We’ve Got Your Number

Number plates are unique to every vehicle.

Since 1903 when the first system was introduced, the combination of letters and numbers, has given each vehicle its own identity, ensuring that no two vehicles look exactly alike.

The 1903 Motor Car Act brought with it the UK's first official vehicle register and made displaying front and rear number plates compulsory.

The First Number Plates

The earliest plates consisted of one or two letters and up to four numbers, with the letters used to show the area in which the vehicle was registered, and the numbers assigned in the order in which each vehicle was registered.

In many instances, the first letter used was one which related to the registration area, e.g. L for London, M for Manchester and Merseyside and S for Scotland - a part of the system which still applies today. 

Irish ‘I’s and ‘Z’s

The letters I and Z were reserved for cars registered in Ireland - both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

There’s one anomaly to this system - and that’s plates SV8000 to SV9999.

This series, which was not originally issued, has been reserved for vintage vehicles (classed officially as being pre-1931) which have been re-registered.

Getting Personal

Personalised plates which do not indicate the vehicle’s year of manufacture can be transferred from one vehicle to another, but DVLA rules mean they can only be used on a vehicle which is the same age or newer than the year identifier - although the owner has to pay £80 each time for the privilege of keeping their unique plate, and transferring it from one vehicle to another.

Swansea, We Have A Problem...

This first system of identifying individual vehicles started to run into problems in the 1950s, as the number of available combinations began to run out.

This was solved by the DVLA switching to three letters and one, two or three numbers, which could be allocated with either the numbers or letters first.

But as the numbers of vehicles on our roads continued to grow, a big drawback became apparent, the number plate gave no clue as to the age of the vehicle wearing it.

Honesty The Best Policy?

So, when it came to checking how old a car was when it was being sold second-hand, the buyer generally had to rely on the word of the seller. This was all long before the age of the internet, so there was no quick and easy way of verifying a vehicle's age.

That was why, in 1963, the system changed again.

A New Letter For Every Year

The previous three-letter and up to three-number configuration was kept, but a separate letter was added to the end of each plate at this time.

Each registration year ran from 1 August to 31 July, and for the next year the end letter moved on to the next one in the alphabet. So for example...

Missing Letters

However, as the years passed, the letters I, O,U and Z were skipped as year identifiers. In the cases of I and Z, this was because these letters had become exclusively associated with registrations in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile O was skipped because it might have caused confusion with the number 0, and U because it was thought to look too similar to the letter V.

Northern Irish plates have never followed the practice of using letters to pinpoint the year of issue, instead sticking with the three-letter and up to four numbers format. 

Back To Front

When, in 1982, the letter Y was reached in the original format, it was decided to reverse the order of the three basic elements of every plate, so a typical plate then looked like this:

Change Frequencies Doubled

This system had run its course by 2000, so a new one was needed to replace it.

At the same time, new number year identifiers began to be introduced twice a year, on 1 March and 1 September. This was part of an effort to spread out the traditional peak for new vehicle registrations, which occurred every August as buyers sought cars with the latest registration letter.

The first new-style plates, registered from 1 September 2001, had the year identifier ‘51’, which was followed six months later by ‘02’, then ‘52’ at the next change.

What’s On Your Plate?

Switching to using the number as the signifier of the year of manufacture makes it easier for anyone to immediately work out a car’s age. The system also sticks with the principle of using two letters to show where a car was registered, with the first letter identifying that it was registered in one of 18 regions of England, Scotland or Wales.

The second letter of each plate corresponds with one which is allocated to the DVLA office covering the district in which the car is registered. So, for example, in the letter combinations, the initial D shows that the car was first registered in the Deeside region. Plates beginning with the letter combinations DA to DK are issued by its Chester office, while DL to DY are allocated to the Shrewsbury office.

Going Spare

The letters I, J, Q, T, U and Z aren’t currently in use - but T was used for some registrations in Scotland, in 2007 only. So if you’ve got one of these plates, you’re in very select company!

The last three letters of all new cars’ plates are allocated randomly, but as Swansway Group and other new car dealers will register new cars in batches, we’re usually allocated letter sequences which run consecutively.

That's why, when you see new cars lined up on new-reg day, you'll notice that the number plates often only differ by just one letter.

Special Numbers

With every new registration, the DVLA keeps aside number and letter combinations which it thinks might either be, or become in future, collectible. It sells lots of different numbers through its website.

Though  the new system was adopted in 2001 there was no '01' registration because the new format came into effect in the September.

It now means that the next time we’ll need another change to the format of vehicle number plates won’t be until 28th Feb 2051!