The History of Personalised Number Plates

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The History of Personalised Number Plates

The number plate system in the UK was first introduced in 1903 when a law was passed requiring all vehicles in the country to display alphanumeric plates. Over the years the UK number plate system has changed to accommodate the increasing numbers of cars on the road. What about the history of personalised number plates, however?

Most number plates in the UK are issued randomly. The difference with a personalised number plate is that it is specifically selected by a purchaser. The purchaser then usually keeps the number plate, transferring it from car to car as they change their vehicle.

Personalised Number Plates – An Early History

The history of personalised number plates is as old as the UK number plate system itself. In fact, the first number plate ever issued was a personalised number plate. It was not intended to be a personalised number plate, but it was treated as such.

Back in 1903, number plates had either a single or a double letter followed by a number from 1 to 9999. The single or double letter represented the issuing authority and was based on the size of population. As a result, London was allocated the letter A.

The numbers were simply issued sequentially, starting at the number 1. The first number plate to be issued in London in 1903 was, therefore, A1. It was allocated to Earl Russel after he got his butler to queue up at the County Council office in London overnight.

Of course, this is not how you can acquire a personalised number plate today. The first number plate was, however, issued to someone who wanted that specific alphanumeric number. In fact, the number plate A1 still exists today – it is owned by Prince Jefri, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei.

Number Plate Systems Over the Years

For many decades after the introduction of the number plate system in the UK, buying a personalised number plate involved going through a dealer or contacting the owner directly. In other words, there was no formal system of purchasing number plates through the DVLA as there is today. Of course, you can also purchase number plates through dealers today as well – often this is the only way to get the number plate you want.

The type of number plate you could buy from the early 1900s until 1983 depended on the structure of the number plate system which changed over the years. This situation still exists today.

The UK’s number plate structure over the years is as follows:


  • Up to 1932 – a single or double letter followed by a number between 1 and 9999.


  • From 1932 until 1962 – three letters followed by numbers from 1 to 999.


  • From 1963 until 1982 – a suffix was added to the number plate to represent the year of first registration. This meant number plates had three letters followed by a number from 1 to 999 followed by another single letter to represent the year. The suffix used in 1963 was A so all cars registered in that year had an “A” at the end. In some years during this period, two-year suffixes were used, with each one representing six months. As a result, this system got through the alphabet to the letter Y by July 1983.


  • From 1983 until 2001 – the above system was reversed so the year suffix became a prefix. It was followed by three numbers up to 999 and then three letters.


  • From 2001 until now – number plates now start with two letters which indicate where they are first registered. This is followed by a two-digit number to represent the year of registration. This digit uses the year itself so cars registered use the year of first registration. For example, a car registered between April and August 2017 will have the number “17” in the number plate. Fifty is then added to cover plates over the next six months so cars registered between September 2017 and March 2018 have the number “67” in the number plate. Cars registered from April to August 2018 will then have the number “18”. After the numbers representing the year there are three randomly generated letters.

Within all these number plate systems, there are number plates that people want to purchase either because they like the look of the combination of letters or numbers, because they can be used to spell a word, or because they represent something else.

DVLA Involvement

In 1983, the Government started to realise how valuable some number plates were. As a result, the DVLA started to withhold number plates from being randomly issued. This could be number plates with desirable numbers, plates that represented something, or for any other reason.

Then, in 1989, the DVLA introduced an auction scheme where it started auctioning the withheld plates to the highest bidder. This scheme has raised over £2 billion for the UK Treasury with number plates starting at £250. The highest price anyone has ever paid at a DVLA auction was for the number plate “25 O” which was sold for £518,000.

Purchasing a Personalised Number Plate Today

The DVLA auction scheme gave buyers another option for purchasing the number plate they want. In other words, it is in addition to the now mature and highly effective private sales of personalised number plates, often through brokers. It is possible to purchase almost any number plate you desire, providing you can afford to pay the price tag.

While there are some number plates that change hands for very large sums of money – much larger than the record achieved by the DVLA – the vast majority of numbers plates are bought for a few hundreds of pounds. Purchasing personalised number plates is also increasing trend, with more and more people now choosing to buy something unique to them.

Long gone are the days when acquiring a personalised number plate meant you had to be royalty, very rich, or someone privileged enough to have a butler you could send to do your bidding. Getting a personalised number plate is now open to everyone, its affordable, and the process of getting one is hassle free.

Speak to one of our team at for great advice and help on how to get your personalised number plate.