In 1903, with increasing vehicles on the road in the UK, the Motor Car Act made it mandatory to display registration plates from January 1904.
In the UK, London, the largest authority, was allocated registration numbers with the letter "A", Lancashire was given "B", etc. The letters G,S and V were reserved for Scotland. Northern Ireland also has specific registration numbers allocated, I and Z. Since there are more than two authorities in NI, these letters were used in alphabetical order, for example IA was given to County Antrim and so on.
Obviously, this system was finite so, as more vehicle plates were registered, it had to be expanded - so in 1905, London was given LC since it had used up its original "L" allocation.
By 1932, a third letter had to be introduced almost everywhere. This could be followed by 1,2 or 3 numbers. This system left the freedom to reverse letters and numbers if necessary - so, for example, UXL 921 could be re-issued as 921 UXL. This helped to cater for the increase in vehicle ownership after the war.
In 1963, a year identifying letter (known as a suffix letter) had to be introduced - again, as a response to increasing numbers of vehicles on the road. For example, a family car, a Morris Oxford, was registered with the plate ADC 113B, where the suffix "B" indicated the year of manufacture as 1964.
In 1974, the manual system of issuing registration numbers by local authorities was replaced by a new centralised computer system based at Swansea. The original name for this concrete sprawl of buildings was DVLC (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre). At the same time, a network of local Dept. of Transport Offices were formed - now referred to as LO's or Local Offices. In Dec, 2014, however, there were all closed.
As we all know, the alphabet only has 26 letters. Remember, NI kept 'I' and 'Z' for its sole use, also 'Q' is always used on registration numbers to designate a vehicle where the year of manufacture is unknown.
'O' was never used since it could be confused with the number zero and 'U' was never used since it resembled 'V' on a plate.
Therefore, in 1983, the suffix system of letters had reached its end. It was agreed that registration numbers should now take the form of a prefix year letter, followed by 2 or 3 numbers plus 3 area identifying letters. (for example EC indicated Carlisle; - HN Darlington; - DC Middlesbrough; - HT Bristol etc.)
So a vehicle displaying an 'A' prefix would have been manufactured between August 1983 to 31st July 1984 and so on up to a 'Y' prefix indicating a year of manufacture as 1st March 2001 to 31st August 2001.
Hang on a minute, what happened to the annual 1st August registration? Well, in 1998 ('S' prefix) it was decided to change to two new registration numbers per year - so 'R' prefix ended on 31st July 1998, the 'S' prefix came out as usual on 1st August 1999.
This not only helped to take the pressure off the dealerships but also effectively brought the prefix year letter system to an end sooner.
Another question you might pose - "Why only 2 or 3 numbers following the prefix letter?"
Well, it was decided that there was no fair way to allocate the numbers 1 to 20 so these were withheld.
From 'J' prefix onwards, even more registration plates were withheld, for example "rounded" numbers like 30, 40, 50 etc. or matching numbers like 22, 33, 44 etc; 111, 222, 333 etc.
This made the popular "Make Your Own Plate" range possible - thus allowing many more people to participate in the personal registrations market.
Of course, eventually, the prefix system had been used up so, after extensive consultation, it was decided to introduce the "New Style" registration numbers. This came into being on Sept. 1st 2001 and took some getting used to for number plate dealers as well as the general public. Briefly, there are two letters at the front which represent the area identifier followed by two numbers (indicating the year letter) followed by 3 random letters. For example: NV53 ZPB.
NV = NORTH (Newcastle or Stockton local offices) where N = North and 2nd letter has to be from the range A to O or P to Y.
53 = issued half-way through 2003 (Sept - Feb).
ZPB = 3 randomly allocated letters.
WJ = WEST (Exeter, Truro, Bristol).
06 = Issued March to Aug 2006.
XVZ = Random letters.
The new-style numbers made the formation of words possible - since again, some are held back to form part of the "Make your own plate" scheme. For example, in stock at the time of writing, JO56 HUA, PE54 NUT, SP07 RTY, JA53 ONN etc.
Also, the new format numberplates make it possible for two sets of initals at either end - obviously, all plates are subject to availability.
For more reading matter, you could try our free DVLA information section. If you think you've done enough homework, why not get onto the "fun" part and use our number plate search to search for literally any kind of registration - including words, names, initials, football teams, dates. We probably can't find that gardening glove you lost last summer but anything to do with plates and we're your man (or woman). Oh, by the way, we like a bit of fun, but we treat your purchase very seriously, look at our look at our reviews if you have an questions about our quality. Good luck!