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A Brief History of Vehicle Registration Plates

BY PETER HURST

With the new ‘67’ number plates just around the corner you may be interested as to how and why vehicle plates are structured the way they are. There have been four major alterations to this system so far as registrations try to keep up with the sheer amount of vehicles on the road. So here is a quick look into the history of registration plates of Britain.

 

1903
The Motor Car Act is issued into force, requiring every motor vehicle to be placed on an official register and to adorn an alphanumerical plate, including motorbikes. This was in part due to an increase in vehicle accidents becoming more frequent; being able to identify vehicles became a necessity.

‘A1’ was the first plate issued and it belonged to Earl Russell, who is believed to have camped outside the registry office all night to ensure he got the plate he was after. As you can see the first plates didn’t carry any dates, in fact this was the case for the first 60 years! These dateless plates are now in very high demand due to how unique they are. Take a look at the following dateless examples from NewReg.co.uk.

1904+
The Motor Car Act becomes compulsory.

1963
As you can imagine it didn’t take long until the registration plates were reaching their limit of combinations. The initial way this was countered was to simply reverse the digits and letters, going instead from ‘ABC 123’ to ‘123 ABC’ or by adding additional digits. Though eventually it was solved when the Suffix system was introduced.

The Suffix system allowed for a yearly re-use of registration numbers by adding a letter at the end of every plate that changed each year to show a vehicles registration year.

At this point, and since 1903 everything to do with this system had been done manually which meant it was very time consuming, leading to an over-hall of the entire system. This new system involved some much needed updated technologies such as computers and improved the speed of police checks and registrations, among other areas.

1973
Prior to this date number plates had only made minimal changes to their physical design. But with 1973 came the requirement to have reflective number plates that had to be particular colours. The front was to be black writing on a white background and yellow background on the back.

1974
The Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) takes over, removing vehicle registration responsibilities from local councils.

1983
The Prefix system comes into play, moving the letter that indicates the year to the beginning of the registration. There are three sections to this version; the first being the yearly letter beginning with A in 1983, the two letters on the end show where the plate was registered using its area code, while the remaining have no specific meaning but do provide some variation.

2001
This is when the current system was put into use, showing local region, date of registration and random letters to create unique codes. This order and structure is used as Police evidence showed that people tend to remember letters over numbers. Plus, as we read from left to right it made sense to have the local code at the beginning. You can see more of an overview on this here.

This system allows for a phenomenal count of registrations every year and once it peaks it can simply be reversed.