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Posted by Sean Cooper

What one person considers extremely funny could completely pass many other people by without raising so much as a mild smirk, and number plates are no exception. Car number plates can be even more polarising because there are so few characters available to get the message across.

Even so, it doesn’t stop people trying, even if you have to know who the person that owns the vehicle is in some cases to have any chance of getting in on the joke.

To be fair, the restrictions the UK number plate system places on our ability to be funny with our license plates, leads at times to some truly incredible creativity. And actually, although sometimes we can sort of see what someone is attempting to say with their plate, the way they’re trying to go about it using completely inappropriate characters can be even funnier than the attempted word or phrase itself.

Obvious successes

At the moment, the UK uses a system where new plates start with two letters representing the area where the plate was registered followed by the two numbers designating the date, and then there are three more letters. Where the plate is issued has a huge bearing on what can be created, but the date can spark some massive opportunities.

For example, in September 2005 the date number was 55 throughout Great Britain, which created the opportunity for lots of words with SS in them, such as SU55 PCT. Ok, the word suspect only has one S, and the E between the P and C is missing, but you get the picture? Of course, any truly obvious ones are held back by the DVLA to be auctioned off, and any that are deemed to be rude or offensive are never allowed in the first place.

Some obvious successes that slipped through the net include the likes of UT02 SER and TE51 CLE, but there are some the DVLA probably wouldn’t allow today that were issued in more innocent times, such as V14GRA and P54 CHO.

All may not be what it appears

Of course, if you do a Google search for something like “funny UK number plates” you’ll come across loads of images that include some thoroughly obscene plates on cars. Once upon a time, you would have to make a judgement for yourself on face value as to whether the plates are real or if someone had been playing with Photoshop, but not anymore.

These days, you can go to the gov.uk website and run a number plate check for free, to see whether that plate really is registered in the UK. For example, there’s an image out there of a guy posing in front of a black Range Rover with a plate that’s particularly offensive if you know that particular swear word, but when you enter it into the government website it comes up “Vehicle details could not be found.”

The website is actually designed to tell you whether a car is insured or not, but it’s a great way to find out if the plate you are seeing in an image is real or if it’s just the creation of someone with an over-active imagination and too much time on their hands.

Sometimes, however, you can see a plate that’s real and it leaves you wondering how that person actually got their hands on it. For example, the plate FAT 130Y really does exist, but it’s currently on a car that’s no more exotic than a black Volkswagen. You have to think that a plate that reads FAT BOY would be worth a healthy amount of money, so how did someone driving such a modest car come by a plate that could be worth more than the car?

And the winner is….

As I said previously, what one person finds funny might not tickle everyone, but there’s one particular example out there that really did make me smile. At first, I assumed the picture was a fake, but when I looked it up I found that not only did the plates exist, they were also registered to the car models they are shown on in the image.

Individually, the two plates are ok, but when the two cars are parked next to each other as they are in the image, they really do raise a smile. The first plate is 2 BE, which is a plate that doesn’t give away the age of the vehicle and probably cost the owner a considerable sum to buy. The other plate is NOT 2B, so I don’t have to spell out what’s going on there when the two cars are placed next to each other, do I?

The whole thing looks and sounds too good and too convoluted to be true, but the 2 BE plate genuinely is registered to a silver Aston Martin, which is what it’s shown on in the picture. The NOT 2BE plate is registered to a green Land Rover and not a black one as in the picture, but it’s not a stretch to assume the owner has changed their black Range Rover for a new green one since the picture was taken.

It’s different across the Atlantic

If you want to see some very obvious private plate creations, America is where you need to be. When you see certain words spelled out quite obviously on some American license plates with no need to read a 5 as an S or a 4 as an A, you could be thinking it’s something of a free-for-all over there. Well, in some ways it is and in other ways, it isn’t.

American plates don’t follow the same sort of alphanumeric formula as they do over here, although different states do have different rules, and some are much stricter than others. States do tend to have plates that have their own unique characteristics, but it’s usually the colour or design rather than the actual characters that mark them out as being from one state or another.

However, if you get what they call a “vanity plate” over there, you can’t expect to keep for good if you move. If you move to a new state to remain there indefinitely you are supposed to register your vehicle in your new state. Although you may be able to get the same characters on a plate in the new state, you could find that what was allowed where you used to live isn’t allowed in your new home.

This thing about states having their rules, designs and slogans came to prominence when a legal case appeared in the news recently. A federal judge ordered the state of Kentucky to cough up more than $150,000 to several different groups representing a self-described atheist for refusing to allow him a vanity license plate that read “IM GOD.”

The man who wanted the plate was called Ben Hart, and he applied for the plate in Kentucky when he moved there from Ohio in 2016. Ohio is a state that has the words “One Nation Under God” underneath the license number on its plates, and the state didn’t have a problem issuing IM GOD to Mr. Hart.

Kentucky has a similar message on its plates that reads “In God We Trust,” but it rejected Ben’s application for IM GOD as it declared it was “not in good taste.” The state also made the argument that such a license plate might also distract other drivers, and might even lead to angry or possibly violent confrontations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) took up Ben’s case and sued the state of Kentucky in 2016. In February of this year, Federal Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove issued the award of the $150,000, three months after he decided to declare the actions of Kentucky unconstitutional in this matter.

A big part of the reason for the Judge’s decision was the fact Kentucky had previously issued plates such as “IM4GOD” and “LUVGOD,” which therefore implied its position in such matters wasn’t necessarily viewpoint neutral.

The judge said, “The Commonwealth does not allow drivers to say anything they want with a license plate message. That’s fine, but the First Amendment also imposes limits on the Commonwealth. And in this case … the Commonwealth went too far.”

Various other states have declared certain things unacceptable on number plates, although, after the Ben Hart case, they may want to get some legal advice before banning anything else. For example, the state of New York will not allow any plate that has the words “Police” or “God” on it, and the word “Pimpala” has been banned in Florida, which is a rude play on the Chevrolet Impala model name.

In some ways, it’s quite similar to here in the UK. If you want a plate in the US with something on it that refers to stuff like drugs, booze, religion, race or boasting about something, you might be in for a bit of a fight.