dan”, Cliff Yarrow was more taken with the word pesky – “the only other time I’ve seen it in print was in the Dandy, when the comic was my principal source of entertainment.”

It’s true that the old cowpoke oft-employed the adjective, frequently followed by the noun “varmints”.

The Oxford traces “pesky” back to 1755, even before Desperate Dan’s time, supposes it a likely variant of “pesty” – “which suits the sense exactly.”

“Varmint” is simply vermin. These are desperate days for the apostrophe.