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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?