Prior to the appearance of the first railways in Britain, there was a brief development and interest in steam-powered road going vehicles. However, the success of the railway movement drove all such traffic off the roads. By the turn of the century, Britain was showing a greater interest in the motorcar, but there was widespread dissatisfaction with the poor state of the roads.
In 1896 the Locomotive and Highways Act enabled faster and more popular light motor vehicles to be used. Around this time Britain saw its first ever petrol driven car. Soon the number of vehicles in use had reached 5,000, creating ever more hazards for other road users. It was difficult to identify the offenders of the few regulations that existed.
Consequently, The Motor Car Act of 1903 introduced measures to help identify vehicles and their drivers. All motor vehicles were to be registered, and to display registration marks in a prominent position. All drivers were also to be licensed annually. County Councils and County Borough Councils were made Registration and Licensing Authorities; the vehicle registration fee was twenty shillings and the drivers licence fee was five shillings. The Bill also raised the speed limit to 20mph, with a limit of 10mph by the Local Government Boards, and introduced heavy fines for speeding and reckless driving (the offenders could now be identified more easily). Fines were also introduced for driving unlicensed vehicles. By 1919 it was evident that reform was needed and the Road Board was abolished and its functions transferred to the Ministry of Transport.
The Roads Act 1920 required Councils to register all vehicles at the time of licensing and to allocate a separate number to each vehicle. The number was to be displayed in the prescribed manner. People were also required to notify the local Council when they bought a vehicle. There were also licensing provisions for manufacturers and traders - a General Licence was the forerunner of the present trade plate system. Hackney carriages were required to be fitted with a distinctive sign, and to indicate how many persons the vehicle could seat.
By now it was apparent that there were legal difficulties with the term "owner" and it was decided that the name and address of the person "keeping" the vehicle should appear on the logbook.
The first number plates to be issued comprised of one letter followed by up to four numbers and were specific to each council. The first ever registration in London was A1, issued to Earl Russell who wanted the registration enough to have camped out all night to secure it. Later formats were comprised of two letters and four numbers. These series were replaced as and when they were exhausted. The problem was that with some areas being more populated, and therefore having a larger volume of vehicles, than others, the registrations were taken at different rates. So, whilst the Liverpool series KA lasted for only two years between 1925 and 1927, the series SJ was still being issued by Bute Council in 1963.
By the mid 1930s, the two letter/four number series of registration marks were completely exhausted in some areas and new three letters/with up to three numbers series were introduced. AAA 1 was issued (by Hampshire County Council) in 1934 through to AAA 999 and the commencement of the BAA series in 1936. This process continued until the mid 1950s when marks were reversed and up to three numbers preceded three letters.
By 1963 several councils were close to the end of their allocation, so they began to issue "suffix" registration marks. A 7th digit was added to the Number Plate System. This extra digit was a letter, which gave the age of the car. The registration year began with the letter A and ran from 1 January - 31 December, when it was swapped for the letter B and so on; until a further complication to the number system came in August 1967 when, after pressure from the motor car industry to smooth out purchasing demand, the changeover date was moved from January 1st to August 1st. The system continued until it became exhausted, ending with the letter Y on the 31 Jul 1983. The letters I and Z were, never used as these were reserved for Northern Ireland, whilst the letter Q was reserved for kit cars and repaired write offs etc. for unknown reasons the letter U was never used at all.
During the 1960s the licensing and registration system was beginning to show signs of strain and breakdown, mainly due to the ever-growing numbers of vehicles and the increasing mobility of their keepers. The system could not cope with the millions of documents passing backwards and forwards and in 1965 the Government decided that a new system should be administered centrally, with automatic data processing. It was decided that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre should be situated in Swansea, supported by 81 Local Vehicle Licensing Offices.
In 1973 the appearance of registration plates was changed for the first time since 1903. From 1 January, vehicles were required to have reflective number plates - black on white at the front and black on yellow at the back. Reflective plates were introduced so that unlit vehicles could be seen more easily at night. The regulations also provided for the size, shape and character of registration marks.
By 1983 they faced the same problem again. The end of the "suffix" letter therefore saw the implementation of the Prefix, by reversing the number plate giving a letter first then up to 3 numbers then a space then 3 more letters. In 1999 the standard "1-plate-per-year" system was increased and two plate changes a year, 1 March and 1 September were introduced. The prefix system ran in the same manner until it was exhausted in August 2001.
It was therefore time to alter the system once again. In 2001, the new registration format was introduced; number plates would have a format composed of 2 prefix letters, 2 numbers, and then 3 letters. The 2 prefix letters are determined by the location of registration, for example NE tells us that the car is from the North East, (a table of these region identifiers is available here). The 2 numbers following this relate to the year of registration, and the remaining 3 letters are random registration marks.
With the founding of the DVLA * , came the opportunity to transfer vehicle registrations for a cost of £5. The first ever plate to be issued (A1), had already proved that certain plates had certain appeal and prestige. When the number plate system was originally put in place all plates were dateless as the local authorities never expected to experience any difficulties as far as the exhaustion of combinations was concerned.
As soon as the various prefix and suffix style plates were issued people were quick to catch on to the concept that the standard arrangement of numbers could also depict certain letters. For example the number plate 51N was no longer classed as 51 N but read as SIN and the plate SAT 4N was read as SATAN. With such quirky and desirable combinations now being recognized as something other than a means of identifying a vehicle but also as an item of individuality it was not long before the idea of creating a company from this phenomenon was to actually take seed.
In addition to this people recognized that many plates contained their initials or perhaps a nickname, if not a first name possibly a surname. Although one plate may mean absolutely nothing to the person to whom it had been issued it may mean everything to someone else. For example the number plate STJ 1 may have absolutely no significance whatsoever to John Peter Smith but it would to Steven Terence Jackson. Therefore, they became desirable purely on the basis that now there was an opportunity to have a registration plate that was personal to the owner.
The DVLA * had created a market place for the sale of number plates. However, in 1975 they revoked the system consequently destroying the market. The number plate dealers of the time were in uproar as the DVLA * had effectively terminated the market which was now being pioneered by a number of entrepreneurs.
Since the 1970’s when the first number plate companies were evolving the business has come a long way. New Reg was one of the first successful pioneers of the mass market and with the launch of the internet in the 1990’s it became the first company to conduct sales online and now enjoys a vast share of the market place as one of the country’s leading purveyors of personalized registration plates.