At first glance, a car number plate can seem like an arbitrary sequence of numbers and letters. To some degree this is the case, as certain parts of each plate are simply sequences that are random. This is to ensure there are enough unique combinations so that each vehicle is distinguishable from the next.
The format of a plate, however, is not random, and it can tell you a bit about the vehicle. If you know how to read car number plates, you can often tell a car’s age and where it was first registered. Private plates often ‘hide’ these variables, and this is one of many reasons why they are so prized.
It is illegal to use any number plate that would make a motorcycle, van or car seem newer than it really is, so even where personalised registrations are used, you can be confident that the vehicle is the age indicated by the plate – or older. It will not be newer – unless the driver is breaking the law.
How does the number plate system work?
The format of each number plate depends on its age. There are four main types of number plate in use – the current (or new style) plate, the prefix plate, the suffix plate and the dateless plate.
New style plates
The format currently used by the DVLA dates back to 2001, and should remain in use for some time yet to come as it was specifically designed to produce as many plates as possible. This is to satisfy increasing demand.
These plates begin with two letters which indicate the area in which the car or van was first registered. These are followed by two numbers, which denote the year. There is then a gap, followed by three random letters. These are used to give a large number of unique sequences, so that each vehicle has a distinct number plate for identification.
Prefix plates preceded new style plates. They begin with a letter which once more relates to the year of manufacture. There are then two or three digits between 21 and 999. (Numbers 1 to 20 were reserved by the DVLA for special issue, as were several other numbers such as 40 or 888). After the space, prefix plates end in three letters; the last two often show the location where the vehicle was first registered.
Suffix plates start with a random three-letter sequence. After the space, there are one, two or three numbers, then the plate ends with the suffix letter. The suffix indicates the age of the vehicle, just as the prefix does on the plates that came later.
Dateless number plates go back as far as 1903. The sequence starts with one or two letters, which indicate the area of issue. There is then a space, followed by a series of digits between 1 and 9999. In 1932, the dateless plate format was altered, and the plates then began with three letters. They were followed by a space, and finally a three-digit combination between 1 and 999.
How to read number plates
The first step in reading number plate is to establish the type by checking which of the above formats apply. You can then tell the age of the car – although it could be older if a private plate is in use. If you know the area codes, you may also be able to establish the region in which the vehicle was first registered. Beyond these, the combination is a random sequence, enabling a unique number plate to be issued to every single vehicle registered in the UK.