The Evolution of Number Plates

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As you might expect, the need to identify specific cars and the drivers associated with them first became an issue when traffic accidents became more common. Though number plates started as a necessity, they’ve even become an item of expression as of late thanks to customised plates. But how did they begin and how have they evolved through the years? We’re going to take a brief look through the history of number plates from the beginning to now.


The A1

The idea of number plates didn’t originate in the UK but was an idea adopted from the Dutch. The very first number plate ever registered was the “A1” plate. When the system was first introduced in 1903 thanks to the Motor Car Act of that year, this now famous plate was claimed by the Earl Russell. Or rather, it was claimed by his butler, who was commanded to queue overnight at the London County Council to receive it. The A1 plate still remains an intensely collectable item, currently belonging to the brother of the Sultan of Brunei.


Dateless plates

The very first plates following the A1, had no dates to denote when they were issued. Instead, they were all comprised of a three-letter code, like ABC, to denote the local council, followed by three random numbers. This system lasted for sixty years until the limitations became clear once numbers started running out. In the early 1950s, the plates could be reversed, so there was an “ABC 123” as well as a “123 ABC”. Cars were being bought at a much faster rate, however, so the system was stopped in 1963. Nowadays, dateless plates are almost collectible as that first “A1” plate, though not as valuable.


Suffix plates

With the problems in dateless plates clear, the Suffix system was introduced in 1963. In this system, a letter was added at the end of the plate, denoting the year the plate was licensed. So, ABC 123 was replaced by ABC 123A. It was during the Suffix plate period that major changes were implemented across the whole system too. A centralised computer system, seven years in the making, made it much easier for the police and growing insurance industry to identify vehicles. This also when that iconic yellow made its first appearance.


Prefix plates

With only so many letters in the alphabet, the Suffix plates limitations were cut short in 1983. This is when the letter indicating the year moved to the front of the plate instead, doubling the system’s lifespan. The components of the numbers got more precise during this time, too. The last two letters marked the area code, which meant that you could more quickly identify the origin of a car at a glance.


The modern system

Once the Prefix system was starting to run out of steam in 2001, radical changes were implemented, creating the more intricate number plates we all know and recognize today. Now, the first two letters indicate the are in which a car is first registered. 


Number plates are here to stay and though the modern system seems to cover everything, there’s no saying whether or not they may evolve again soon in future.