That all-so important registration plate on the front and rear of your car has taken different forms over the years. Peter Cracknell takes a look at how it all started out, and charts its evolution over the years.
At first sight it would have seemed a simple enough task – design a foolproof method of uniquely registering every car on British roads. And in the early days, when you could count the total number of cars on the fingers of, well if not one hand, then a few hands and feet, it was. The first registration number, A1, was issued in 1903 to earl Russell who it’s rumoured had queued all night for it, but needless to say a single letter/single digit method had but a short time to live – 234 cars (assuming no zero) was the maximum it could have coped with, even if every letter had been used. So the next series started in that same year, with two letters and four digits, and this marked the appearance of the well-known region identifiers formed by the two letters. Many readers will remember their own area codes, and the larger councils needed a number of them; Birmingham for instance required the majority of the ‘O’ identifiers, though a few were used, in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, elsewhere – ‘OD’ Devonshire, ‘OW’ Southampton, ‘OY’ Croydon and so on. Allowing a single office a number of two-letter combos did get over the obvious drawback of each area being limited to just 9,999 vehicles. Even so, the rapid rise of car ownership meant that by the early 1930s the system was creaking.
The obvious solution was to increase the number of letters; after all an extra digit multiplies the possibilities by a little over ten (you have to think about that), whereas an extra letter is a much more efficient multiplier. So from 1932 the new registration system was of the type ABC 123 – a method that in theory could account for a massive 17.5 million vehicles. However, not all letter combinations were possible. Some of the three-letter combos not authorised for licensing use as they were deemed offensive or politically incorrect included ARS, BUM, GOD, SEX, and SOD, and that other one which you’d already thought of. The old area identifiers were carried through into the new system, here taking the second and third places. If you’re keen to check which of these old identifiers is which (there are hundreds of them), an excellent resource is www.londonbusroutes.net/miscellaneous/regs.htm. Inevitably, even the letter trios were unable to satisfy the UK motorist’s insatiable demand for new product, so the first areas to run out of registrations took the simple step of turning the thing around – ABC 123 could become 123 ABC, and they’d doubled the numbers.
From 1963 we could tell how old a car was merely by looking at its registration; no longer did you need to ask the anorak in the bar the date of that Humber Super Snipe in the car park. The suffix ‘A’ in the new ABC 123A would show the car was registered in 1963, and letters changed every year on Jan 1st. However, motor manufacturers didn’t like the lift that gave to sales in January (not the best time for them) at the expense of succeeding months, so in 1967 the ‘E’ plate lasted only until July and from then letters advanced on August 1st. These year-suffix plates have in more recent years spawned some ingenuity in those prepared to pay DVLA for memorable combinations usually unrelated to the car’s year. Famous ones include the MAG 1C of Paul Daniels and the COM 1C of Jimmy Tarbuck.
The year-suffix plates ran until ‘Y’ in 1983, and the obvious move then was, as before, to reverse them, so the standard became A123 ABC, which would have been enough for 21 years, since the letters I, O, Q, U and Z would again not be used. But the annual hike in registrations was distorting the market to such a degree that every August saw all manufacturers struggling to fulfil the vast numbers of orders; August sales were about ten times those of July. The simple solution was to have a plate change every six months, so from 1999 changes occurred in March and September, where they’ve stayed ever since. The last letter ‘Y’ prefix therefore ran out in August 2001, when a new system had to be invented that would last for a reasonable time, and could cope with the biannual date changes.
As most readers will know today’s plate has an area code – incidentally completely different to the previous ones – and a date identifier too. The format AA51 ABC is how it started, with the area code at the start, followed by the date identifier, followed by three random letters. If you want to see a complete list of area codes, just key in Vehicle Registration Regional Identifier in your web search engine.
In case you’re uncertain, the ‘date identifier’ of our current system is of course still a six-monthly one, with the March-August half represented by the actual year and the September-Feb half adding 50 to that. So ‘11’ means March to August 2011, ‘23’ will be March to August 2023, and ‘68’ will be Sept 2018 to Feb 2019. From which you can see that the system will live for half a century… that’ll do me.