Decoding Road Alphabets. What your number plate really says

By Emma Williams
Decoding Road Alphabets. What your number plate really says

The History of Number Plates

Number plates have been around as long as automobiles have. France first introduced them in 1893 followed by other European countries and the UK finally decided to join them on January 1st 1904 when the Motor Car Act made registration plates a legal requirement.

The first series of number plates ran until 1932 when the available codes were running out. The plate consisted of a one or two letter code followed by a sequence number from 1 to 9999. The code identified the local authority where the vehicle was registered which, in England and Wales were initially allocated in order of population size – so A indicated London and FP indicated the smaller population of Rutland.

In 1932 a serial letter was placed before the code and the numbers this time ran to 999 but this extended scheme by the 1950’s had also ran out so a reversed format was introduced by some councils putting the number before the letters. These early registrations had no year code and so are known as ‘dateless’ numbers. They are very popular as they can be assigned to cars of any age. They also are increasingly rare as they were only generally issued until 1963.

The Prefix and Suffix Number Plate System

Between 1963 and 1983 the Suffix number plate system ran. This pre-dated the Prefix system which began in August 1983 and the number plate would have looked a bit like A678 WRL – where the leading letter indicates the year the car was registered, i.e. A = 1983. The three numbers, in this case 678 consisted of two which represented the area where the car was registered and the other was randomly generated.

The Suffix system had the letter identifying the year at the end of the registration instead of the beginning and that was the only difference.

After the Prefix system came the current system that we have today.

The Current Number Plate System

The current system, introduced in 2001, has the plates changing twice annually – at the start of March and then the beginning of September. Current number plates - i.e. April 2024 have the digits 24 to indicate the age – for example YH24 JCT.

So what do all the numbers and letters mean?

The first two letters tell you where the car is registered – first letter is the region where the car was registered, for example E for Essex and the second is the local DVLA office that registered the car. So cars registered in Birmingham range from BA to BY, or cars registered in Oxford go from OA to OY and Severn Valley, Worcester VA to VY.

The two numbers identify the age, changed every 6 months. In March the number equates to the current year, while in September it’s the current year plus 50 – for example, March 2023=23 and September 2023=73. So a car registered in April 2016 would be 16 and if the car was registered in November that same year you would add on 50 so it would be 66.

The last three letters are randomly generated and give the vehicle within each region a unique identity

So let’s look at an example: BA73 OEU – can you tell where this car was registered and what year it was released?

The answer is – the car was registered in Birmingham and it was released between September 2023 and before March 1st 2024 when the digits would have changed to 24. Did you get it right?

This current system is expected to run until 2051.

If a new car and a new lease deal is what you’re looking for and the current ‘new plate’ – 24 no less excites you then take a look at the special offers we have about at the moment for something that suits your budget. If you’re looking for a new car and/or a registration plate that identifies you in a more special way then read on…..

Express your Personality

Your vehicle’s number plate is the first thing people see when they encounter your car and it can say a lot about you. If you decide to hunt for a personalized plate you can choose your own combination of letters, numbers or even words that have special meaning to you. If you find the right one your number plate can reflect your unique personality or advertise your business for example.

There are a few rules and regulations to abide by though. For instance you can’t make your car appear newer than it is i.e. you can’t put a 09 plate on a car registered in 2005. And private plates can be very expensive too, for example the most expensive plate in the UK is ‘25 O’ which was sold in November 2014 for £400,000. But if you go stateside figures increase considerably, for example, ‘F1’ and ‘New York’ are both worth $20 million!

You’ll be pleased to hear you’re allowed to fit private plates to your lease car, but do remember to hang onto the plate the car came with as this will need to be put back on the car when you hand it in at the end of the lease. Ask your Account Manager about fitting private plates if this is something you want to do.