The Motor Car Act 1903, which came into force on 1 January 1904, required all motor vehicles to be entered on an official vehicle register, and to carry number plates. The Act was passed in order that vehicles could be easily traced in the event of an accident or contravention of the law. Vehicle registration number plates in the UK are rectangular or square in shape, with the exact permitted dimensions of the plate and its lettering set down in law.
Within the UK itself there are currently two numbering and registration systems: one for the island of Great Britain, which is administered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), and one for Northern Ireland, administered by the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA): both have equal status. Other schemes relating to the UK are also listed below.
The first series of number plates were issued in 1903 and ran until 1932, consisting of a one- or two-letter code followed by a sequence number from 1 to 9999. The code indicated the local authority in whose area the vehicle was registered. In England and Wales, these were initially allocated in order of population size (by the 1901 census) - thus A indicated London, B indicated Lancashire, C indicated the West Riding of Yorkshire and so on up to Y indicating Somerset, then AA indicated Hampshire, AB indicated Worcestershire and so on up to FP indicating Rutland.
The letters G, S and V were initially restricted to Scotland, and the letters I and Z to Ireland. In both cases, allocations of codes were made in alphabetical order of counties, followed by county boroughs - thus in Scotland, Aberdeenshire was allocated SA, Argyll received SB and so on, while in Ireland Antrim was allocated IA, Armagh received IB, and so on.
When a licensing authority reached 9999, it was allocated another two-letter code, but there was no pattern to these subsequent allocations as they were allocated on a first come first served basis. London and Middlesex quickly took most codes with L and M as the first letter respectively, while Surrey, initially allocated P, took many codes beginning with that letter.
There are four interesting anomalies where a zero has been issued. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh has S 0 and his Glasgow counterpart has G 0 while the official car of the Lord Provost of Aberdeen has RG 0. In addition the Lord Mayor of London has the registration LM 0.
1932 to 1963By 1932, the available codes were running out, and an extended scheme was introduced. This scheme placed a serial letter before the code, and had the sequence number run only to 999, thus restricting the number of characters in a registration to six. The first area to issue such marks was Staffordshire in July 1932 with ARF 1 etc., and all other areas in England and Wales, plus most areas in Scotland, followed suit once they had issued all their two-letter registrations.
I, Q, and Z were not used as serial letters, as the use of I and Z continued to be restricted to Ireland and Q was reserved for temporary imports, while the single-letter codes were left out of this scheme as a serial letter would have created a duplicate of an existing two-letter code. (The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland later adopted this scheme in their own ways, and the latter still uses it.)
In some areas, the available marks within this scheme started to run out in the 1950s, and in those areas, what became known as "reversed" registrations - the letters coming after the numbers - were introduced. Staffordshire was again the first area to issue such registrations, starting with 1000 E in 1953. In most cases, the three-letter combinations (e.g. 1 AHX for Middlesex) would be issued first, while in later years some areas started with the one- and two-letter combinations and others issued all three at the same time. The ever-increasing popularity of the car meant that by the beginning of the 1960s, these registrations were also running out. Often number plates were on hinges, as petrol tank caps were located under the number plates on some cars.
Some three-letter combinations were not authorised for licensing use as they were deemed offensive or politically incorrect. These included ARS, BUM, GOD, JEW, SEX, and SOD.
1960s to 1982In August 1962, an attempt was made to create a national scheme to alleviate the problem of registrations running out. This used the scheme introduced in 1932, of a three-letter combination followed by a sequence number from 1 to 999, but also added a letter suffix, which initially changed on 1 January each year. An "A" suffix was thus used for 1963, "B" for 1964, etc. Middlesex was the first authority to adopt this scheme when it issued AHX 1A in February 1963. Most other areas followed suit during 1964, but some chose to stick to their own schemes up until 1 January 1965, when the letter suffix was made compulsory.
As well as yielding many more available numbers, it was a handy way for vehicle buyers to know the age of the vehicle immediately. However, the year letter changing on 1 January each year meant that car retailers soon started to notice that buyers would tend to wait until the New Year for the new letter to be issued, so that they could get a "newer" car. This led to major peaks and troughs in sales over the year, and to help flatten this out somewhat the industry lobbied to get the scheme changed, so that the change of year letter occurred on 1 August rather than 1 January. This was done in 1967, when "E" suffixes ran only from 1 January to 31 July, before "F" suffixes commenced on 1 August.
In October 1974, responsibility for issuing registrations was transferred from local and regional authorities to specialist Local Vehicle Licensing Offices (LVLOs) or Vehicle Registration Offices (VROs) run by the DVLA. Most of the two-letter area codes allocated during the first scheme continued in their respective areas, albeit now indicating the nearest LVLO/VRO rather than the local or regional authority. However, the decision to streamline the allocations of these codes meant that some were transferred to new areas. For instance, the former Suffolk code CF was transferred to Reading, while the former Edinburgh code WS was re-allocated to Bristol.
1983 to 2001By 1982, the year suffixes had reached Y and so from 1983 onwards the sequence was reversed again, so that the year letter — starting again at "A" — preceded the numbers then the letters of the registration. The available range was then A21 AAA to Y999 YYY, the numbers 1–20 being held back for the government's proposed, and later implemented, DVLA select registration sales scheme. Towards the mid-1990s there was some discussion about introducing a unified scheme for Europe, which would also incorporate the country code of origin of the vehicle, but after much debate such a scheme was not adopted because of lack of countries willing to participate. The changes in 1983 also brought the letter Q into use – although on a very small and limited scale. It was used on vehicles of indeterminate age, such as those assembled from kits, substantial rebuilds, or imported vehicles where the documentation is insufficient to determine the age. There was a marked increase in the use of Q registrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fuelled by car crime. Many stolen vehicles had false identities given to them, and when this was discovered and the original identity could not be determined, a Q registration would be issued to that vehicle. It was seen as an aid to consumer protection.
By the late 1990s, the range of available numbers was once again starting to run out, exacerbated by a move to biannual changes in registration letters (March and September) in 1999 to smooth out the bulge in registrations every August, so a new scheme needed to be adopted. It was decided to research a system that would be easier for crash or vehicle related crime witnesses to remember and clearer to read, yet still fit within a normal standard plate size.
In order to avoid any confusion, the letters I, O, U and Z have never been issued as year identifiers: I because of its similarity to the numeral 1; O because of its identical appearance to a zero; U because of similarity to the letter V; and Z because of similarity to the numeral 2.
Letter Dates of issue:
A February 1963 – 31 December 1963
B 1 January 1964 – 31 December 1964
C 1 January 1965 – 31 December 1965
D 1 January 1966 – 31 December 1966
E 1 January 1967 – 31 July 1967
F 1 August 1967 – 31 July 1968
G 1 August 1968 – 31 July 1969
H 1 August 1969 – 31 July 1970
J 1 August 1970 – 31 July 1971
K 1 August 1971 – 31 July 1972
L 1 August 1972 – 31 July 1973
M 1 August 1973 – 31 July 1974
N 1 August 1974 – 31 July 1975
P 1 August 1975 – 31 July 1976
R 1 August 1976 – 31 July 1977
S 1 August 1977 – 31 July 1978
T 1 August 1978 – 31 July 1979
V 1 August 1979 – 31 July 1980
W 1 August 1980 – 31 July 1981
X 1 August 1981 – 31 July 1982
Y 1 August 1982 – 31 July 1983
Letter Dates of issue:
A 1 August 1983 – 31 July 1984
B 1 August 1984 – 31 July 1985
C 1 August 1985 – 31 July 1986
D 1 August 1986 – 31 July 1987
E 1 August 1987 – 31 July 1988
F 1 August 1988 – 31 July 1989
G 1 August 1989 – 31 July 1990
H 1 August 1990 – 31 July 1991
J 1 August 1991 – 31 July 1992
K 1 August 1992 – 31 July 1993
L 1 August 1993 – 31 July 1994
M 1 August 1994 – 31 July 1995
N 1 August 1995 – 31 July 1996
P 1 August 1996 – 31 July 1997
R 1 August 1997 – 31 July 1998
S 1 August 1998 – 28 February 1999
T 1 March 1999 – 31 August 1999
V 1 September 1999 – 29 February 2000
W 1 March 2000 – 31 August 2000
X 1 September 2000 – 28 February 2001
Y 1 March 2001 – 31 August 2001