In the very earliest days of cars when they used to have a man walking in front of them carrying a flag, all you had to do if there was an incident of some sort was speak to the man with the flag or the actual driver of the car to find out their identity. As these mechanically propelled carriages increased in power, speed and numbers it started to become obvious that some other means of identifying the vehicle and its owner was becoming necessary. The Motor Car Act 1903 was the solution the powers that be came up with, and from January 1st 1904 it became compulsory under the law for every motor car on UK roads to be registered and easily identifiable with a number plate displayed on the vehicle itself.
Where it all started
It easy today to take number plates completely for granted, but it’s hard to imagine the moment when the very first registration number was issued to the first driver who then had to display that number on his car. That very first number plate was issued to an Earl Russell, and the number itself was a clear, simple and bold A1.
That first registration number wasn’t designated as A1 just because A is the first letter of the alphabet though. There was a clear system even back then, and the system stated that registration numbers need to be a one or two-letter code followed by a number between 1 and 9999. At the time, A was the letter code assigned to London, B was for Lancashire, and so on. Only once the letters of the alphabet had been exhausted and new up-and-coming towns and cities needed their own designations were two-letter codes introduced, such as AA for Hampshire and AB for Worcestershire.
The way number plates have to look today is very stringent, but although most of the first number plates were black with silver or white characters, there was a little more leeway years ago. Think about the Jaguar E Type for example. They always had their registration plate painted or stuck on the bonnet, but you’d soon get pulled by the police today if you tried doing that on your new car.
Today, registration plates must adhere to very strict guidelines on colour, size, font and materials, and good luck to you if you stray from the mandated path of registration plate specification.
One of the big deals about registration numbers today is the fact they give away the approximate date the vehicle was registered, but early registration numbers paid no heed to the date. The numbering systems changed over time as each system simply began to run out of new combinations, but there was nothing in the numbering systems to denote a date for a whole 60 years from the introduction of the first registration number.
Closing a loophole
It can be amazing when we look back in history how things that would be unthinkable (for good reasons) today didn’t raise an eyebrow back in the day, and there’s a beauty relating to registration numbers for vehicles. Incredibly, until the 1920 Roads Act came into force, there was nothing to stop local authorities from operating two different registration plate registers; one for cars and the other for motorcycles. Inevitably, it meant a car and a motorbike in the same registering authority to have exactly the same number, but the 1920 act put a stop to such madness.
Another anomaly that act of law tidied up was the requirement for a vehicle to be issued with a new number if the owner moved from one area to another. Until 1920, if a vehicle owner moved to live where there was a different registering authority they would have to be issued with a new number for their vehicle from the new authority. The old number would then be reassigned to another vehicle in the area of operation of the original registering authority.
You surely didn’t have to be some sort of expert to imagine how confusing, inconvenient and thoroughly ridiculous that would be, so it’s hard to imagine anyone would have had a problem with the 1920 Roads Act bringing that particular piece of bureaucratic lunacy to an end.
Changes of system
Dateless system from 1903-1932
The first plates started with A1 and as time went by and more combinations were needed, registrations went to having two letters and numbers up to 9999.
Dateless system from 1932-1963
As combinations of two letters and four numbers started to run out, a new system of three letters and three numbers was brought in to meet the demand for new plates. The first of these was ‘ARF 1’ which was issued in Staffordshire in July 1932, but it wasn’t long before these also began to run short and another system was needed. The solution was remarkably simple but effective, and it was to switch the numbers and letters around. Instead of three letters followed by three numbers, the new plates would be three numbers followed by three letters.
Unfortunately, or fortunately for those with a commercial mind, the introduction of three letters meant a lot of three-letter words were now available. This led to certain combinations such as ‘ARS’, ‘BUM’, ‘GOD’, ‘SEX’, ‘SOD’ and others being banned.
Suffix system from 1963-1983
The next system was introduced in 1963, and this was when registration numbers started to reflect the year of issue. These plates started with three letters followed by three numbers again, but a fourth letter was added at the end to denote the year of registration and in 1963 that letter was A, in 1964 it was B, and so on.
In 1973 there was another big change, and this was when the design of registration plates was standardised to reflective style plates that had black letters on a white background at the front of the vehicle, and on a yellow background at the rear.
Prefix system 1983-2001
Suffix numbers eventually started to run short, so the easy thing to do to create more available numbers was to once again switch the numbers and letters around again. The letter A could once again be used for the first year of the new plates (1983), but now it was followed by three numbers and then three letters. The last of the two letters referred to the area code of the issuing authority.
Current system 2001-today
Our current system was introduced in 2001. It uses two letters at the start that represent the area followed by two numbers that represent the date, and then there are three more random letters. This new system also saw another big change to two changes per year instead of just the previous one. Until this point, plates changed to the new registration year on August 1st every year. Now the plate changes on March 1st and again on September 1st every year.
The dating system started with 51 for the six-month period from September 1st 2001, and the next change was to 02 from March 1st 2002. In September 2002 it changed to 52, in March 2003 it went to 03, and so on.
Although people had already cottoned-on that certain combinations of numbers and letters could make some registration plates particularly desirable before plates that gave the year of registration away came in, a whole new demand was created when plates that date were introduced.
While lots of people like to have the latest plate to show they have a brand new model and they even delay the purchase of a new car until the new plate comes into use, many people with older cars like to have dateless plates so onlookers can’t instantly tell how old their car might be. Because no new dateless number plates are being issued, the old dateless plates are a finite resource and increasing demand means these plates can command high, very high, and sometimes ludicrously high prices when they change hands.
It going to be a while before a new system is needed and introduced here in the UK, but there are ideas kicking around such as different plates designs to differentiate electric cars from those powered by internal combustion engines. As far as numbering is concerned though, the current system could continue quite happily until the 99 plate is used in 2049 and the 50 plate in 2050.