UK classic car number plates explained
Registration plates can add character – and value – to a collector vehicle. Much information can be gleaned at a glance; here’s how to decipher the code on UK number plates
Motor-vehicle registration plates have been a legal requirement in the UK since 1903, and unless you are the incumbent monarch (who doesn’t need them) you should have them on your vehicle.
The enjoyable pastime of identifying a classic car’s exact year of manufacture by noting a subtle curve in the bootlid that was specific to a certain model year may earn you points with your petrolhead friends, but it’s usually far quicker and more accurate to just take note of the registration plate.
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That’s not to say some older plates aren’t pretty confusing. However, since their initial introduction, registration numbers have been updated and optimised so that a lot of information can be gleaned from a simple glance. That’s if you know what to look for…
Vehicles registered between 1903 and 1932 – the early days
The very first registration plates were introduced following the passing of the Motor Car Act of 1903. This was done to allow the authorities to more easily track transgressors of the law. These earliest plates consisted of either one or two-letter codes followed by numbers ranging from 1 to 9999 in a font commonly referred to as Charles Wright K-Type. The letters were initially allocated to areas based on population size, with London getting A, Lancashire B and so on. G,S and V were reserved for Scotland, while Ireland got I and Z. A guide to identifiers can be found here and here.
Once the 9999 limit was reached (London got there first in May 1905), a new two-letter code was issued – but these did not always follow a logical pattern. Zeroes were also issued to certain official cars where the number 1 had already been assigned. Another anomaly was that, as separate registers were used for cars and motorbikes, the same combination of letters and numbers could end up on both. Clearly there was room for improvement here.
In 1920, when the Roads Act came into force, a numberplate could remain with a vehicle for its entire lifetime. Up until that point, it had to be issued with a new plate if it was sold outside its original authority. Plates were black with white/silver characters; this combination is currently allowed on all historic vehicles of 40 years of age or older, on a rolling basis. You can get a numberplate made up only by a registered supplier; find one near you here.
Typical plate format: AB 1234
Vehicles registered between 1932 and 1963 – the dateless plates
The increase in vehicle ownership in the early 1930s meant a new registration system was needed. At first it involved modifying the existing system to comprise three letters and then three numbers, once the authority had used up all of their two letter/four number allocations. In this case, the second two letters in the new format referred to the issuing authority.
After World War Two, the format was reversed to once again accommodate the increasing number of vehicles on our roads. Ireland and Scotland retained the letters I, Z and G, S and V respectively. Q was also restricted to temporarily imported vehicles.
The introduction of the three-letter format also gave rise to potentially rude combinations (we will leave it up to your imagination to figure out what these could be). Offensive combinations were not authorised for use.
Typical plate format: ABC 123
Vehicles registered between 1963 and 1982 – the suffix years
Starting from August 1962, a letter suffix was added to registration plates that indicated the year of issue. This became compulsory for all authorities by January 1, 1965, and started the trend for people to hold out until the New Year before purchasing a vehicle in order to ensure it came with the latest plates.
To alleviate this situation, in 1967 an E suffix was applied to all vehicles sold between 1 January and 31 July, while an F suffix was given to models sold during the second part of that specific year onwards. This pattern was repeated annually.
Typical plate format: ABC 123E
Vehicles registered between 1983 and 2001 – the prefix years
The end of the suffix system came in 1983 with the letter Y. The process was then reversed, so that the year identifier was now a prefix, starting with the letter A.
This was changed yearly until 1999, when new registration identifiers became a bi-annual occurrence, again in order to stem that once-a-year buying rush.
Meanwhile, the letter Q was allocated to vehicles of an indeterminate age such as kit cars, rebuilds or imports with unclear histories.
Interest in unique letter/number combinations had led to independent businesses trading these plates for big sums. From 1989 onwards, the DVLA Select scheme also got involved in this practice; see its website here. Today, certain rare plates can change hands for more money than the vehicles they are affixed to are worth.
Typical plate format: A123 AAA
Post-2001 vehicles – the information age
September 2001 saw the introduction of our current registration system, which should be familiar to most people. Unless you own a very modern classic, however, such a number is unlikely to be fitted to your collector model.
The first two letters indicate the vehicle’s area of registration, while the second two digits are the age identifier. These vary depending on whether the vehicle was registered between March 1 and August 31, or September 1 and Feb 28. The final three letters are completely random. This system should run until 2049, when the process will be reversed.
Visually, the current system uses a slightly modified Charles Wright K-Type typeface based on the original. The letter width is slightly narrower at 50mm vs 57mm, in order to accommodate a symbol or flag such as these on the physical plate.
Typical plate format: AB65 AAA