History of the UK Vehicle Registration Plate

With the new 68 registration coming out in September we had a discussion at the All Car office about the history of the UK vehicle registration plate and how did it ended up with the version it is today.

What is a vehicle registration plate?

A vehicle registration plate is a means to be able to identify a specific vehicle quickly and easily, sort of like a passport for your car. Originally, cars did not have vehicle reg plates at all as there were so few of them and the Police or whoever would need to identify them would simply stop them and identify the driver. In modern days, the vehicle registration plate is used to issue speeding fines, identify cars at car parks and toll bridges and even just to find out some history of the car and its current owner and registered address.

As there were no speed cameras or any sort of digital technology to recognise number plates back then the number plates could be found in different colours to today's yellow and white.

Origins 1903 -1932

Up until 1903 there was no way to formally identify a car until the Motor Car Act of 1903 came in which made it compulsory for every motor car to have a registration plate and to be uploaded to the vehicle register (now the modern day DVLA). The number plate used during this time has a one or two letter code (usually a local identifier) followed by a sequence of number between 1 and 9999 at random.

As this was a primitive idea and the future popularity of vehicles largely unknown at this point this method was surely going to run out of combinations and in 1932 the end was in sight.

Extended Scheme 1932 - 1963

Once the numbers of the original scheme started to run dry the then DVLA decided to extend the scheme rather than create a new one. A serial letter was added before the initial area code to take it to three letters and then the next 3 numbers were then added with a maximum of 999. This extended schema brought with it some uniformity as every registration plate now had six characters comprising of three letters and three numbers.

This scheme ran for long enough that you may see some examples in classic cars on the roads.

The National Scheme - 1963 - 1982

Inevitably even with the extended scheme the DVLA would run out of registration codes so in the hot summer of August '62 the boffins over at DVLA came up with the new National Scheme. This scheme introduced the same first three letters as the extended scheme, followed by three numbers from 1 to 999 and finally a new suffix denoting its age starting with A in 1964 and then "B" in 1965.

This scheme was popular as people could see a car's age in an instant, however what soon happened is potential new customer holding back on a new vehicle until the January to get the latest suffix. This created major peaks and troughs for car sales so to alleviate it the date of the new suffix was changed to the 1st of August. This was the first occurance of this technique which is the reason we get new registrations in March and September.

National Scheme Reversed - 1983 - 2001

Clearly the National Scheme could not go on forever so at the end of the cold winter of '82 the boffins once again went to the drawing board and came up with the idea of now putting the age identifier at the start of the license plate beginning again with A then the random numbers before the serial code and area codes. The only other major change during this time was the modern events of new registration prefixes of March and September were brought in in 1999. 

Modern Scheme 2001 - Present Day

After the Y registration came in March 2001 it was phased out by the registration plates we are now all familiar with which is the modern scheme. The registration plates now use the first two letters are area codes, followed by two numbers for the age identifier and finally the trusty three random letters are applied. So, how are they decided?

Area Codes

The first letter of the area code is determined by the region the car was registered:



Area First Letter
Anglia A
Birmingham B
Cymru C
Deeside D
Essex E
Forest and Fens F
Garden of England G
Hampshire and Dorset H
Kettering K
London L
Manchester and Merseyside M
North N
Oxford O
Preston P
Reading R
Scotland S
Severn Valley V
West of England W

The second letter represents their local DVLA office at the time (they are all now closed) but in modern day can be selected at random from that area. For example, Glasgow would be SGXX and Worcester being VW.

The second identifier is the age identifier which started in September 2001 with "51" and then March 2002 had "02". September of that year had "52" and then the following March had "03" and then the trend continued all the way to September 2018 which of course has "68".

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