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September 22nd 2022 info

When searching for a new car, sometimes, the number plate can feel almost like an afterthought in the process. This of course makes sense. Afterall, why pay attention to a number plate when there are much more important factors at stake?

Having said this, many have often wondered why we even need number plates, and where they came from to begin with. If you’re curious, join us as we take a dive into the history of number plates, offering up some explanations around their existence.

The role of number plates

Often criticised for their garish appearance, number plates form a critical part of the UK’s vehicle infrastructure. As of today, the primary role that a number plate plays in the UK driving network is to show that a car is registered with the DVLA.

Having a number plate helps legal authorities identify vehicles when they are involved in accidents or used for illicit activity. All vehicles made after September 2001 follow a consistent formula that makes them easy to comprehend:

  •  The first two letters refer to where the vehicle was registered.
  • The first two numbers identify the year the vehicle was produced.
  • The remaining three letters are chosen at random.

For example, a number plate beginning with C would indicate a Welsh registration. Years are expressed in three ways: cars produced between 2001-2009 are formatted as 51-59. Whereas vehicles produced from 2010 onwards are displayed via 10-19.

If a vehicle is manufactured after September of that year, the first number is swapped out for a 6. So, a vehicle manufactured in October 2018 would be shown as 68.

Prior to September 2001, number plates looked slightly different. So, if you’re considering purchasing a vintage car, the plate won’t conform to the same format we see today.

New registrations changed annually up until 1999, and until 2021 plates had a different format. From August 1983 to September 2001, plates had a prefix leading letter which identified the year the car was first registered. Starting with 1983 having an ‘A’ and ending with 2001 on ‘Y’.  

Before 1983, letters were used as a suffix instead with the identifying character at the end of the plate. Starting with ‘A’ in 1963 and ending with ‘Y’ in 1982.

When were number plates introduced?

Number plates were first introduced in the early 1900s to coincide with the increased amount of road vehicles being used by the public. Specifically, it was 1904 when the legality surrounding number plates was introduced, forcing manufacturers to display them on all vehicles produced from that point onward.

Number plates have undergone various design iterations throughout the years. They started off as black rectangles with white lettering, remaining that way until the 1970s, where colour usage was swapped to help increase visibility. It was around this time that rear number plates started being introduced, styled in a reflective yellow with black lettering.

Can I change my number plate?

If you’ve found a lovely new runner but are having some time coming to terms with its number plate, don’t fret. Not all hope is lost, as number plates aren’t actually set in stone.

If you’re willing to fork up the cash, the DVLA allows drivers to purchase customised number plates. Some number plates are relatively cheap, coming in around £100 to buy. However, there are other plates that clock in some eye-watering numbers. Common initials or abbreviations can frequently be found for upwards of £600, with the most expensive plates deriving at the £1,000+ mark.

Types of number plates in the UK

The UK currently allows three types of number plates:

Year prefix

Year prefix number plates are those that have the date identifier placed before the first letters of the plate.

Letter prefix

Letter prefix number plates are the most common, starting with two letters, before displaying the vehicle’s year of manufacture.


Dateless number plates are a little harder to come by, and will often only be found on customised plates.

Driving guidance and advice from

Now that you know all there is to know about number plates, it’s time to pick the perfect new car for the daily commute. At, we’ve thousands of used cars to choose from. From nearly new roadsters to high mileage heroes, you’ll find exactly what you need, here.

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