The earliest UK dateless number plates were issued using letters to stand for the region of issue, and sequential numbers as unique identifiers. The lack of a letter or number combination to indicate the year of issue means that these plates are often referred to as dateless number plates.
As these plates were issued and managed locally by County Council offices, number and letter sequences ran out at different rates in different parts of the country. Therefore, due to differing local demand, there are a wide variety of types of dateless plates with a lot of overlap between the issue periods for different formats.
One of the UK’s first registrations, A1 was famously bought by Earl Russell. He reputedly queued outside the London County Council offices all night to acquire this number!
1903 to 1932
In 1903 the UK’s first registration numbers were issued. Number plates made during this period consisted of:
- A prefix of one or two letters - This was used to reference the local authority issuing the registration.
- A space.
- A number from 1 to 9999 - These were issued sequentially by the issuing office.
The issuing County Council offices in England and Wales were each given a one or two letter prefix code. For example: London used “A”, Birmingham “O”, up to Rutland with “FP”. Because of this it is hard to say what the UK’s first dateless number plate was. A1 was certainly the first issued in London. Scotland and Ireland had their own 2-letter sequences starting with “S” and “I” respectively. The second letter was allocated alphabetically by county. For example Aberdeenshire was allocated “SA”, Argyll “SB”, etc. In Ireland, Antrim received “IA”, Armagh “IB” and so on.
When plate 9999 was reached by a licensing authority it was allocated another unused registration letter sequence. There was no pattern to these subsequent allocations other than “first come, first served”.
The 1901 census was used to order issuing offices by the population size they covered. This order determined the prefix code each office was given.
1903 to 1932
Due to the booming – and unexpected – increase in UK motor vehicles, by 1932 the available numbers from the original format were running out! A new format was devised, this time made up of:
- A three letter suffix, e.g ABC, MCR - These were taken from the series “AAA” to “YYY”.
- A space.
- A number from 1 to 999. These were again issued sequentially by each local office.
The new plates retained 2-letter area codes – any remaining single letter codes were replaced. However, the area codes were now the 2nd and 3rd letters in the sequence of 3. The first letter was changed sequentially when the previous letter had used up all the available number combinations.
The letters I, Q, and Z were not used. They were considered too easy to mistake for letters or numbers, or were reserved for special use.
1950s & 1960s
In some areas the available registration numbers within this scheme started to run out in the 1950s! In those places a reversed sequence was introduced. For example “1 AAA” to “999 YYY”. The ever-increasing popularity of the car can be gauged by noting that even these reversed sequences ran out within ten years! By the beginning of the 1960s a further change was made in very popular areas introducing 1 to 4 number registration number sequences and reverting to one and two letter area codes, but in the reverse direction of the original scheme. For example “1 A” to “9999 YY”. Any un-issued ‘dateless’ combinations began to be auctioned by the Government Department of Transport (DVLA) in 1989 and continue to be to this day and will be for the foreseeable future raising tens of millions of pounds in revenue each year.