History Of Number Plates

Number plates have become such an everyday part of all our lives, we rarely even think about them any more. The history of number plates is intrinsically bound up in the history of automobiles, and they have proved to be such an efficient way of governing road going vehicles that the system has been universally adopted (with obvious cultural variations) around the world.

Earliest beginnings

The first number plates were introduced into France in 1893, and were swiftly followed by Germany in 1896. The Netherlands was the first country to introduce what we would recognise as a national number plate. Then it was known as a ‘driving permit’ and was introduced in 1898. The concept at this point was simplicity itself. The first Dutch number plate had the number ‘1’ on it. By August 1899 the counter was up to 168. By the time the Netherlands decided to choose a different layout for their number plates in 1906, the counter had reached 2,001, charting just how quickly the popularity of the ‘automobile’ was taking off.

The UK adopted the number plate system in 1904 as part of the implementation of the Motor Car Act 1903. Forward thinking politicians realised just how important the car was going to be to the economy of the world, and implemented legislation that required all motor vehicles to be listed on an official vehicle register and to display number plates.

The flurry of conformity spread across the Atlantic, with New York State being the first to adopt the number plate idea in 1901. Massachusetts and West Virginia were the first states to issue official number plates in 1903. Up until that point, plates were not government issued in most states and motorists had to make their own.

Number plates have been made out of a wide range of materials over the years. Initially, they were made out of porcelain baked onto iron, or were ceramic with no support backing. It was quickly realised that this design was impractical because the plates were extremely fragile and brittle. Very few of these very early number plates survive to this day. Manufacturers then experimented with a wide range of materials that included cardboard (which were fine as long as it didn’t rain), leather and early plastics (which tended to be very brittle). During the war years, shortages forced manufacturers to improvise and number plates were made out of everything from copper to pressed soybeans.

Standardisation

Plate size and shape varied dramatically during the early years, which caused people problems. If they decided to move house to a different location, their new regional number plate wouldn’t fit the original drill holes and consequently new holes had to be drilled into car bumpers to accommodate the different sized plates. Standard size number plates were finally introduced in 1957, when car manufacturers, governments and international standards organisations finally agreed on three universal sizes and shape for all number plates. With very few exceptions, the three sizes are still standard today, ranging from 20.5” x 4.5” in Europe to 12” x 6” in most of the Americas. 

Within the UK there are currently two numbering and registration systems: one for Great Britain, administered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), and one for Northern Ireland, which is administered by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA). Because of their social context and their connection with the history of probably one of the most important inventions in mankind’s history, old number plates are avidly collected all over the world.

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