Number Plates: An Historical Overview
By Laura Murphy Of regtransfers
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Just as the auto world has seen a series of changes and developments over the years, so has the UK car registrations system. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the production of early cars was developing at a swift speed. As the number of motorists increased, so did the necessity for a car tracking system. The result was the Motor Car Act.
Motor Car Act (1903): Once initial ideas such as naming automobile were rejected, a rule was passed that required all drivers to display an alphanumeric registration plate. Although cars were being issued with registrations in 1903, it did not become a legal requirement until January 1st 1904.
The Origins of the UK Number Plates System
Early number plates (1903-1932) consisted of a letter code (either single character or a pair) denoting the issuing authority and a sequential identification number. Early cars, such as BSA's 1907 RWD cars through to Austin's 1922 Austin 7, would have been required to display these plates. Unlike today's registrations, these were dateless, meaning that a vehicle's age was not revealed. (Today, these dateless plates are very popular with personalised number plates buyers for this very reason).
Combinations for the early plates ran from A1 to YY9999. At this time, the letter area codes were issued alphabetically, according to the population in each authority's area. Therefore, the letter "A" was the area code for London, while "B" was allocated to Lancashire, and so on.
Today there are certain combinations that are not issued by the DVLA. This is because they may be viewed as offensive. Similarly, there were certain letter combinations omitted from the original system. Examples are BF (standing for Bloody Fool, a popular acronym at the time) and DD, which was understood to be a form of alcoholic deliria. ER, the then royal cipher, was also removed. It was, however, commenced by Cambridgeshire in 1922.Upon reaching 9999, 1932 saw the need for an extension of the original system as the production of cars sped up. The extension ranged from AAA1 to YYY999. Automobiles of that era, such as BSA's 1937 Scout Series 4, would have been issued with these registrations. By the 1950s, a reversal of the scheme was even introduced in some areas. The invention of the car was proving to be a major phenomenon.
The Systems That Followed
The Suffix System: 1963 was the year a new system was introduced. For the first time, vehicles now had age identifiers, which came in the form of a letter at the end of the registration and these were issued alphabetically each year, starting with the letter "A" for 1963 and so on. Some areas did not adopt the year letter for the first two years, sticking to their own schemes but, in 1965, adding the year letter was made compulsory.
The Prefix System:
Once the suffix system had become exhausted, the next practical step was to use the format of reversal once again. From 1982 to 2001, the age identifying letter featured at the start of registrations, ranging from A1AAA to Y999YYY.
The Current System:
In September 2001, the existing system was introduced. Today's plates consist of a "local memory tag" (a two-letter regional identifier), followed by a two-digit year identifier. Three random serial letters complete the registration. For the first time, there are two issue dates per year, taking place in March and September. March's year code starts with an 0 and September's starts with a 5. The year follows. Therefore, a registration issued in September 2003 contains the year code 53. This new system has been designed to last for at least 50 years.
Choosing Your Own Plate
Private number plates are becoming increasingly popular as a way of personalising one's car. Dateless registrations (originally issued between 1903 and 1963), some of which have managed to survive to this day, are very popular due to their rarity and striking, succinct format.
Concerns for Authenticity:
Many number plate fans choose to purchase dateless registrations. There is a debate amongst motorists over this particular issue. While some believe that displaying traditional registrations on modern cars is wrong, others do not agree.
Removing registrations from their original vehicles does, unfortunately, break a link between a classic car and its original number plate. Although a registration issued to a car in 1903 can still be valid on the same vehicle today (a distinction of the British system), one must consider that many vehicles have inevitably been destroyed through time. And, in many cases, the number plate went with them. The remaining plates, therefore, are extremely rare. If not sold and placed on newer vehicles, they would be lost forever. For example, the registration T 8, the earliest known celebrity cherished registration, owned by Music Hall artist, Harry Tate (1873-1940), is now owned by Johnny Tate of the sugar company, Tate & Lyle. If it hadn't been re-issued, this plate would have died along with its original vehicle many years ago. Another concern that some motorists may have, particularly vintage or classic car enthusiasts, is that a personalised number plate compromises an older car's authenticity and breaks its link with its own history. However, it is important to be aware that there are certain concessions for classic and vintage cars: Vehicles manufactured prior to 1 January 1973 may display traditional black plates, with white, silver or grey characters.
There is also the choice of either modern plastic plates or traditional metal ones. This is helpful for one who has an interest in private registrations but wishes to maintain authenticity. It is also important to know that replacing an original registration need not be irreversible. When assigning a personalised registration it is perfectly possible to retain the car's original number on a retention certificate (V778/1). The process incurs a one-off payment of £80, plus an annual fee of £25 for each year one wishes to retain the number. Restoration of the original registration can be achieved very simply. Owners of older cars have found that there are numerous number plates options available. It is perfectly possible for one to find that the addition of a carefully selected personalised number plate may enhance a vintage or classic car's charm even further.
I would also like to take this opportunity to inform you of our free company magazine, Regtransfers.co.uk: The World of Personal Number Plates (current circulation: 60,000). This is a professional 84-page, full colour, glossy magazine, jam-packed with a variety of articles, buyers' stories, features, news and much more. The current issue stars celebrity chef and TV host, James Martin. He discusses his passion for food and fast cars, and shows off his new personalised registration, the fun and fitting 6 HEF (chef).
The magazine is available absolutely free of charge from this link