The history of number plates

At the turn of the 20 th century, mechanical vehicles became increasingly popular in the UK, which also meant there were a lot of road traffic accidents. As a result, it was clear that there needed to be a way of identifying cars as it happened more frequently. The Motor Car Act of 1903 helped solve this problem and from January 1904 it became a legal requirement for all vehicles to have a registered number plate.

The very first number plate was issued in London and simply read A1. It was registered to Earl Russell, a man who camped over-night to secure the plate and became the first person to own not only a number plate, but a personalised number plate. From this point onwards the number plate system changed four times until it reached the system we use today.

Within this period at the beginning of the number plate laws, they were dateless, therefore you could not work out what year any vehicle had been manufactured.
At the beginning, the characters were comprised of local council identifiers of 3 letters and 3 random numbers such as ABC 123. During the 1950s the numbers began to run out and from here on the characters were reversed, so number plates were arranged like: 123 ABC. Another factor that complicated the system was that cars and motorcycles were on separate registers, meaning both a car and motorcycle could have the same number plate. This was changed in 1920 when The Roads Act was passed and each authority had a single register for all vehicles.

The 1920 Roads Act also helped clear up any confusion when it came to moving from one area to another. Initially, if you moved to a new area you would be assigned a new plate and your old one would be given to another vehicle in the area. The act put a stop to this and therefore number plates remained the same no matter where you lived.

It was during this period that the Suffix system came into place. Councils were running out of number plates so this system created a plate where a letter to indicate the year of the number plate was added at the end. Now number plates had an extra character added to them and the 1963 plates would be formatted AAA 111A, 1964 AAA 111B and so on.

The administrative system surrounding number plates was completely disorganised and therefore police checks and other tasks that required number plate records were time consuming. With the rise of technology, it was decided to centralise the system using computers, this took nine years but eventually meant that in 1974 the DVCL was created. A centralised system that took the responsibility of number plates away from local councils.

During this time, the design of number plates also changed drastically. Since 1903 they had been black with silver/white lettering, from 1973 it was a legal requirement that all newly registered vehicles were reflective with black letters on a white background at the front and a yellow background at the rear. Any vehicles registered before this were allowed to keep their old number plates.

In 1983 the Prefix system was created whereby the letter that showed the year the vehicle was created was moved to the beginning of the number plate. The plate can be broken into three sections:
-The first letter is the year the car was registered, e.g. A is for 1983, B for 1984 etc.
-The last two letters are an area code that reveal where the plate was registered
-The first of the three letters and three numbers provide variation for the number plate

The letters I, O, U and Z were not released as Prefix letters and Q was used when the age and origin on the vehicle was unidentifiable.
The system lasted until 2001 and of course, the system could only last so long (around 20 years) so it was back to the drawing board to design a new system that could be used.

The system that we use now was created in 2001 when police evidence suggested that people remembered letters better than numbers, so it made sense to put the local code lettering at the beginning of the plate. This resulted in the new system that we have now:
-The first letters mark the place where the vehicle was originally registered, for example, BA means the vehicle was registered in Birmingham.
-The date of the registration is indicated by its Date ID and this changes every 6 months in March and September. 51 was the first combination to be used, showing that the vehicle was registered from September 2001 and then went onto 02 from March 2002. This system continued until 2010 and from there on the numbers 10 and 60 have been used since.

-The last three letters are again random, but can now include the letter Z. The new system caters for up to 12.6 million number plates each year and is therefore a lot more sustainable than previous designs. If you’re looking to add a personal touch to your own number plate then a company such as New Reg allows you to by your own private plate.

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