By the Numbers

As promised at the end of my last article in Moss Motoring, I thought an essay on the intricacies of the British car license plate system might be of interest. I know most of our Transatlantic cousins frequently find this baffling, and those who read British classic car magazines may be particularly keen on learning the history and details of what we over here in Britain refer to as the car’s number plate or registration number.

By 1904, when the motor car was first becoming a practical conveyance rather than a toy for the wealthy or eccentric to tinker with, these new cars were starting to crash into both people and things, as well as frequently exceeding the paltry speed limit of the time. In order to prevent these foul practices, the authorities needed a way to identify the offending vehicle and its pilot, and so the license plate system was born.

The first thing to understand about the British system is that the plate is personal to the car, and not to the driver. Once a registration number is issued to a car, it usually stays with that particular car all its life, irrespective of change of owner, or change of geographical area where it is kept. This is unlike most country’s systems, but it does have the huge advantage of making particular cars much easier to identify over a period of years, and making the history of individual cars much easier to trace. Very few people can recall the chassis or commission number of a car they owned years ago, but lots more can recall its registration number, which is also readily apparent from photographs. (Bill is quite right here. I can recall the registration number of every vehicle I’ve ever owned since I was a mere lad!—Ed.) In addition, using our system, it is very easy to date a car from a cursory external glance rather than ferreting under the bonnet/hood to find a dirty or rusted identity plate. There are, of course, exceptions to this one car, one plate rule, which I will deal with later, but in general, the foregoing is true.

Right from its inception in 1904, our system was set up on a regional basis as a combination of numbers and letters. Thus the very first number ever issued was A1, by the London County Council. The letter A was allocated to London, and the various British counties got a letter in turn, although for some reason the letter Q was not used and the letter Z was reserved for Ireland. As there were more counties and boroughs to issue numbers to than there were available letters in the alphabet, it wasn’t long before two letter combinations were issued, so AA was allocated to Southampton, AB to Worcestershire, AC to Warwickshire, and so on. All the issuing authorities in Scotland were given combinations with the letter S in them, i.e., FS for Perthshire, MS for Stirlingshire, and so on, and broadly this remains true to this very day.

However, some years later, when all the two-letter combinations had been issued, some Scottish authorities were given non-S combinations. For instance, FG was allocated to the Scottish county of Fife. Combinations including the letter Z remained exclusively Irish, for right up to the late 1980s the Republic of Ireland, although a separate country, continued to use the British license plate system.

Obviously, those geographical areas with higher populations soon found that they were issuing many more car numbers than those in the quieter areas, and they quickly ran out of numbers, because a limit of four numbers was set for each individual plate, i.e., up to 9999. So the original London mark of A was issued, in the early years of the century, in combinations between A1 and A9999. Once these had all been allocated, a further two letter combinations were issued. London, for instance, received LA, which it then issued in the series LA1 through LA 9999.

By the early 1930s, some of the more populous boroughs and counties and the larger cities had exhausted all their available one- and two-letter combinations. So a new system came into use in 1932, whereby a third letter was put in front of the original two letters, thus enabling new combination to be created.

For example, when London had used up all the two-letter marks, they added an A to the front, the letter combination then becoming ALA. Numbers were then issued with these letters up to 999, prior to BLA being introduced when the process repeated itself. With these new three-letter combinations, numbers were issued only to 999 and not 9999, as at the time it was desired to keep the maximum number of digits on the plate to six. When this system came in during the 1930s, those authorities who still had plenty of the old two-letter marks available were allowed to use them, and indeed, some of the smallest, slowest-issuing counties in Britain were still giving out two-letter marks to new cars as late as the 1960s!

By 1953, problems again arose in the busy areas, where all the three-letter, three-number plates had been used up. The simple solution was to reverse them so that the numbers preceded the letters, thereby creating a huge stock of previously unissued marks. ABC 123 could be reissued as 123 ABC. BC incidentally was issued by the City of Leicester, and thus geographical continuity was preserved. A rough guide as to when a number was issued was also available, in that BBC numbers were obviously issued after the ABC ones, and so on. In addition to three-letter, three-number combinations being reversed and reissued, the two-letter ones could be similarly reversed and reissued. BC 1234 could be reissued as 1234 BC, for instance. Even my earliest single-letter plates were sometimes reissued in reverse format. For example, I owned a 1956 Morris Minor whose number was 1272 F. F was allocated to the County of Essex and F 1272 would have been issued in the first decade of the century—such numbers being highly prized now.

Yet again, the pace of new car purchase outstripped the supply of plates available, so in 1963 it was decided to go at last to seven-digit plates, this being achieved by adding a suffix letter, which would further denote the year of issue. Suffix letter A was for 1963, B for 1964, etc. This allowed further unique marks to be created based on the ABC 123 A idea. At first, letters denoted complete calendar years, but for some bizarre reason in 1967, the system was changed so that the letter year ran from August 1 to July 31. Therefore, the E suffix ran only from January 1, 1967, to July 31, 1967, F taking over thereafter until July 31, 1968.

The suffix letters Z, T, U, Q, and O were not used, so in 1983, the system was again reversed and prefix letters appeared, commencing with the A prefix for 1983/84. Therefore, the ABC 123 number could by now have been issued in four different forms: ABC 123 from the ’30s, 123 ABC from the ’50s, ABC 123 A from 1963, and A 123 ABC from 1984/85, all still issued in the Leicester area. This reversed system has continued to the present day, S prefix letters being issued from August 1968.

However, from 1999, it has been decided to change to issuing the new letter twice a year, and the V prefix arrived on March 1, 1999. My new Rover 2000, for instance, carries the plate T 245 KHF, the KHF element on the plate still denoting the geographical area of issue, in this case, the town of Barnsley in Yorkshire where I purchased the car.

Although boundary revisions over the years have sometimes blurred the borders of the various cities and counties, it is still true to say that one can tell reasonably accurately where a new car was first sold, from its registration plate. When the prefix plates run out in the early years of the next century, we’re promised a completely new “Euro” system, which will probably break the direct links that connect our present system with the dawn of motoring in 1904—what a pity!

The geographical nature of UK license plates has always been useful in helping to spot ex-works and competition cars used by the various car factories. If you look at the works MGs, right back to the 1920s, more often than not they have plates which include the letters JB or RX issued by the County of Berkshire, where the Abingdon works were situated. (Abingdon has now been moved into Oxfordshire, incidentally!) Similarly, Jaguars and Triumphs emanated from the City of Coventry, whose combinations were WK, DU, KV, HP, VC, and RW. The 1954 Le Mans D-Type Jaguars were OKV I, OKV 2, and OKV 3, whereas the 1959 Le Mans TR3 S cars were XHP 939 and XHP 940.

The one great exception to the rule (that a car always keeps its plate in Britain) is that it is possible, and always has been possible for a moderate fee, to keep one’s old plate and transfer it onto one’s newly acquired car. Thus, the number A1 survives to this day on a new car, having been transferred probably a dozen or more times during the past 95 years! Such numbers have become almost ludicrously valuable, and can be bought and sold on the open market subject to certain strict rules. Indeed, there are many number plate “brokers” in the UK, who will either sell your plate on commission, or try to acquire a special one for you.

If, for instance, I wanted a plate to reflect my initials, BP, with a nice low number, say BP 8 or 50 BP, it would cost me several thousand pounds to acquire the right to use such a plate on my car. Such numbers are known here by the catch-all phrase of cherished registrations. (Even the government departments use this rather grim nomenclature.) Having been content for many years just to permit people to retain their numbers and pocket the fee for allowing this to occur, in 1991 the government suddenly woke up to the fact that they were sitting on a gold mine of previously unissued but attractive numbers! Rather than let dealers make all the profits, the relevant government department now sells, either direct or by public auction, various choice numbers as a revenue-raising exercise.

Unlike parts of the USA, you still can’t have just what you want, for the general rules about suffixes/prefixes have to be obeyed. Still, it is now possible to acquire plates such as L I NDA or N I GEL, if your pockets are deep enough. Such plates, believe it or not, sell for around the $50,000 mark! When a cherished plate is transferred off a car onto a different one, the original ear is reallocated an anonymous number from a previously unissued, but age-related series.

Side effects of the cherished plate system are that the geographical link is broken, and also the dating element inherent in the prefix/suffix letters ceases to mean anything. However, you are not allowed to make a car appear newer than it really is by transferring a suffix/prefix plate to it from a year later than that in which the car was made. It’s OK to make it look older—but not to make it look younger!

As to the actual number plates themselves, their style and size has been very constant over the years. Up until the late 1960s, white or silver figures were used on a black background, plates usually being oblong, but sometimes square, as on the rear of Land Rovers. Incidentally, a special dispensation was granted to the E-Type Jaguar in 1961 to use stick-on plastic numbers and letters rather than metal plates. Up to 1963, the individual digits had to be 3 1/2″ high, but when the seven-digit, suffix letter plates started to appear, the height of the letters was reduced to 3 1/8″, so that seven could he fitted into the space previously occupied by six. Reflective plates with black letters on a cream background on the front of the vehicle, and a yellow background for the rear plate, started to appear in the late 1960s, and by about 1972 were pretty well universal. In fact, these days only cars originally registered for use prior to January 1, 1973 can use the old style of non-reflective, black and while plate. Also, in Britain there always has to be a plate both front and rear, unlike some US states which don’t require a front plate at all. Something that surprised me when I first rented a car in North Carolina—I thought the plate had fallen off!

There’s a lot more that could be said about our pretty complex system, and several exceptions to the general rules I’ve out lined above, but at least I hope I’ve managed to convey to you some of the main features, and if you’re ever on vacation in Britain, keep an eye out for that elusive A1!

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