Number Plate History in the UK

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Number plates on vehicles are something we just accept and pretty much take for granted these days but number plates have come a long way and changed quite a bit since they first became required for us to be able to drive vehicles legally on UK roads. If the truth is to be spoken here, an awful lot of people have little or no idea about the current number plate system and what the characters on them actually mean, never mind the systems that came before.

Let’s take a look here then at the history of number plates in the UK, and as well as explaining how number plates came about and how they’ve changed over time we’ll also explain what the characters actually mean.

The origins of number plates

When motor vehicles first had to be registered to drive on UK roads there was no such thing as a number plate. When the UK government introduced the Highways Act 1896 as more and more cars were starting to appear on the roads, the act didn’t contain a requirement to display any sort of registration number. However, the act did include the need for vehicles to be registered with the local council and that was the precursor to the introduction of number plates.

Interestingly, the act introduced far more than just the idea of vehicles having to be registered as it also made it compulsory for vehicles to have lights, it increased the speed limit, and it also formalised the convention of driving on the left-hand side of the road here in the UK.

France, Germany, the Netherlands and even the USA introduced actual physical number plates for vehicles before we were required to have them here in the UK. The French were first with number plates in 1893, Germany was next in 1896 and the Netherlands followed suit a couple of years later. The USA got in on the act in 1901 but the UK didn’t start to require number plates on vehicles until 1903.

First number plates in the UK

The requirement for vehicles to display physical number plates came as part of the Motor Car Act of 1903 and it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that the first plate issued in the UK was A1. A gentleman called Earl Russell queued outside the offices of the London Council all night to get that first plate, but there was more to the number than just the first letter in the alphabet and the number one.

Right from the start, there was a method behind the numbering system. These first plates followed a system that used a letter or a pair of letters at the start of the plate that represented the area where the vehicle was registered. In those days the letter A was assigned to London, B represented Lancashire, C was for the West Riding of Yorkshire got C and so it went on.

A problem with the system started to appear as motor vehicles became more and more popular and it became obvious that the numbering system wasn’t going to have enough possible combinations to meet demand. The first move was to use two-letter area codes instead of one letter codes as more parts of the country wanted to be able to register vehicles, and this saw somewhere like Worcester given AB and Hampshire got AA. This bought the system a little time but a new system with many more possible unique combinations had to be introduced.

Number plate designs

Number plates also look different today from how they looked originally. Until 1973, UK number plates had white or silver characters on a black background. But it was then decided that number plates had to have black characters on a white reflective background on the front of vehicles and black characters on a yellow reflective background on the rear of vehicles.

Number Plate System number 2

The original numbering system of two letters and up to four numbers was fast running out of available new combinations by 1932, so a new system was introduced that had up to three letters at the start and up to three numbers after the letters. This system increased the number of available combinations significantly but even this new, expanded numbering system was running out of steam by the middle of the twentieth century.

In the 1950s they came up with the idea of reversing the system, so instead of three letters followed by three numbers, the new plates featured three numbers followed by three letters. This effectively doubled the number of available plates, but with hindsight, we now know that even this would prove woefully inadequate in the face of the now booming motor industry and the public and business demand for new vehicles.

Let’s start dating

You may have noticed that there was no date element to these early vehicle number plate systems, and it wasn’t until 1963 that UK number plates started to include any representation of when the vehicle was registered. Once again, the UK was running short of available registration numbers and in 1963 the “suffix” system was introduced. This added a letter at the end of the registration number and that letter represented the period when the vehicle was registered.

The first of these had an “A” after three letters and three numbers and the A told you the vehicle was registered in 1963. In 1964 it changed to a B and so on. At first, this was quite sensible as the date letter ran from January 1st to December 31st of that year, but when it came to E in 1967, someone decided to change the date period so it ran from August 1st to July 31st instead.

Even if all the letters of the alphabet were to be used, which they weren’t, we would still have run out of them in 26 years so in 1983 the numbering system was changed again. This time it became a prefix instead of a suffix, so it all started again but this time the date letter A went at the start of the number.

Today’s number plates

Of course, it wasn’t to be too long until that system also ran out of available combinations and our current system was therefore introduced in 2001. It always amazes me how few people understand the current number plate system, even when it gets explained to them.

We now have registration numbers that start with a two-letter region identifier followed by two numbers that represent the registration period, and then there are three random letters. The first plates had the date 51 on them which covered September 1st 2001 to the end of February 2002. The next date number was 02 which covered from March 1st 2002 to 31st August 2002, and this was replaced by 52 to run from September 1st 2002 until the end of February 2003. This system will allow enough numbers to keep us going until 2050/51 when the date numbers will reach 50 and 00.

Who knows what will happen after 2051, but what’s the betting it all starts again with the numbers and letters reversed?

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The Ultimate Guide to Hypermiling

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You may well have missed it, but “hypermiling” was voted as the best new word of the year in 2008 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. Even though the vast majority of my writing over the last 8 years has been about the American auto industry I’d never come across the term “hypermiling” until I was asked to write about it here. In fact, it’s really just a formalised name for what many of us do already or at least a more extreme version of what most of us do when we’re driving.

What exactly is “hypermiling?”

Hypermiling is an extreme form of energy-efficient driving that can be practised in any sort of vehicle, regardless of what kind of fuel it uses. In its mildest form, hypermiling is just what many of us do which is to drive in ways that maximise fuel economy. It could involve things as simple as making sure your tyres are at the correct pressure and that your vehicle is well maintained and regularly serviced, but some of the more “enthusiastic” hypermilers go to much more extreme lengths.

Like many things in life, however, you can have too much of a good thing and some hypermiling techniques are even banned in some countries as they are considered to be dangerous, such as coasting and drafting, which we’ll get to a little later.

Some people embrace hypermiling to such an extent that it’s almost like a sport, or even a religion. Plenty of enthusiastic hypermilers keep extensive records of their performance and achievements and share them online with like-minded people. But even if you don’t want to get fanatical about hypermiling yourself there are plenty of methods hypermilers employ that make good sense for everyday driving and for helping you get better fuel economy.

Everyday hypermiling

I’m going to break hypermiling techniques down into four categories of everyday, advanced, obsessive and extreme. The first techniques are the ones we can all adopt in our everyday driving to get better fuel economy from our vehicles, save a little money and pollute a little less.

Look after your vehicle

There are plenty of reasons why you should look after your vehicle such as for reliability and maximising its resale value, but a well maintained and regularly serviced vehicle will also be more fuel-efficient.

Tyre pressures

Make sure your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure as under-inflated or over-inflated tyres can make your vehicle use more fuel.

Lose unnecessary weight

One of the best ways of making any vehicle more efficient is to make it as light as possible and in motorsport, they go to extreme lengths to reduce vehicle weight. In terms of your everyday driving, this could mean leaving at home anything you don’t need with you at that time such as golf clubs, a pushchair, tools and bags.

Don’t drive at all

One of the most basic and fundamental beliefs of the most committed hypermilers is to avoid driving at all if you can. If your journey is a short one and it can be done on foot or on a bike instead, what better way is there of saving fuel than to not use any in the first place?

Route planning

Route planning is a technique that can be as basic and easy or as complex and obsessive as you want to make it. In its simplest form, route planning could mean choosing a route where you are unlikely to come across traffic jams, but more extreme route planning can include choosing roads based on the opportunity they offer for some of the more extreme fuel-saving driving techniques.

Watch your speed

Keeping your speed down is an obvious and easy way to improve your vehicle’s fuel economy, especially on motorways. Driving at 60mph instead of 70mph will deliver significantly better fuel economy.

Reduce drag

The more aerodynamic your vehicle is the more fuel-efficient it will be. Although you can’t do anything about your car’s design you can remove things like roof boxes and bike racks when not being used and even keeping your windows closed can make a difference.

Spare the air conditioning

Turn off the air conditioning if you can. Believe it or not, using your vehicle’s air conditioning can reduce your fuel economy by as much as 10 percent.

Advanced hypermiling

Drive efficiently

There are lots of ways you can drive differently from how you probably do at the moment that will improve your fuel economy significantly. The key to fuel-efficient driving is smoothness. Be gentle with the throttle and try to minimise the amount of braking you have to do. You should also anticipate the road ahead by looking as far as possible so you can adjust your speed in plenty of time so you don’t find yourself having to slam on the brakes or accelerate away aggressively.

Turn off

A lot of modern cars have an auto stop/start function that turns the engine off when the vehicle is stationary, but if your car doesn’t have this feature, you can do it yourself by remembering to turn the engine off when you’re stationary.

Obsessive hypermiling

Parking

Where you park can make a difference to your hypermiling efforts. Choose a space where you can just drive away rather than one where you might need to do a lot of manoeuvring to get out. Also, in winter you could park facing the sun so it defrosts your windscreen and may even heat your vehicle interior a little to reduce the need for the heated. In summer, however, you should park in a shaded area to keep the interior temperature down and reduce the need for air conditioning.

Tracking

Seriously committed hypermilers will keep extremely detailed records of their mileage, fuel usage, routes, prices paid for fuel and more. But even if you don’t go to the extremes, it could still be useful to keep some sort of records so you can gauge how well you’re doing.

Watch your footwear

It’s also suggested that you wear lightly soled shoes when driving as you’ll then have a better feel for the pedals that will allow you to drive more smoothly when accelerating and braking.

Engine oil

Using engine oil of low viscosity (but still conforming to your manufacturer’s recommended requirements) can improve your fuel economy. Thinner engine oils reduce the friction of the engine components, and many hypermilers choose high-grade fully synthetic oils to help maximise economy.

Extreme hypermiling

Coasting

Coasting is a technique that sometimes gives hypermiling a bad name. Putting a car into neutral and letting the engine idle when going downhill will save fuel, but it also reduces the amount of control you have over the vehicle and increases the time it will take you to react to the unexpected.

Forced Auto Stop

Forced Auto Stop (or FAS as hardcore hypermilers refer to it) is an even more extreme version of coasting where the engine is turned off completely. This can be monumentally dangerous as turning off your engine can cut power to braking and steering systems and there’s even the possibility of the steering lock being engaged.

Drafting

Drafting is common in motor racing, bike racing and even speed skating, and here in the UK it’s probably better known as slipstreaming. This is where a vehicle travels close up behind another vehicle in its slipstream to minimise the wind resistance. It certainly works to reduce fuel consumption, but doing this on public roads is stupidly dangerous and should not even be considered.

The more extreme forms of hypermiling are not for everyone and some of the techniques are actually dangerous. However, there’s a lot to like about some of the more moderate techniques, and who doesn’t want to get more miles per gallon?

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