Car registration plates first became mandatory in the UK in 1904, with the introduction of the Motor Car Act 1903. The aim was to make it easier to identify the owner of vehicles involved in an accident, or those part of a crime. Various number and letter combination systems have been used over the years. The current system for Great Britain was introduced in 2001. Northern Ireland has its own separate car registration system, very close to the original system of 1904. Although cars were originally registered with local authorities, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea is now responsible for processing all car registrations.
Standard requirements for registration plates
Number plates have become increasingly standardised over the years. Any vehicle produced since the beginning of 1975 must display a white registration plate at the front, and a yellow plate at the rear, both with black typeface. Only vehicles registered prior to this date are allowed to display the older number plate, a black background with silver or white characters. A British Standard now specifies certain mandatory requirements for number plates, including the font style and size, which must be Charles Wright 2001 font, 79mm high for cars, 64mm for motorcycles. Plates must also be made of a non-reflective material.
The old registration system
Under the original registration system, cars were given a one or two letter code, combined with a number from 1 to 9999. The two letters related to the local authority where the vehicle had been registered. This system remained in place until 1932, by which time the codes available were running out. The registration system was altered, introducing an additional letter with a number range reduced to 1-999. In a gradual rollout during the 1960s, a new system added a prefix letter which related to the year of registration, beginning with A in 1963. By 1983 a new system was required – this time the order was reversed to give a format in the range A21AAA to Y999YYY.
The new registration system
Under the system in place since 2001, the first two letters identify the local region, the two numbers relate to when the car was registered, firstly the year, and secondly whether between 1 March and 31 August or between 1 September and end of February. The final three letters are used to differentiate cars which share the same first four digits.
Personalised number plates
Special number plates are big business. Each year the DVLA raises over £60 million from the sales of personalised number plates, with an estimated total of £2 billion tax revenue generated in the 25 years since their plate auctions began. Additionally, many plates are sold privately. Some people are willing to spend very large sums of money in order to acquire their desired number plate. The number plate S1, originally displayed on the first car ever registered in Scotland, was sold in 2008 for £404,000. The most expensive number plate ever sold by the DVLA was 25 O, which was purchased by a Ferrari dealer for £518,000.
Personalised number plates are sometimes used as a status symbol, but they are also a way of stamping your own identity on a car. The demand for personalisation is evident in the growing availability of customisation options on new cars. Whatever type of car you drive, a personalised plate is an obvious way to make your car stand out from the crowd.
Some customers choose number plates which are personal to themselves, incorporating their name, initials or a relevant year in their life. Other people, including car dealers, look for number plates with characters relevant to the car make or model. Some business owners choose number plates which reflect the name of their company. In some cases, customers are simply attracted to very short numbers, without obvious personal relevance. 1D was purchased in 2009 for £352,000, but not, as might be expected, by One Direction – just a very generous gift from a property developer to his wife.