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History of Number Plates and Registrations

Article Posted 01/11/2009

The popularity of motor cars has been explosive since the petrol engine took over the steam engine in 1890's. By the 1900's there was said to already be around 5000 cars on the roads. With the rapid rise there also cam a rise in accidents and car crime all over the UK. The government therefore had to divise a way of identifiying vehicles and their owners.

The British vehicle registrations system began in 1903 with the passing of the Motor car act, although it did not come in to force until 01/01/1904. The act stated that each Local council was to set up its own Registration and Licencing 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 became 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 also passed, which then stated that all vehicles were required 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.

 The first system of dateless registrations were issued from 1903 and continued running until 1932, the single letter or pair of letters at the beginning of the number plate, (known as the Tag) indicated the local authority to which the vehicle was registered to. In England and Wales the tags were originally allocated in preference to population size of the given areas, whilst Scotland and Ireland had sequences using the letters I and S respectively, which were allocated in alphabetical order.

By 1932 the Dateless system of registrations were beginning to run out, so a new system had to be introduced. This is where the Second dateless registrations were introduced. The letters I and Z were not used in main land Briton as they were saved for the use of Irish registrations. The current Northern Irish system is similar to this dateless system but uses 4 numbers instead of 3. Q registrations were only used for imports at this point.

By the 1950's again the available number plates had started to run out, so a reserved sequence was intorduced. The ever increasing popularity of the car can be gaged 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 in effect, a reversal of the very first dateless system.

In 1963 the Suffix registrations were introduced, which consisted of Three letters then followed by up to Three numbers and then One letter at the end of the plate. Some regions did not 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 which were many more available registrations than in 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 this stage though, the system was beginning to struggle due to the millions of documents passing through the Registration and Licensing Authority offices within the 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 Center - or D.V.L.C. - 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, were waiting for the new letter to be issued before buying a car, therefore 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 vehicle registration releases changed from January to August. This was done in 1967 which meant that in that year there were two letter changes; E was released on the 1st January and F on the 1st August.

On the 1st January 1973 a new law came into effect which stated that all vehicles were required to have reflective number plates; black on white at the front and 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.

In 1983 the new system of registrations were known as Prefix style number plates, 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 introduced, this would result in the change 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, D.V.L.C. became an agency and was re-named D.V.L.A. Which we no today as the Driver Vehicle Licencing Agency.

By the time the Prefix Style Registration System was launched in 1983, the government had become aware of the resale market value and vanity of number plates and so decided to withhold the numbers 1 to 20 from all the registration sequences for the Select registrations Scheme known today as DVLA Personalised registrations. By the late 1990's the range of Prefix registrations was coming to an end.

In 2001 the Current style of registrations were introduced, these vehicle registration numbers now have a format consisting of 2 letters followed by 2 numbers and ending with 3 letters.

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 i.e initials or names to the individual. This system of registrations 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 is 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 there abouts, on each new issue date and the sequence will run until 2049/2050 before a rethink becomes necessary. When it does come to an end it is thought that the DVLA will simply reverse the Current Style system and start all over again.





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