Number Plates

The History of Number Plates

The World of Number Plates

One may be surprised to learn that the desire for an elegant, prestigious registration dates back to when the number plates system was first introduced. Lord Earl Russell was so eager to obtain the desirable plate A 1 (the first registration to be issued by London in 1903) that he queued all night outside the capital’s county council offices, securing it by a mere five seconds! As this shows, number plates have always made a statement, and the appeal continues to soar.

What Makes a Plate Desirable?

As with many things, popularity for a number plate is determined by rarity and desirability. Although all registrations are unique, it is ageless plates with low numbers (such as Sir Alan Sugar’s AMS 1) that are the most attractive. This is because succinct registrations are distinctive.

As well as this, low number plates, such as A 1 mentioned above, were issued many years ago. As countless registrations from the early period have been destroyed with the vehicle that carried it, this means that these types of registrations are rare.

As well as low number plates, those that accurately spell out a word, name or phrase are very popular.

Did you know? Jimmy Tarbuck is the owner of COM 1C, a fun plate, which clearly spells out the word “comic”, relating to the comedian’s profession.

A Brief History of the Number Plates System

On 1st January 1904, it became compulsory for all vehicles to display registrations. This Act was introduced by the British government as a way of keeping track of the growing number of automobiles on the road.

First Registrations: The first registrations were issued by local authorities. These consisted of a letter code (one or two characters) and an identification number. Letter codes were issued alphabetically by population size. As Lord Russell’s A 1 plate highlights, London was allocated the letter A and, finally, diminutive Rutland received FP. Remarkably, some of these early number plates remain, and have proven investment potential for today’s owners.

These registrations continued until 1932 with extensions being made to accommodate the rapid growth of vehicles on the road, right up until the 1960s. These plates did not have age identifiers and this is one of the reasons why they are so highly sought after today.

Did you know? Before the Motor Car Act was introduced, it was suggested that cars could be given names, just as ships are. In hindsight, this idea seems ludicrous. Luckily, the government had enough foresight to realise that this would not be practical.

The Introduction of Age Identifiers: 1963 saw the start of year identifiers in car registrations. This new system was similar to the old system, except that an age identifying letter was placed at the end of the registration. This started with the letter A in 1963, changing annually to the next letter in the alphabet. These suffix registrations are also popular amongst personalised number plates buyers as they work much in the same way as the ageless plates. Most cars on the road today are modern, so a registration from decades past is also very effective in disguising a vehicle’s age.

Following this system, which was short-lived, the prefix system was introduced in 1983. Many will be familiar with this scheme, which placed the age identifier at the start of the registration.

Today’s registrations, set up in September 2001, consist of two prefix letters (which refer to the location of the registration), a two-digit age identifier and three random letters. There are now two issue dates per year, taking place in March and September.

Did you know? When the current system was adopted, FO and FU were banned as letter pairs at the start of a registration due to possible offence being caused.

The Law

Although some motorists continue to break the law by adding decoration to their plates (such as logos and sporting emblems) or by altering the characters, this is illegal. The display of one national emblem, a 3D effect on the typeface and a coloured, non-reflective border are the only additions allowed in the UK.

Concessions: As the norm it is required that registrations must be displayed on a reflective plate (with a white background for front plates and yellow for rear) using standard font. However as all Triumph Stags were manufactured more than 40 years ago owners may apply to the DVLA for "Historic" status and display black metal plates with silver, white or grey characters. 

Classic and vintage car owners may also be pleased to hear that the removal of an original number plate from a vehicle need not be permanent. Those who are interested in personal number plates, but have concerns about separating a car from its own history, may hold the original number on a V778/1 certificate. This currently incurs a one-off payment of £80, plus an annual fee of £25 whilst retained.

Did you know? Not only may a car sporting an illegal number plate fail its MOT test, owners also face a fine of £1000, as well as the permanent confiscation of the offending registration.

A private registration can be a very pleasing addition to one’s car. The key rule to remember is that one may not display a registration that is newer than the vehicle one aims to put it on. With the option of traditional registrations available, perhaps one of these enviable plates would be the ultimate modification to one’s motor.

The basis for this Article was provided by Number Plates