History of British Number Plates


Number plates can be such fun once you understand a few basic principles. If you are new to number plates the first thing you need to be aware of is the different type of plates that can be displayed. To truly understand this we need to take a quick history lesson.


(Full listing of all number plate formats)

The requirement to display the registration mark of a vehicle in the United Kingdom has existed since 1904. Most motor vehicles, which are used on public roads, are required by law to display them. The only exception being official cars of the reigning monarch.

The Motor Car Act 1903, which came into force on 1 January 1904, required all motor vehicles to be entered on to the Government's vehicle register and to carry number plates. The Act was passed in order that vehicles could be easily traced in the event of an accident or contravention of the law.

Before 1932

The first series of number plates were issued in 1903 and ran until 1932, using the series “A 1” to “YY 9999”. The letter or pair of letters indicated the local authority in whose area the vehicle was registered, for example A – London, B - Lancashire, C – West Riding, etc. In England and Wales the letter codes were initially allocated in order of population size (by the 1901 census), whilst Scotland and Ireland had special sequences incorporating the letters "S" and "I" respectively, which were allocated alphabetically: “IA” = Antrim, “IB” = Armagh, etc. When a licensing authority reached 9999, it was allocated another two letter mark, but there was no pattern to these subsequent allocations as they were allocated on a first come first served basis. There are three interesting anomalies where a zero has been issued - The Lord Provost of Edinburgh has “S 0” and his Glasgow counterpart has “G 0” while the official car of the Lord Provost of Aberdeen has “RG 0”. In addition the Lord Mayor of London has the registration “LB 0”.

1932 to 1963

By 1932, the available numbers within this scheme were running out, and an extended scheme was introduced. This scheme consisted of three letters and three numbers, taken from the series ‘’AA 1” to “YYY 999”. The letters I, Q, and Z were never used, as they were considered too easy to mistake for other letters or numbers or were reserved for special use, such as the use of I and Z for Irish registrations and Q for temporary imports.

The three-letter scheme continued to denote the region of registration and replaced the old one-letter scheme, which quickly ran out of available marks. However in some areas, the available numbers with this new scheme started to run out in the 1950s, and in those areas, a reversed sequence was introduced, i.e. “1 AAA” to “999 Y” The ever-increasing popularity of the car can be gauged by noting that these sequences ran out within ten years, and by the beginning of the 1960s, a further change was made in very popular areas, introducing 4-number sequences with the one and two letter area codes, but in the reverse direction to the early scheme (i.e. “1 A” to “9999 YY”).

1960s to 1982

In 1963, numbers were running out once again, and an attempt was made to create a national scheme to alleviate the problem. The three letter, up to three number system was kept, but a letter suffix was added, which changed every year. In this scheme, numbers were drawn from the range “AAA 1A” to “YYY 999A” for the first year, then ‘AAA 1B’ to “YYY 999B” for the second year, and so on. Some areas did not adopt the year letter for the first two years, sticking to their own schemes, but in 1965 adding the year letter was made compulsory.

As well as yielding many more available numbers, it was a handy way for vehicle buyers to know the age of the vehicle immediately. At first the year letter changed on 1 January every year, but car retailers started to notice that buyers would tend to wait towards the end of the year for the new letter to be issued, so that they could get a "newer" car. This led to major peaks and troughs in sales over the year, and to help flatten this out somewhat the industry lobbied to get the month of registration changed from January to August. This was done in 1967, a year that had two letter changes: "E" came in January, and "F" came in August.

1983 to 2001

By 1982, the year suffixes had reached Y and so from 1983 onwards the sequence was reversed again, so that the year letter — starting again at "A" — preceded the numbers then the letters of the registration. The available range was then “A21 AAA” to “Y999 YYY”, the numbers 1-20 being held back for the government's proposed, and later implemented, DVLA select registration sales scheme.  The changes in 1983 also brought the letter Q into use - although on a very small and limited scale. It was used on vehicles of indeterminate age, such as those assembled from kits, substantial rebuilds, or imported vehicles where the documentation is insufficient to determine the age. There was a marked increase in the use of Q registrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fuelled by car crime. Many stolen vehicles had false identities given to them, and when this was discovered and the original identity could not be determined, a Q registration would be issued to that vehicle. It was seen as an aid to consumer protection.

It should be noted that the age denoted by a registration plate is the date a vehicle was first imported into the United Kingdom and registered with that registration system. For instance a vehicle manufactured in say 1991 and registered in Northern Ireland may be given a 1993 registration letter when it is registered on the Swansea system. This also applies to vehicles imported from other countries. This is apparent by examining the registration document where it will show a different date of manufacture to the date of first registration. The date of manufacture is notional though as vehicles may be manufactured and stored unused, for many years in some cases, and then registered as new when first registered into the system. This allows manufacturers to sell cars as new allowing for shipping, storing at dockyards etc.

In 1989 a lot of these stored old models were registered in advance of legislation that required all new vehicles registered on or after 1 January 1990 to have catalytic converters fitted. This included vehicles held in storage and out of production for several years, in some cases five years or more.

By the late 1990s, the range of available numbers was once again starting to run out, at the same time the Department of Transport were put under increasing pressure to introduce biannual changes in registration letters to help alleviate the bulge of registrations every August.

Biannual registrations (March and September) were introduced in 1999, still using the same prefix scheme of “A21 AAA” to “Y999 YYY”, although at this time the prefix was already at “T” with scope for just 5 more changes, end with “Y” issued in March 2001.

Current System

From September 2001 a totally new scheme was introduced abandoning the principles of the last 100 years. The new scheme was designed to be easier for crash or vehicle related crime witnesses to remember and be clearer to read, yet still fit within a normal standard plate size. The current version or new style as it often referred is made of 7 characters, 2 letters, 2 numbers and 3 letters. The first two letters are the regional identifiers, the following 2 numbers are the age identifiers and the last three letters are random.

 Description of new style format

From left to right the characters consist of:

   An area code (the local memory tag) consisting of two letters, the first relating to the region, the second the local registration office. Note that the letters I, Q and Z are not used in this code;

A two-digit age identifier, which changes twice a year, in March and September. The code is either the last two digits of the year itself (e.g. "05" for 2005) if issued between March and August, or else has 50 added (e.g. 55 for September 2005) if issued between September and February the following year;

A random three-letter sequence with no specific meaning beyond that distinguishing vehicles displaying the same initial four-character area and age sequence. The letters I and Q are excluded from the three-letter sequence, as are combinations that may appear offensive (including those in foreign languages).

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