I am overwhelmingly brilliant, but even I’ll admit I have quite a poor memory for the names of people, names of places, names of things, numbers, times, facts, figures, extended relations, fairly close relations, the distant past, the recent past and what I had for breakfast. I have a more freeform approach to data retention and I employ a strict policy of forgetting anything that’s not mission-critical. It means my brain is uncluttered with irrelevancies such as the name of my primary school maths nun, where I’ve been on holiday or my exact phone number. Instead I assign space in my brainbox for things that really matter, like recalling the number plates of cars I’ve owned, travelled in or otherwise seen. Beyond my niche Mr Memory Man act, there’s a whole world of useless facts to learn on the topic of number plates. Who wouldn’t want to know more about the vehicle registration protocol of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the crimes against good taste that are committed by those who fail to understand them?
Car registration regulations vary widely. Some countries such as Belgium, assign a registration number to the driver who retains it regardless of changing their car. Others adopt a strict geographical system as was used until recently in Germany and France, whereby cars were re-registered if they moved region either with their current owners or new owners. The Danes use non-geographical serials which also act as proof of road tax. If a used car is sold to a dealer it inevitably loses its original plates, as no dealer would pay for road tax on a car in stock. With a private sale, the car will retain its plates as long as it has current MOT and is taxed. In contrast to our European neighbours, UK cars are assigned a number at first registration which they usually retain throughout their lives, correctly referred to as the Vehicle Registration Mark (VRM). VRMs are regional but may not have any link to the home address of the registered keeper. In these days of faceless national leasing groups dominating the new car market, it may not even relate to the location of the dealer outlet and may just be a flag of convenience for a head office location. Regional clustering still exists, but Welsh cars legally co-exist with English, Scottish cars can live almost undetected on the Channel coast, and all can mingle with Northern Ireland vehicles despite them using a different system and having the Irish Sea in the way. There was a big shake up of the VRM format in 2001, but I’m going to ignore that because the regional identifiers are poorly thought out, the regulation font displeases me, and the number of acceptable vehicles built since 2001 can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is ViaRETRO! The 21st Century is something that happened to other people.
Back in the good old days you knew where you stood. In 1903 a law was passed that required individual cars to be easily identifiable and traceable. Local authorities were assigned a single or double letter area code and were able to run the sequence up to four numerical digits (9999). Starting in descending order of population as declared on the 1901 census, London was assigned the letter A. The letters I and Z were reserved for Ireland and Q was excluded. Somerset was the 23rd most populous region and assigned the letter Y whilst the 24th area was Hampshire which was granted AA, and so on. Once an authority reached 9999 a new sequence was allocated on a first come first served basis, so whilst the region could still be identified it didn’t necessarily follow the initial allocation. London for example went from the single letter A to the next available two letter series starting with L. By 1932, there was a need to create more numbers so the six-character ABC 123 format commenced, which in turn began to run short again by the mid-1950s, so the sequences were reversed. Most common were reversals of the six letter codes such as ABC 123 becoming 123 ABC, but some authorities reverted all the way back to the 1900s with the reversed 1234 A format.
By this time, the last two letters denoted the area of registration in all regions, so in the example of ABC, “BC” would signify Leicester. The letters CH don’t naturally suggest Derby, but that’s where you’d find ACH, BCH and CCH. The regional system is the reason many Rootes Group press cars carried KV for Coventry, and why BMC’s press fleet often bore OB, OF or similar for Birmingham. BMC’s competitions department was headquartered in Abingdon, so the likes of ARX and BRX were used in conjunction with the JB and MO series. It may not have made alphabetical sense, but it became familiar and pleasingly cohesive on a local basis.
A major change occurred in 1963 in England, Scotland and Wales when a year suffix was added for the first time. In a move welcomed wholeheartedly by those selling new cars, a car’s age was suddenly immediately apparent for all to see. The driver of ABC 123A was hip and trendy with his coveted 1963 registration, and clearly superior to his neighbour who still had six humble old digits. Flash Harry wouldn’t be smug for long however as come 1st January 1964, his neighbour would roll up in ABC 123B and the tables were turned. The game of numberplate one-upmanship for the masses had begun. In 1967, following pressure from the motor trade to give a boost to slow sales each summer, the new registration date changed to 1st August and was thereafter embedded in UK motoring psyche as new registration day, a time of much excitement and midnight handovers. Those who wanted to conceal the age of their car could still retain or buy an old “ageless” index without a suffix and a fledgling industry grew up on the pretence of valuing the VRM as an exclusive asset. So called “personal”, “private” or “cherished” plates, to use three toe-clenching terms, gradually became big business by engendering an often false sense of exclusivity and scarcity. Well, they are all unique, you know… The suffix format opened up a new world of possibilities for those who don’t restrict their spelling to the confines of the alphabet. DAV 1D, GAV 1N and JOD 1E were thrilled, SOR 3N less so, whilst CLU 4S was frankly clutching at dyslexic straws. Once all of the suffixes were used up the format flipped again on 1st August 1983 when the first letter prefix came to denote the registration year. The A123 ABC series continued until 2001, when the world as we know it stopped and the current unintelligible nonsense took over.
So concludes the potted history, but that’s only half of the story. Aside from the generation of alphanumeric codes, there’s the small matter of how to display them; the subject of the physical plate rather than the VRM it carries. That’s where it can start to get my goat. The regulations are quite simple. Prior to 1963, plates were uniformly coloured black. Initially it was common to hand paint the VRM onto a blank or the vehicle body itself. From the 1920s onwards most plate manufacturers employed one of two techniques. There was a choice of pressed aluminium with silver lettering showing through the black background, or black metal plates initially with profiled cast aluminium digits or later injection moulded plastic letters riveted into place. A small quantity of new-fangled acrylic black and silver plates were produced later in the 60s but they were expensive and a rare sight. Times changed in 1968 when in a bid to improve safety, high visibility reflective plates became optional; white up front and yellow at the rear. At a time when car reflectors were small and lights were marginal, the new reflective plates made a significant difference. From a consumer point of view, they also rendered the traditional black plates somewhat old hat. Retrofitting reflective plates was an easy way to update the look of your car, and by 1973 legislation required all new cars to wear them. The 1970s saw another step change in aesthetics as the old raised digit and pressed metal plates were superseded by new smooth and sleek acrylic products. This allowed more freedom for dealers to add their garage logos and contact details, or even continue the theme with an eye-catching perimeter border. Fonts were relatively free as long as they met the minimum size requirements. The original Charles Wright font was most common, with the Serck company offering an alternative which loosely resembled the characters on a digital watch, but the general consensus was that if it looked right, it was right. Incidentally, not every plate manufactured by Serck used their own Serck font, so Serck doesn’t always mean Serck in that context. Raised digits had disappeared from new cars by the mid-80s, and pressed metal was mainly relegated to commercial vehicles before falling out of use completely a few years later. This free-wheeling state of affairs lasted until the blunt axe of conformity fell in 2001. Not content with introducing a completely new VRM system which made no sense to anybody, there was a change of font which was applied retrospectively in an attempt to re-write history. The new regulations mandated digits 79mm high and 50mm wide, seven millimetres narrower than before. It became forbidden to produce reflective plates in the UK using the older fonts and spacing, so if you needed accurate replacement plates for your youngtimer you were a bit stuck. You needed to conform. It was a form of mass automotive repression. Seven millimetres might not sound much, but it’s a 12% variance and the mandated size of the physical plate wasn’t reduced to compensate. It was aesthetically disturbing enough on new cars, but when retrospectively applied to older cars, it was borderline emotionally disturbing too.
Compared to memorising area codes, understanding the language of form and style is comparatively easy. So why do so many classic car owners get it so wrong? In this age of the internet, all styles are freely available, either fully legally or on a marginally bootleg basis. There are even people who can scan logos and replicate old dealer plates, so you can reproduce exactly what your car would have worn the day it left the showroom. A proper set of main dealer plates is a joy to behold, especially when combined with a matching rear window sticker and tax disc holder (the holy trinity). Witness this BMW proudly wearing Coopers of Leicester plates, even if the OX area code indicates Birmingham. Perhaps it was sold in Leicester as a used car. Perhaps it has never been there. I don’t really care because it undeniably looks ace. Or see this Ford Cortina Mk3 with its original Derbyshire index, photographed on Derbyshire grass under Derbyshire skies. To add to your viewing pleasure, the raised digits are period correct and the simple lack of fuss personifies understated elegance. Being a 1972 K suffix, too many people would have substituted black and silver plates for that “classic car” look. Whilst they would have been technically permissible, indications are the first owner of HCH 115K took delivery on new reflective plates and would probably have been rightly proud to show off his new car – the new plates helping to advertise the fact. If you look carefully at the rear, you can spot the plate makers name and British Standard mark at the top, in this case Jepson and BS AU 145. A top spotter’s tip is that period reflective acrylic plates will be marked with BS AU 145a, before the lifeless hand of BS AU 145d prevented any self-expression.
Cars from the late 60s to December 1972 exist in a historical no-mans’ land where they could have conceivably been supplied with either black or reflective, but I have a theory which I use to determine what is right and what is wrong (I don’t allow an appeals process). If the car would have been sold to a traditionalist, black and silver wins. If a trendy young blade would have put the money down, it has to be reflective whites and yellows. Many Cortinas went to fleets, and travelling salesmen are a naturally competitive breed. Therefore, yellow clearly wins as it shouts “new car”. On the other hand, a half-timbered Morris Minor Traveller would have probably been bought by someone aghast at the modern world, so it should be black and conservative. A Mini 1275GT was the hot hatch of its day so would be yellow. Most Fords of the period should also be yellow – think Capris, Mk1 Escorts and very early Granadas. Round rear light BMW 2002s are better on yellow because cool people owned them, just like today, but square rear light variants must always be yellow with no exceptions as they post-date 1973. Early Range Rovers, Rolls-Royces and Rover P5s could be either depending on whether they were bought by the establishment or new-money. Exotica can go either way too, but should only be black if they’re on a short digit dateless plate, otherwise it would have been a case of “hey look over here at my flash new car!” Police cars are yellow for safety, as are milk floats, but a hearse is black out of respect for the deceased. Quite intuitive really.
Anything post 1973 wearing black plates is wrong; an anachronistic affectation. View this droop snoot Mk2 Escort RS2000 for evidence and compare it to a similar car displaying the correct style. Absolutely nobody would have done this back in the late 70s. Oddly, a recent mistake in government drafting around historic classification seems to have inadvertently endorsed this behaviour, so expect these taste crimes to only increase. There is no excuse whatsoever for 80s and 90s cars to be so equipped though, and such people should be forced to ride on the bus until they learn. To prove the rule there must be an exception, and this incorrectly plated Porsche 914 just about gets away with it, but only because it’s unusual and the plate is colour co-ordinated with the car. An even less welcome trend is that of “show plates”, which are discouraged by a law that is barely enforced. There are all manner of strange fonts and layouts available, and whilst I don’t particularly care about the individual legalities, the aesthetics are a crime that impact many onlookers. We all know a Renault 5 GT Turbo is a French car, so is it really necessary to fit cod French pressed plates with a supposedly Gallic font? Think how much better it would look on original dealer plates with the name of the Renault garage and a proper old phone number. Imagine how cool it would be with a telex number… Proper French plates are a dying breed in their homeland incidentally, with the whole national fleet gradually being transferred to hideous new indexes whilst the evocative and traditional geographical département plates are consigned to the bin. I ask again, France, Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Whilst UK plate size and shape has been regulated for nearly 100 years, exceptions can be made under my rules if it looks right. This modified Alfa Guilia with its tiny front number just about squeaks into the bracket of acceptability as it’s a similar size to a home market Italian plate. American cars always look good on replica stateside metal plates, and their bodywork or bumpers rarely allow the space for full size UK rectangular jobs anyway. This 1983 Cadillac pulls off the trick very effectively, and whilst the six digit SUY 496 index appears to be issued in New York State it is in fact a valid UK DVLA number. Sometimes with a bit of creativity the backing plate can be done away with all together, as seen on this Porsche 911 where the numbers are fixed directly to the grille. Cross reference also my rule about exotica using silver letters only in conjunction with a short plate. On cars that don’t have a natural mounting location, the common technique used to be to stick a vinyl plate to the nose, and whilst it’s now considered a mega-crime against the state it remains my preferred approach on Mazda MX-5s. For the perfect application of appropriate colour, format and positioning however, see this replica Porsche 550 Spyder. Sticky and perfect.
For such a supposedly regulated industry, the small world of UK number plates is full of variety; the good, the bad and the ugly. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not getting it right. I am judge and jury on such matters, and I have carefully honed my set of rules over a period of decades. You are entitled to disagree but you’ll almost certainly be wrong, and it’s a rare event when I purchase a car and find myself fully comfortable with the previous owner’s choices. It’s nice when a car has a visible continuous history by keeping its original VRM all through its life, but it’s not essential to me and the replacement indexes assigned by the DVLA these days are less jarring than they once were. It’s nice when a plate is age related but a well-chosen non-dating plate can be a memorable addition. It’s great to see a local car stay local for many decades, but cars by their very nature are mobile. With regards to the alpha numeric code, I’m quite relaxed in comparison to the aesthetics. But I’ll know very quickly if you’re the wrong type of person by your choice of plastic. Letters of complaint to the usual address please.