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History of number plates

Number Plate Before 1932

The history of number plates reaches to the beginning of the 20th century. The very first number plates were issued in 1903. They were consisting of a one or two letter code and sequence number from 1 to 9999. Out of curiosity you may want to know that the code indicated the local authority in the particular area of the registered vehicle (e.g. A indicated London, B was a code for Lancashire, and so on). These number plates ran until 1932.

Because of the expanding vehicle industry the available codes were running out, therefore they had to come up with a new scheme which placed a serial letter before the code and had the sequence number run only to 999, consequently restricting the number of characters in a registration to six. Interestingly, not all letters were used. For example, I, Q and Z weren't used as a serial letters, because I and Z were still restricted to Ireland and Q was reserved for temporary imports.

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In 1950s, when the available marks started to run out, there were introduced "reversed registrations" (letters coming after numbers). The first area to use "reversed" registrations was Staffordshire (starting with 1000E). Every part of United Kingdom had slightly different combinations, first would be issued the three-letter combinations whereas some other areas used one and two letter combinations. Although in 1960s, these combinations were also soon running out due to increasing car popularity.

There were some 3-letter combinations which couldn't be used since they were considered offensive or politically incorrect - for example ARS, BUM, GOD, JEW, SEX etc.

In August 1962, there was made an attempt to improve the problem with registrations running out. The new scheme used a three-letter combination followed by a sequence number, but also added a letter suffix, which changed on 1 January each year (e.g. AH 1A). The letter suffix was made compulsory from 1st January 1965.

Old Style Number Plate

The new law was very handy for vehicle buyers to know the age of the car immediately. This was soon spotted by car retailers as they noticed that buyers would tend to wait until the New Year for the new issued letter and as a result they would get a newer car. Obviously, it wasn't good for sales so to level out somewhat the industry lobbied to get the scheme changed, so that the change of year letter arose on 1 August rather than 1 January - this was done in 1967. In October 1974 there had been a change where the responsibility for issuing registration numbers was transferred from local authorities to specialist LVLO's (Local Vehicle Licensing Offices) and VRO's (Vehicle Registration offices) run by the DVLA.

By 1983 the year suffixes had been changed starting again at "A". The available range was then A21 AAA to Y999 YYY, where the remaining numbers 1-20 were being held back for the government's proposed, and later applied, DVLA select registration sales scheme.

In 1980s and 1990s there was a market increase in the use of Q registrations due to the car crime as many stolen vehicles had been given false identities so when this was discovered the vehicle would be issued with Q registration if the original identity could not be determined.

The date signified by a registration plate is the date a vehicle was first imported into Great Britain and registered with that registration system. For example a vehicle manufactured in 1991 and registered in Scotland might have been given a 1993 registration letter when it was registered on the Swansea system. This rule also applies to vehicles imported from other countries. The date of production is hypothetical as vehicles may be made and stored unused for many years in some cases, and then registered as new when first registered into the system.

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In late 90s the availability of free registrations started to run out again, aggravated by a move to biannual changes in registration letters in 1999 to even out the bulge in registrations every August, so there was a need to adopt a new scheme. The decision was to research a system that would be easier for crash or vehicle related crime witnesses to remember and clearer to read, but to still fit within a normal standard plate size.