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Posted by Sean Cooper
June 15th, 2020 at 5:43 pm

We take number plates for granted these days, don’t we?

It’s impossible to imagine buying and owning a motor vehicle today and there being no need to register it and display a unique set of characters so it’s immediately identifiable. In fact, a lot of people would like to see things taken even further with bicycles also being forced to be registered so their riders could be held to account in law in the same way drivers are.

Of course, just as we haven’t always speed limits and laws on drink driving, we haven’t always had number plates for cars. It might be hard to imagine a time before cars had number plates, so let’s take a look at how they came about and how they’ve changed and developed over the years.

In the beginning

It wasn’t quite the lawless jungle you might have imagined in the years before we adopted a formal system of registering vehicles and displaying a number plate. At the end of the 19th century here in the UK, more and more cars were starting to take to the roads, so the government of the time came up with the Highways Act 1896.

Although the act didn’t contain any requirement to display a registration number, it did introduce a requirement for vehicles to be registered with the local council. The act also contained several other revolutionary ideas such as making lights compulsory, increasing the speed limit, and even formalising the idea of driving on the left hand side of the road.

The very first vehicle number plates

Here in the UK we were a little late coming to the vehicle number plate party, and we were beaten to it by France, Germany, the Netherlands and even the USA. The very first instance of a registration plate was the Paris Police Ordinance that came in on August 14th, 1893. Germany was next in 1896, but the first national registration plate scheme was called the “driving permit” and that was introduced in the Netherlands in 1898.

Probably because nobody at the time had any idea of just how many cars there would be relatively soon, the first plates in the Netherlands were simply sequential numbers starting with the number 1. Of course, it only took until 1906 before the powers that be realised a more robust numbering system needed to be adopted.

The first number plates in the USA were introduced as early as April 1901 in New York, but they were nothing like the long alphanumeric combinations we’re so used to seeing around the world today.

First UK number plates

It was the Motor Car Act 1903 that brought about the first instance of number plates becoming compulsory in the UK. Before the act came into law the owners of cars couldn’t be easily identified, so the government created the first UK number plate scheme that started with the number A1 that was issued in London.

These earliest plates had either a one or two-letter code which was then followed by a number between 1 and 9999 and if you think the clamour for the ‘best’ numbers is a relatively modern phenomenon, you’d better think again.

When the first UK numbers plates were being issued, Earl Russell queued outside the offices of the London Council all night in the hope of securing the A1 plate. He managed to get the number by a whole 5 seconds, and the whole event was recorded in the publication ‘Car Illustrated’ on 23rd December 1903.

The publication understatedly stated, “There has been some amount of competition for the securing of the number plate A 1 and this has been acquired by Earl Russell for his Napier car. A Mr. L. H. Oliver of Edgware claims the distinction of personally handing the certificate for A 1 over to Earl Russell.”

It wasn’t any sort of random allocation, however, as even in those earliest of days there was a sensible method applied for issuing numbers. The letter or pair of letters at the start of the first plates represented the area where the vehicle was registered. Back then, the letter A was assigned to London, B represented Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire got C and so on.

Of course, the limited combinations afforded by this system soon began to run out as other up and coming cities needed their own registration numbers and area codes. This is where two letters at the start of plates came in, so AA was given to Hampshire, AB went to Worcester etc.

A number of letters were held back, however, which at the time were G, I, S, V and Z as they were designated to represent registering authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Still not enough!

If we were coming up with a system like number plates today, whoever was tasked with designing the system would likely create it so it would be impossible to run out of combinations for quite some time. That wasn’t the case back in the early days of UK registration plates, and by 1932 they were starting to run out of combinations.

Instead of two letters at the start of the plate and up to for numbers at the end, the new system went with up to three letters at the start that would be followed by up to three numbers. Even though this new system offered a vastly increased number of possible combinations it still wasn’t enough, and another system had to be introduced by the middle of the 20th century.

About face

It’s amazing the authorities hadn’t learned their lesson by this point and just decided to add an additional letter and increase the numbers to four instead of three. Instead, in the 1950s they decided to just swap the letters and numbers around to create a new set of reversed versions of the existing system.

This effectively doubled the number of combinations available, which with hindsight was never going to be anywhere near enough to cope with the booming car industry and the exponential increase in new vehicles needing to be registered.

While there would already have been a plate like AHX 1 issued under the existing system, the new system meant there could now be 1 AHX as well. Perhaps more significantly, this move also signaled the start of the private plates we think of today as there were now three-letter words available on plates for the first time.

Interestingly, although the authorities hadn’t had the foresight to realise the new system wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the amount of new numbers that would soon be needed, they did realise what would happen if they didn’t restrict what letter combinations could be issued.

Among the three-letter combinations that were banned from the word go were the likes of ‘GOD, ‘JEW’, ‘SEX, ‘SOD’, ‘BUM’ and ‘ARS’. Someone was even bright enough to include ‘DUW’ on the banned list as that was the Welsh word for God!

Where’s the Q?

As the numbers once again began to run short, in 1983 it was decided to start using the letter Q more than it had been previously. Before then, the letter Q had been used specifically for temporary car imports.

Then we started dating

One thing we take for granted today was still missing from number plates until as recently as 1963, and that was any form of dating on number plates. For an almost unimaginable 60 years, number plates were dateless. You tell where they were issued if you knew the codes, but nothing about the plate indicated when the vehicle had been registered.

In 1963, as a number of local authorities were starting to run out of registration numbers, the suffix system was finally introduced. This new system added a letter at the end of the plate that made it immediately obvious to anyone looking at it what year the plate was issued in.

The new plates, therefore, had three letters followed by three numbers and a further letter at the end that denoted the year. The format for 1963 would, therefore, be something like AAA 111A, with the A at the end meaning the vehicle was registered in 1963. A year later in 1964, the letter at the end changed to a B, it went to a C in 1965 and so on.

Changing designs

It wasn’t until 1973 that the design of the number plates we know today was adopted. Before then, plates had white or silver characters on a black background, and these would remain legal for those already registered. From 1973 though, all new plates had to be reflective with black letters on a white background on the front of the vehicle, and black letters on a yellow background at the rear.

A year later in 1974, a centralised computerised system for vehicle registrations known as the DVLC came into operation, and responsibility for registering vehicles was taken away from local councils.

Won’t they ever learn?

You’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult in these modern times to come up with a numbering system that had so many possible combinations that we wouldn’t run short and it wouldn’t become outdated for decades; but apparently not.

Obviously, having a letter denoting the year of registration would only last for a maximum of 26 years, and even less as letters like Z and O were not to be used. Therefore, in 1983 the suffix letter for the year was switched to a prefix, so 1983 plates started going through the alphabet again with an A at the start.

Where we are now

You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to realise it wouldn’t be too long until that system ran out of numbers too, so the system we have today came into being in 2001.

Although some people still struggle to understand our current system, it actually makes a lot of sense once you do understand it, and the fact the date numbers change twice a year means many, many more combinations are now possible.

The local region where the vehicle was registered is represented by the first two letters and the two numbers that follow tell you the period when the vehicle was registered. The number plate is then completed with three more letters that don’t have any meaning.

It’s been calculated that this current system could last until at least the year 2049, and it could all start again with a fresh set of possibilities then by simply reversing the format once more.