The numerology of number plates

There are over 31 million cars on the road in Great Britain today. That means there are over 31 million number plates or registration marks on the British roads today.

10% of those are personalised plates so 90% follow the government issued standard. But interestingly, the government issued standard changed a number of times over the years.

That’s what makes number plates so fascinating. A whole hobby has come about, ‘autonumerology’ which has people the length and breath of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who ‘spot’ different and old numbers on a regular basis and share with others.

You see, these days, since September 2001, the current style of number plates or registration marks is to have two letters, two numbers (or digits) and three letters. The first two letters show which local office issued the number plate. The two numbers indicate the six-month time period the number plate was issued. The last three numbers are just random numbers assigned to the car. I and Q are never used.

For example, the registration mark of HY 51 NNV means the car was registered in Portsmouth between September 2001 and February 2002.

Northern Irish plates are different to those in the rest of the British Isles. And they have one added advantage – they are considered dateless. There is no letter in any series to indicate years.

Irish plates allow you to have 2 or 3 letters followed by up to 4 digits and unlike the English, Welsh and Scotish plates, the letters I and Z can be used.

1903 – 1931

But it wasn’t always like this. Number plates today are issued via a system that was introduced way back in 1903. Forward looking politicians at the time realised the importance of the motor car and created legislation so that each car would be added to a registered list of vehicles on the road.

Each county or borough council issued a registration plate with their county code represented by a letter or two letters and an ascending number afterwards. So using Chester Borough Council as an example, they issued number plates with FM 1 to FM 999. (FM was Chester Borough Council’s code).

1932 – 1952

From 1932, a three letter system was introduced. So a ‘serial’ number was added to the county code. This serial number started at A, right through to Z with a few exceptions. So using Chester as an example again, they started using AFM 1 to AFM 999 and then it would start BFB 1 to BFM 999 and so on.

1953 – 1962

With the demand for cars came the demand for licence plates and the the system had to change again. In 1953, the system was reversed with numbers first and then letters. In Chester, you would have seen cars driving around with number plates like 1 AFM to 999 AFM, 1 BFM to 999 BFM etc etc.

1963 – 1982

The system changed during this period again. In 1963, year numbers were introduced. A for 1963, B for 1964 etc. The original three letter system, introduced between 1932-1952 was re-introduced but this time a letter signifying the year was added after the numbers. So in Chester, cars had number plates such as AFM 1A .

1983 – 2000

Again, because of the amount of cars registered, the system changed and this time the signifying year was added before the number, as a prefix. In Chester, cars now had number plates which read A21 AFM (Number plates began at 21 with 1-20 being kept back as select numbers)

In 1974 however, counties and borough councils no longer issued registration plates. Number plates were issued from the DVLA local offices in the UK, Scotland and Wales and The DVA in Northern Ireland.

So the next time you see a car with the registration, MRW 406F or S201 GFM, you’ll be able to decipher the timeframe of origin and the county code where it was registered. After all, there is a logic to the numbering.