UK car number plates – a potted history

Number Plates

We’re so used to number plates on our cars we tend to take them for granted other than when we’re looking for a cool personalised number plates. They’ve been a legal requirement for all vehicles since the passing of the Motor Car Act 1903 which came into effect on New Years Day 1904. With an increase in vehicles on the road around that time, accidents and incidents became more common and a system to identify vehicles was needed, and so the license plate was born and has been in existence ever since.

Early number plates had a black background with either white, silver or grey characters. This plate design was phased out in 1973 and you can now only display this type of plate on a vehicle that was manufactured prior to 1973.

The first system of car number plates ran from 1903 until 1932 and consisted of a two letter code representing the local authority and a number from 1 to 9999. As the motor car became increasingly popular the permeations ran out, and a new system was needed. The numbers were reduced from four to 3 and an extra letter code was added. This system ran until 1963 when more combinations were needed yet again and so a suffix letter was added. When the letters ran out in 1982, the system was reversed and a letter was then added before the numbers.

Finally in 2001 another new system was introduced which incorporated a three character suffix and a two digit date identifier.

Photo credit: National Library of Scotland /