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The History of Registration Plates

When was the car invented?

On 29th January 1886, Karl Benz patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. This is widely regarded to be the birth of the automobile which evolved into the car as we now know it. Cars came into use on the British roads in the early 1890s. Imported cars were the only option at that time. By the end of 1904 there were 23,000 cars on British roads and by 1910 there were over 100,000; an increase of over 77,000. However, cars weren’t widely used and primarily for the wealthy. In 1923 the number of cars on British roads topped 383,000, in 1930 that went up to 1 million and by 1938 that figure went up another million meaning 2 million cars were on the British roads. The phenomenon of cars had begun.

If we fast forward to 2020, new data was released revealing the number of cars and vans registered was a staggering 40 million. That’s roughly 5 million commercial vehicles and 35 million cars! When you compare this figure to the population of the UK (roughly 67.9 million) you can see that the UK have come to be a nation who depends on our cars.

When was the first number plate used?

The first country to introduce the idea of number plates was France on 14th August 1893. The Department of the Seine in Paris passed the Paris Police ordinance which introduced requirements such as driving licenses, vehicle registrations and unique identifier tags. Germany followed suit in 1896. However, it was the Netherlands who were the first country to introduce and implement a nationally registered number plate system on 26th April 1898. Originally these registration plates were numbered consecutively starting from 1. In fact, the number ‘1’ registration plate was issued to a dutch gentleman by the name of J. van Dam, the purchaser of the first Dutch car that was built at his own Gonginger Motor-Rijtuigen factory. Initially in the Netherlands, number plates stayed with their registered owner but that was later changed in 1906 when the introduction of a new number plate system, since then the plate has stayed with the car.

The UK lagged behind our European neighbours in regard to number plates as it wasn’t until several years (and Locomotive Acts) later, The Motor Car Act 1903 was created. It came into effect on 1st January 1904 and it required motor vehicles, by law, to be entered on an official register and to display alphanumeric number plates. All motor vehicles had to be registered, display registration marks and be licensed annually at a cost of 20 shillings (£1).

The first series of number plates was issued in 1903 and ran until 1932, consisting of a one or two letter code, followed by a sequence number from 1 to 9999. The code indicated the local authority in whose area the vehicle was registered. As vehicle ownership became more viable for more people, the growing popularity was apparent in the UK, consequently, demand for registration plates grew. The format of the number plate has changed several times through the years since then to keep up with the demand.

Since 2001 number plates are made up of 3 parts. 1) The first two letters show where the vehicle was registered. The first letter represents the region and the second, a DVLA local office code. 2) The next two show what year and time of the year it was registered (Mar-Aug or Sept-Feb) 3) The last three letters are random

Up until 1973 British registration plates had been black with white, grey or silver characters but they were phased out with the introduction of the yellow and white reflective number plates. Currently, if your vehicle was manufactured before 1st January 1980, you are eligible to display traditional black and white/grey/silver number plates. However, you must have applied to the DVLA and be registered within the ‘historic vehicles’ tax class before you can display a traditional black number plate.

Why were registration plates introduced?

A vehicle registration plate (number plate) is a way of identifying vehicles and helping link up a vehicle to its owner. According to the DVLA, they are ‘owned by the Secretary of State. They are allocated to vehicles as part of the process of registering and taxing them’.

The association between owner and vehicles is important as it helps in regards to taxing and insuring a vehicle but it also enables the owner to be traced in the event of a breach of the law or any accident that may arise .

What are the current guidelines regarding registration plates?

The current regulations regarding registration number plates are set in law.

The number plate must be made from a reflective material. A white plate with black characters must be displayed on the front of a vehicle and a yellow plate on the back. A motorbike only needs to display a yellow rear number plate. None of these plates can have a background pattern. If you are towing a trailer, that must also display the same registration plate as your vehicle. In 2009, new guidelines were brought in that drivers in the UK can display the following flags, on the left-hand side of the number plate; the Union flag, Cross of St George, Cross of St Andrew (the Saltire) and the Red Dragon of Wales. This can be accompanied with the name or abbreviations of any country in the UK or the UK itself.

The only font that can legally be used is Charles Wright 2001. All characters on the plate must be a specific height and size. The number plate manufacturer details or dealer’s name must also be displayed to legally conform.

In fact, the only vehicles in the UK that don’t require number plates are State vehicles.

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