The registration of all motor vehicles in the United Kingdom can be traced back to January 1st 1904 when the Motor Car Act required that all motorised forms of road transport must be registered and carry a unique number plate. Initially it was left to the individual County and Borough Councils to issue the number plates and this system continued right up until 1974. After this date the Department of Transport took control of the issuing of registration numbers via their Vehicle Registration Offices (VROs).
1903 – 1930s : A1 – YY9999
Initially, each separate council was issued with a unique set of one or more letter codes which could be used for registering motor vehicles in that particular region. From 1903 onwards both one and two letter codes were issued which also consisted of one to four numbers (eg AA1 to AA9999) although this system was soon exhausted and by the 1930s it was clear that an alternative would soon be needed.
1930s – 1960s : AAA1 – YYY999
The obvious solution was to simply add an extra letter prefixing the original code for the area. This necessitated the single letter code being scrapped as prefixing a single letter code could obviously duplicate another two letter code. This new arrangement would have the effect of increasing the size of the actual number plates, therefore it was decided to reduce the number of suffixing digits to just three (eg AAA123, FRG234). The serial number was prefixed the area code, therefore in the example ABC999, the BC is the code for the area. the A–999 simply runs in sequence. The next number in this area sequence would be BBC1 (note the absence of zeros prefixing the number ‘1’).
1950s – 1960s : 1AAA – 999YYY
By the 1950s the councils had ran out of combinations in the series and the solution was simply to reverse the combination with the letters following the numbers (eg 999ABC). With the dramatic increase in the number of motor vehicles on the road during this time, some councils even ran out of this new series before the end of the decade and an interim solution was found by combining four numbers and two letters (eg 2222AA). These lacked a serial letter with the remaining two letters simply being the local code. Only a handful of single letter area codes were used in this reversed format and this was the final time that these single letter codes were issued. Indeed not all of the numbers were actually used, thus making this type of registration number much rarer than the general ABC123 type. A few of these unissued numbers are currently being auctioned off for use as personal registrations.
1963 – 1983 : AAA1A – YYY999Y
Numbers of cars on UK roads continued to rise at an alarming rate and it soon became apparent that a new system of registration numbers would need to be introduced soon. From 1963 onwards, the suffix letter ‘A’ was introduced by some of the busier council areas (eg ABC244A). This suffix letter changed to B in 1964 and C in 1965. Thus the pattern was set and each suffix letter indicated in what year the car was registered, the first time this was possible in the UK. Some councils didn’t use the suffix until 1965 and at that point it became compulsory to issue such a letter. Some council registration codes changed in October 1974 following centralisation.
1983 – 2001 : A111AAA – Y999YYY
In 1983 the suffix combination had been exhausted and the solution was simply to reverse the code so that the suffix letter became a prefix instead (eg A244ABC). This system continued until 2001 when it too became exhausted and a new solution needed to be found.