The 120-Year History Of The British Number Plate

classic car
Written by C Wolsey

Since the dawn of the horseless carriage, when wealthy aristocrats first began travelling by steam, battery power, or petroleum, governments across the world had to find ways to regulate them. 

When the British government was faced with this problem, they solved it the same way as many of their European counterparts; with a number plate.

The Motor Act Of 1903

During the turn of the 20th Century, the first private automobiles began appearing on the roads of Europe. In the late 1890s, France and then Germany became the first two nations in the world to begin regulating automotive travel by registering vehicles with the government and issuing numbered plates.

In 1903 the British Government passed The Motor Act, and from 1904 all cars would need to be registered and issued with a licence plate. From the first day, having private plates with an interesting or unique letter and number combination became a highly-prized asset.

Earl Russell, a politician who was also a motor car enthusiast, had his butler wait outside the council offices overnight so he could claim the registration ‘A 1’. This was one of the very first number plates issued in Britain. Buying private plates is still big business today, and Regtransfers can help you find a combination of letters and numbers that mean something to you and your car.

The first number plate system used one or two letters followed by a number between one and 9999. Though this combination generated many unique registration numbers, the government soon ran out of options as the popularity of the motor vehicle spread to the mass market.

The Evolution Of The Number Plate

In the mid-1930s, the government needed to implement a new system to continue registering new vehicles. The best plan is a simple one, so they decided to add a letter and remove a number from the existing system. 

Now new number plates would read ‘ABC 123’, and the last two letters would signify the area the car is from.. These plates are highly sought after to this day. This system lasted until 1963, when the number of possible combinations began to run out again.

The government then implemented what became known as the National Scheme. The same letter and number system remained but with the addition of a final letter which signified the year of registration, or the age of the car. This unlocked a huge number of possible combinations, but also let people know the age of a car at a glance. This led to unforeseen problems.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

When the National Scheme came into force, new cars were registered on the 1st of January and many people would wait until this date to buy their next vehicle. This made sales numbers swell in the first few months of the year and then sharply decline.

It put a lot of pressure on manufacturers and dealerships, and the demand often caused frustrations for both the consumer trying to buy a car and the dealer. The decision was made to switch the registration date from the 1st of January to the 1st of August, which helped spread sales across Summer and through to Christmas.

The demand for new cars has never stopped since it began in the early-1900s, and it has grown exponentially. Eventually, the inevitable happened and the British government again began to run out of possible plates. A new system was needed again.

Everyone put their heads together to devise a new system that would solve the issue once and for all, or at least another thirty years, so it would be someone else’s problem. The regulator’s final decision was a stroke of genius. They would switch the final letter on the plate that signified its year of registration from the back of the combination to the front. That should do it.

The 21st Century Number Plate

Inevitably, the number of possible combinations for vehicles began to diminish, and the DVLA had to come up with a new system. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency was formed in 1990 and needed to get to grips with this problem almost immediately.

The Modern Scheme was introduced by the DVLA in 2001 and remains in force to this day. There are still a huge amount of possible combinations available now, and older plates remain in circulation to register vintage and classic vehicles.

Number plates now begin with two letters which signify the area a car was registered in followed by two numbers which signify the date of registration. Three randomly assigned letters make up the rest of the plate to give us the number plate system we are all used to today, nearly 120 years after the first motor vehicles were registered.

Next time you look at a number plate, or your own registration, remember the long history of the British vehicle registration system and how it has changed so that your combination is unique.