History of GB mainland Number plates

 GB mainland number plates

At the beginning of the century, with mechanically propelled vehicles increasing in the number, and with accidents occurring it became apparent that a means of identifying cars would become necessary. Therefore under the Motor Car Act 1903, required that from the 1st January 1904, every motorcar should be registered with a number plate. This was  5 years after Dutch authorities first introduced the idea to the world.

The first mark to be issued in London was the simple, bold A1, registered to Earl Russell, who wanted the mark so badly he is known to have camped out all night to secure it, making him not only the first registrant but also the inventor of the idea of having a distinctive, personalised or cherished plate on your vehicle.

Since Russell’s day, the registration system has changed 4 times to accommodate the ever growing demand for vehicle registrations.

Current Style Current Style Number Plates

In 2001 the DVLA changed the system to take account of police evidence that suggested witnesses, particularly in ‘ hit and run’ incidents, remember the letters of a registration mark much more easily than the numbers. As people read from left to right it made sense to put this information, the local code, at the beginning rather than the end of the number plate. As the result the current system for registrations is made up of 3 parts, as shown below.

Local Region

This represents the place where the car was first registered. Vehicles registered in Birmingham, for example, begin with the letters BA – BY; those registered in Chelmsford begin EA – EY.

Date ID

This indicates the date of registration of the vehicle, and changes every 6 months, in March and September.

The system started with the use of 51 to denote the 6 months from September 2001, with 02 replacing it in March 2002. 52 then denotes September 2002, 03 denotes March 2003 and so on. This will carry on until March 2010, by when 10 and 60 will have been reached.


The last three letters are random to any vehicle, and can now include Z.

Prefix  Prefix Style Number Plates

The Classic Prefix system started in August 1983, and has a single letter identifying the year of issue at the beginning of the registration mark.

Prefix registrations can be broken down in three sections:

First Letter: The year the car was registered and put on the road, hence its age. A for 1983, B for 1984 and so on

Last two letters. An area code that indicates where the plate was registered.

Digits in the middle

The three numbers and the first of the three letters on the end, have no meaning, only providing a variation for identification. The final two letters are the area code.

This system continued until the end of August 2001, and a large number of these registrations were held back for later release or for personalised registrations.

The letters I, O, U and Z were not issued at all as Classic Prefix letters, and Q was used only where the age or origin of the vehicle could not be identified.


By 1963, a number of local councils (each of which had until then issued plates beginning with letters identifying their area) had run out of registrations.

As a result of this, the Suffix system was introduced, a letter indicating the year of registration being added at the end of the plate, which until then had comprised only 3 letters followed by 3 numbers.

Thus, 1963 plates had the format AAA 111A, 1964 plates AAA 111B and so on.

Dateless Dateless Registrations

The earliest type of registration survived for an incredible 60 years, from 1904, and had nothing at all to denote the year of issue.

Initially, the marks were made up of a local council identifier code, of up to 3 letters, followed by a random number, eg. ABC 123.

In the early 1950s, as numbers started to run out, the components were reversed, giving rise to registrations in the format 123 ABC.

All dateless registrations are now in high demand, especially short combinations, 38 P for example, which is worth in excess of £12,000 because of the single initial and the fact it is made up of only three characters.


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