Every country around the world has some way of registering vehicles on the road and a numbering system to allow the authorities to tell vehicles apart. The history of number plates, or vehicle registration plates, goes back to 1904, and the way in which we number vehicles has changed enormously over the past century.
Before the 1970s, the rules about what numberplates actually looked like offered more flexibility. Black numberplates with silver characters were common in the 1960s, and you still may spot some on historic vehicles. However, the new standard introduced in 1973 requires cars and other vehicles registered in the UK to have a white number plate on the front, and a yellow one on the rear. Text has to be black, using the type face which is appropriately called Mandatory. There are also rules about the height of the letters and numbers, and the spacing between them. There are differently sized plates for motorcycles, and most motorbikes only display their numbers on the rear.
Ever since the first registration plates were issued in 1903, plates have been used to indicate where a vehicle was first registered. The combination of letters and numbers has changed over time, but the practice still continues today. Modern UK number plates are in the format of AB51 DEF. The first two letters on any number plate is the “area code”, showing the region of the UK where the car was first registered. For example, codes starting H are Hampshire and Dorset, O is Oxford, S is Scotland and E is Essex. The second letter in the code has no particular meaning, and just helps produce a large number of unique registrations.
The pair of numbers which comes directly after the area code is known as the age identifier. These numbers change twice annually, on 1st March and 1st September, and started with 51 in September 2001. So a car with age identifiers of 16 or 66 was registered between 1st March 2016 and 28th February 2017, and so on. There are plenty of websites which will help you work out the age of a vehicle if you find the system confusing. Before 2001, there was a different system for indicating the age of a car using letters rather than numbers.
The final three letters on your number plate are randomly allocated, in sequence. Q and I are not used in this sequence; I because it’s too easily confused with a number 1, and Q as this is the letter often associated with imports which are difficult to age. The DVLA filters out combinations of letters and numbers which could spell something rude or offensive, both in English and in other languages.
Another option is to choose a number plate which doesn’t reflect the age of the car but instead spells a work, your initials, or a combination of letters and numbers which are meaningful to you. These are officially known as cherished numbers, but are more commonly known as personalised plates, or vanity plates. Once you have bought a personalised plate you are free to swap it between vehicles as many times as you please, although you have to pay a transfer fee to the DVLA each time. Personalised plates can be bought and sold privately, with numbers such as RAC 3R changing hands for eye-watering sums. The DVLA also holds a stock of numbers which have never been issued or belong to cars which have been scrapped. You can search online through the Gov.uk website to find which combinations are available, with prices starting at around £250.
Registration plates are there to identify your vehicle, and should you trigger a speed trap or drive into the London Congestion Zone, the details will be read automatically. This has led to an increase in “cloning”. This just means duplicating the number from one car onto another. The person driving the cloned car can now rack up parking tickets and other traffic infringements, with notifications going to the owner of the genuine vehicle. In order to try to combat this crime, the government passed legislation in 2008 requiring drivers to produce ID and proof of ownership of the vehicle if they wish to have new plates made.
People who move to the UK permanently and bring a car with them from overseas have to register the car with the DVLA, tax it and swap the foreign registration number for a UK one. This can be quite expensive, especially when purchasing a brand-new car from overseas and having it imported. There is lots of guidance online about the process for importing cars online should this affect you.
Most plates in the UK follow the standard format, depending on the year in which they were first registered. However, there are some more unusual plates which you may come across from time to time. Trade plates are used by the motor industry for moving cars around or on test drives. Trade plates are red and white, and are sometimes displayed alongside the standard registration plate.
Diplomatic plates are mainly seen in London, and are on vehicles owned by foreign governments and embassies. They are in the format of 123 X ABC. The first three numbers identify the country which the vehicle belongs to. Cars with diplomatic plates don’t have to pay road tax, but do have to abide by all other parking and driving laws.
Plates which begin with a Q indicate that the age of the vehicle couldn’t be accurately established, so it couldn’t be allocated a standard year indicator plate. Often, these plates are on imported vehicles which don’t have the paperwork to show when they were built or first used. They may also appear on vehicles which have been totally rebuilt, using engine, body and various other bits from lots of vehicles of different ages. Q plate vehicles are unusual, and difficult to insure as they are so hard to age and value.