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History of Number Plates in the UK

How can the history of car number plates explain the current custom number plate craze? The current system developed out of the earlier framework established in 1903.

Following the Motor Car Act 1903, motor vehicle registration was introduced, and number plates were created. They initially had one letter or two letter combinations followed by a number between 1 and 9999, which was assigned at random.


However, when the combinations provided by the original scheme had all but been used up, further legislation was needed to codify what elements number plates were to contain going forward.

It was becoming clear, even at this early stage, that number plates which represented specific names (whether they be names of people, places, sports teams, or even nicknames) were going to be a highly sought-after commodity.

Instead of creating an entirely new number plate system, the DVLA instead extended the original scheme. Thus, the new template would contain three letters followed by three numbers, providing for uniformity among the registration plates which fell within the new scheme. This system lasted until 1963 when, once again, all possible combinations were exhausted.


This time the DVLA put forward what is known as the National Scheme. A suffix was added to the existing three letter and three number combination. The suffix denoted the car’s age; since the scheme took effect in 1964, “A” came to represent this year, “B” 1965, and so on.

The programme allowed people to determine the age of a car instantly by simply examining the number plate. However, the fact that people were putting off buying a new car until the new year (in order to sport the newest suffix) soon became an issue. Major car sale highs were recorded during the early months of the year, with sales stalling after that. The problem was solved by changing the suffix switch date from the 1st of January each year to the 1st of August.


In 1982, the National Scheme was reversed. The age identifier was now moved to the beginning of the plate, followed by random number groupings, the serial code, and finally, the area code.



Number plate history: birth of the modern registration

In 2001, the Modern Scheme was introduced. With it came the number plates which we are most familiar with today. The first two letters make up the area code, the following two numbers denote the age of the vehicle, while the three-letter combination which follows is applied at random.



All the number plate schemes which came after 1963 provide that a car registration number cannot be assigned to a vehicle which is manufactured before the plate’s date of issue.



Want more info?

If you’re interested in learning why number plates are so expensive, check out our other blog post!  Also, those who don’t want to fork out thousands of pounds for a custom number plate, you can use new style number plates to spell out a longer personalised message. It probably won’t look as cool and exclusive as the most expensive UK number plate ever sold, but hey, if you want a cheap private number plate for under £200, this would be your best bet.

For those interested in the history of number plates worldwide, this fun infographic presents some interesting facts.

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