Since the petrol engine began to replace the steam engine in the mid 1890s the popularity of the motor car has been explosive. By the early 1900s there was already a reputed 5000 cars on the road. With this rapid rise in car ownership came an equally rapid rise in car accidents and car crime and it soon became apparent that the government would have to devise a method of identifying vehicles and their owners.
The British vehicle registrations system began in 1903 with the passing of the Motor Car Act, though it didn’t actually come into force until 1st 1904. The Act stated that each Local Council was to set up its own Registration and Licensing Authority and that all vehicles within their catchment area would have to be registered with it at a cost of 20 shillings each. As the number of cars on the road continued to grow it was becoming clear that transport in general needed its own Government Department so in 1919 the Ministry of Transport was created to deal with motoring legislation. The Roads Act of 1920 was subsequently passed which, again, required all vehicles to be registered with their regional Registration and Licensing Authority but also required car manufacturers, vehicle repair shops and car dealers to apply for a General Licence which was the forerunner to the Trade Plates of today. Hackney carriages were also required to display a separate plate stating how many people the vehicle was legally allowed to carry.
Registrations from 1903 to 1932
The first system of dateless registration numbers was issued from 1903 and ran until 1932 using the series A1 to YY 9999. The single letter or pair of letters at the beginning of the registration, known as the Tag, indicated the local authority to which the vehicle was registered, (A= London, B = Lancashire, C = Yorkshire). In England and Wales the tags were initially allocated in preference to population size of given areas, whilst Scotland and Ireland had sequences using the letters S and I respectively, which were allocated in alphabetical order (IA = Antrim, IB = Armagh, etc). When a licensing authority reached 9999 it was allocated another tag but there was no pattern to these subsequent allocations, they were given out on a first come first served basis.
Registrations from 1932 to 1963
By 1932, registrations in the first Dateless system of number plates were beginning to run out so a new system had to be introduced. This consisted of three letters followed by, up to three numbers, taken from the series tripleA 1 to YYY 999. In this system the regional tags were the second and third letters in the set of three. The single letter tags were now dropped as prefixing them would have created duplicates of previous two-letter tags. The letters I and Z were not used on main land Briton as they were reserved for use in Irish registrations. The current Northern Irish system is similar to this dateless system but uses 4 numbers instead of 3. Q registration was only used for imports at this point. By the 1950’s, the available number plates within this second dateless registration system had, again, started to run out so a reversed sequence was introduced. The ever-increasing popularity of the car can be gauged by the fact that this reverse sequence began to run out within ten years of introduction, so by the beginning of the 1960s, a further, short term, system had to be introduced in some of the more densely populated parts of the country. This took the form of a four number sequence with the one and two letter regional tags on the end (1A to 9999 YY), in effect, a reversal of the very first dateless system.
Registrations from 1963 to 1982
The Suffix system of registration was introduced in 1963 in an attempt to create a national system that would alleviate the recurring problem of number plate sequences running out. The previous, – three letters followed by up to three numbers – system was kept, with a single letter added at the end, which changed every year. In this system, numbers were drawn from the range triple A 1A to YYY 999A for the first year, then triple A 1B to YYY 999B for the second year, and so on. Some regions didn’t take up the suffix letter immediately, preferring to stick to their old system until it ran out, but in 1965 the suffix letter became compulsory. This new system had two advantages over earlier ones. Firstly; yielding many more available registrations than previous systems because the identifying sequence of letters and numbers could be reused every year and secondly it was a handy way for vehicle purchasers to know the age of the vehicle at a glance. By now, though, the system was beginning to struggle with millions of documents passing through the Registration and Licensing Authority offices within local Councils so in 1965 the Government decided that the new suffix number plate system should be administered centrally. It was decided that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre, or DVLC, would be set up in Swansea and be supported by 81 Local Vehicle Licensing Offices dotted around the county. For the first two years of the suffix registration system the year letter changed on the 1st January, but car retailers began to notice that motorists, towards the end of each year, were waiting for the new letter to be issued before buying so that their car would stay looking newer for longer. In an attempt to flatten out sales, the industry lobbied the government to get the month of new registration releases changed from January to August. This was done in 1967 which meant that in that year there were two letter changes: E on the 1st January and F on the 1st August.
From the 1st January 1973 a new legislation came into effect which stated all vehicles were required to have reflective number plates, black on white at the front with black on yellow at the back. These new plates were introduced so that unlit vehicles could be seen more easily at night. The regulations also made law the uniform size, shape and characters of registration plates.
Registrations from 1983 to 2001
The Suffix system of registration didn’t use I, O, Q, U or Z as year letters which meant that by 1982 it had reached Y and so had run its course. From 1983 onwards the sequence was reversed so that the year letter, starting at A, preceded the numbers and then the letters of the registration. This new system of vehicle registration was known as Prefix and the available range was from A21 tripleA to Y999 YYY. As with Suffix registration numbers, the Prefix system didn’t use I, O, Q, U or Z as year letters.
The changes in 1983 brought the letter Q more widely into use for vehicles of indeterminate age, such as kit cars, rebuilt write offs, or in cases of imported vehicles with insufficient documentation. The Q registration was also used in the late 1980s and through the 1990s due to car crime. Many recovered, stolen vehicles had been given false identities and in cases where it was not possible to determine a vehicles true identity, a Q registration would be issued.
In 1984 a new computer system was installed at the DVLC, providing much more efficient communication between Swansea and the newly renamed Local Department of Transport Offices, formally the Local Vehicle Licensing Offices, which had, by this time, been reduced from 81 offices to 53. Then in 1988, it was recommended that all the executive functions of government should be carried out by executive agencies in the interests of efficiency. Subsequently, DVLC became an agency and was re-named DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency). Since 1997 there have been just 40 Local Department of Transport Offices in operation.
DVLA Registration Sales
By the time the Prefix Style Registration System was launched in 1983, the government had become aware of the resale value of after market vanity number plates and so decided to withhold the numbers 1 to 20 from all the registration sequences for the governments proposed DVLA Select Registration Sales Scheme, known today as DVLA Personalised Registrations. They continued to do this until August 1991 (J reg) when it was decided to withhold a few more sequences. They continued to withhold these numbers from J to Y registration (2001) when the range of Prefix Style number plates became exhausted.
DVLA Personalised Registrations first started selling cherished number plates in around 1990 but it was almost a short lived thing. Towards the mid-1990s there was some discussion about introducing a unified European registration system which would incorporate a country’s code of origin. This idea was dropped due to the lack of countries willing to participate. DVLA Personalised Registrations was then free to continue adding the withheld number plate ranges to its sales pages as they became available each year.
Registrations from 2001 to Present Day
By the late 1990s, the range of Prefix Style registrations was coming to an end. A process accelerated in 1999 by a move from annual to biannual registration issue dates (1st March and 1st September) as car dealers, once again, began to struggle with the ever increasing amount of orders every August.
In September 2001 the Current Style registration system was introduced. Vehicle registration numbers now have a format composing of 2 letters followed by 2 numbers and ending with 3 letters. The first 2 letters are, once again, a regional tag just as they were on the very first Dateless Plates.
The 2 numbers following the regional tag letters relate to the date of issue, the first number signifying the month and the second number signifying the year.
The remaining 3 letters are randomized in order to make each registration unique. This system of registration also saw the introduction of the letter Z to British mainland number plates for the first time but only for use in the last 3 random letters.
It’s estimated that there are over 30 million vehicles on the road in the UK today so the Current Style system needed to cope with this and any future growth in road vehicles. The DVLA can issue up to 7,312,896 registrations (give or take) on each new issue date and the sequence will run until 2049/50 before a rethink becomes necessary. When it does come to an end, my guess would be that the DVLA will simply reverse the Current Style system. If it were down to me, I’d name that system of registration The Recurrent Style.
The Regfinder History of Number Plates Pages
To read a more comprehensive history about UK vehicle registrations including tables and editorials of;
Global Number Plate Systems
Guernsey Number Plates
Jersey Number Plates
Isle of Man Number Plates
Military Number Plates
Trade Number Plates
Irish Number Plates & ID Tags
Dateless Number Plate ID Tags
Current Style Number Plate ID Tags
Suffix Plates Issue Dates
Prefix Plates Issue Dates
Current Style Plates Issue Dates
Withheld Prefix Number Plate Sequences
Number Plate Crime
Number Plate Size, Font & Colour Schemes
Total DVLA Number Plate Sales