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Posted by showplatesexpress
January 16th, 2020 at 2:40 pm


Number plates appeared with the earliest cars at the turn of the last century.  It quickly became apparent that vehicles could not be linked visibly to their owners and so the Motor Car Act of 1903 set out the first motoring regulations governing speed limits, driving licences and car registration plates.  In the following one hundred years, the number plate regulations have been updated and amended on several occasions to reflect the increasing number of vehicles on the road and also modern materials such as reflective coated plastics.

Empty vehicle registration plate with set of numerals and letters

The current regulations were revised in 2001 and will continue in terms of the plate format until at least 2051.  They cover England, Wales and Scotland – Northern Ireland has its own system.  There will doubtless be other amendments that come on board such as the concept of a green number plate for fully electric vehicles but these plates are currently still at the drawing board stage and will still have to comply with modern formatting and current rules.

The key things that a number plate should tell someone are:-

  • The geographical area of first registration which is represented by the first two letters which are called the DVLA memory tag which links the car to a location or city. The DVLA used to have regional offices which handled local registrations but these were axed in 2013 in a move towards total centralisation and digitalisation.  Dealerships now handle new registrations online but their allocated codes still tend to reflect their previous traditional regional code in the days of the local DVLA offices.  The three letters, ‘I’, ‘Q’ and ‘Z’ are never used in the location identifier
  • The age of the vehicle as represented by the numbers which indicate the year of manufacture, these are referred to as ‘the age identifier’. Registrations are twice yearly so, in March of any given year, the number given will simply follow the actual year so 19 to represent 2019, 20 to indicate 2020 and so on.  The second registration tranche which takes place every September uses the year of registration but adds the numeral, 50, to it.  So a car registered between September 2019 and December 2019 will have the number, 69 (50+19 from 2019) and then as the year turns into 2020, that number will increase to 70 up until March 2020 when the new registrations will use ‘20’ until the following September
  • The identity of the registered keeper via the DVLA database. The use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition or ANPR has made it very quick and easy for law enforcement agencies to check out any number plate
Mercedes showing number plate

Anything that interferes with the appearance, legibility or clarity of a number plate is an offence as well as a possible MOT failure.  The criteria surrounding how a number plate should appear are rigidly defined in the DVLA regulations and most reputable platemakers will adhere to these as their identity is also on the bottom of the plate.  The type of things that will catch the hawk eye of a Road Traffic Officer and could land you a £1,000 fine might include:-

  • A dirty plate that is covered in mud or filth and is not legible, a common problem in the winter months when the roads are wet and local authorities use rock salt to grit in icy weather which coats number plates in a chalky white film
  • A crack or split in the number plate meaning the characters are not easily legible
  • A change in the font or the style of the characters – there is only one font permitted and italics cannot be used either
  • The addition of badges or emblems other than those on a strictly prescribed list
  • The use of screw heads or bolts in a certain location on the plate to change how the characters appear so that a number or letter effectively is altered to look like something else
  • A baby plate, a tiny plate that does not conform to the specified standard size
  • Any colour change, the standard is black lettering on white for the front plate and yellow with black characters on the rear of the vehicle

Read: Which Number Plates are illegal?

Personalised or private plates are very popular and with the current’ new style’ format since 2001, there are some interesting variations always coming onto the market.  Using the selection of characters to make a word is eagerly anticipated every year as the bi-yearly release appears on a six-month rotation in March and September.  But these plates are subject to exactly the same regulations about presentation and format as any other plate.  These include:-

  • Number plates must be made from a reflective material
  • The front plates must be black characters on a white background
  • The rear plate must yellow with black lettering
  • Characters must be 79mm tall and 50mm wide
  • The thickness of the letters and numbers usually referred to as ‘the stroke’ must be 14mm
  • The space between each character is defined as 11mm
  • The gap between the numbers and the three random letters at the end should be 33mm
  • The margins, top, bottom and at the side of the plate must be 11mm

Read: Why are Number Plates Yellow and White?

Great Britain and European flag on a Vehicle Registration Plate

A vehicle is allocated a registration at the point of manufacture or import and this remains with it for its life although you can use a personalised or private plate on a car but if it were to be sold, this is unlikely to go with it as the plate owner will want to use this on another vehicle.  A private plate differs in that it can be allocated to more than one vehicle so it is not vehicle specific and is not an identity system as such to record the age of the car and the location of its first registration; the former is one reason why private plates are so popular as you can disguise the age of your vehicle.  However, ANPR will record the licensed keeper via the DVLA even if the other information about the vehicle is not visibly apparent.