Think of a Number, Add a Letter

Andrew Miles talks alphanumerics.

Mr. Johnny Ball. (c) express.co.uk

Would the elder brother of Bertrand Russell really have camped out all night by the London council offices? Or, as one would back in the autumn of 1903, simply sent ones butler? History on this occasion just may be bunk.

For although A1 is the perceived and openly referenced original British number plate, with one Earl Russell being the purchaser, DY1 is in fact the first officially registered number plate in England. DY1 is recorded as being issued on 23rd November 1903 in Hastings, A1 in London the week before Christmas 1903. 24/11/1903, BH1, Buckinghamshire. 25/11/03 Y1, Somerset.

Records show that Russell was indeed an early motoring enthusiast, just not the owner of A1. But it makes for a good story.

The Motor Car Act 1903 officially began to record all UK motor vehicles in a register from New Year’s Day 1904 and subsequently started the craze that became the number plate. For everyone wants the best plate, don’t they? It denotes individuality, creativity, power.

A little history. The Netherlands was the first country to issue a national registration plate or “driving permits” in 1898 with the French and Germans swiftly following. The French had been the first to start with plates but these had been confined to the capital with the Paris Police Ordnance of 1893, where virtually all cars were sold at that time.

Car purchases were burgeoning and no-one had a clue as to ownership. When considered to be speeding or perhaps the cause of an accident, “the well dressed and politely spoken fellow in the nice hat at the wheel” counted for nothing. Who was it? What car? Where are they from? The authorities needed registration. 

Most countries started quite simply with the number 1 and kept adding one until some clerks additions got crossed and we have the first duplicated number. History hasn’t recorded that exactly either but it simply must have happened. Consider that in Milan, Italy the plate had a number and the name of the driver to the front of the vehicle and placed on the left.

1901 saw them add a rear plate with the full name of the driver’s original region and was actually made by the driver, or at least his minion. If deemed legible and with no strict rulings, anything could be had. Imagine the chaos. 

New York State asked for the drivers initials on the rear and nothing more in 1901. Just how many Cole Trickers or Charlie Templeton’s could there be? Rather a lot, actually. And in the early days, the “plate” was often just embossed into the bodywork. Other bizarre plate fabrication experiments include the use of leather, cardboard and pressed soybeans, meaning they easily fell off or broke and therefore rendering the vehicle identity-less. Where’s the local Motor Factor when you need one?

Talking factors, some modern day shenanigans in China. The world’s largest market has a problem of supply and demand. Millions of Chinese want a car but only a relative handful of plates are available and depending on the city, are obtained through a lottery or auction or a combination. A black market of “renting” a plate exists and even sham marriages occur for man and wife may swop plates.

And one has to have a plate (for life) in order to buy a car. When something like ten thousand plates are up for offer, hundreds of thousands apply. Being no mathematician, the odds of the common man or woman snapping up that plate is remote as the prices spiral out of control. Ironic that the most populous land mass on earth has such a problem where the UK’s current system of plates has permutations into the tens of millions. Mind you, on my commute to work most of those millions are in my way…

The Hastings Mayoral Rover Sterling. (c) nice-reg.co.uk

One expects a Rolls Royce of any vintage to “wear” a private plate. In fact one balks if the Wraith has a current year tucked under its front valence. Supercars too “need” that special alpha-numeric blend to look the part. Even men with steel hearts warm a little to a McLaren if the plate reads something like 27 MF. But turn the opposite cheek and a VW Polo or middle generation Clio really shouldn’t have something similar. Nor should a car have a plate informing the world they have an SLK, BMW or JAG. The manufacturer sees to that, even if removed from the rear.

A regular plate though can lend charisma and a persona. Many years ago I once worked as a drivers mate for a company who had a lorry named “Goo.” Hardly imaginative but that was the plates last three letters and to the driver, me and the haulage firm, lent itself a character. Goo was a bit of a diva in a nice way. Plus it was my first and sadly only trip to Dublin which lends itself a romantic image. GOO took me on many trips to Scotland, etching rose-tinted memories. Daft? Maybe, but true. A name, to me, sounds a whole lot better than taking H367 FJY to Droitwich. 

You probably know someone who makes a name out of the cars registration with its unique code, never mind filling the coffers of DVLA (or your own countries authorities) to say nothing of the private reg plate dealers. Akin to the most expensive cars, the plates follow.

25 O was sold for half a million pounds in 2014 to the fellow knows a thing or two about Ferrari’s. John Collins owns Talacrest, a Ferrari specialist and the plan was to connect the plate to a GTO. And as fitted is no doubt illegal due to its lack of spacing. 

Afzal Khan’s runabout. (c) luxurylaunches.com

F1 was once owned by Essex council for over a hundred years. Sold for £375,000 to one Afzal Khan, the chap whose company alters vehicles for those who kick bags of wind around. He stuck it on a Veyron, as you do. Offered six million for the plate, the offer was deemed unworthy. He now seeks buyers with a fourteen million pound purse. Form an orderly queue, please.

And as for A1, it has seen many a different caretaker in its 115 year career as the one to own. London County Council, motor traders, Dunlop and oil sheikhs. Been fitted to MG’s, Alfa Romeo’s, a Daimler and even an ‘80’s Ford Granada. It was once sold for £2,500 in the 1950’s as part the deceased’s estate, the money going to the Guide Dogs for the Blind. Nowadays believed to be fitted to a twenty year old MINI although rarely, if ever seen.

Other notable international plates being SCV1 which resides with his holiness’s Pope Mobile. The German president wafts round with 0 1 on the Mercedes. Czech cars who wish to drive mainly sideways start with a capital R for Rally. Whereas in Russia, diplomatic cars with 001 mean they are with the British embassy; the First Nation to establish good relations with Russia.

Germany is second, Canada third with 003. If you see a car with no registration whatsoever, best bet is that it’s the Queen’s whose official vehicles need no plates. Unless you’re in Antarctica where there are no plates. Not too many roads, either.

To conclude; wanting that private plate to enhance one’s motor and ego is nothing new. Perambulate with haste, sir. To the issuing office for our oneupmanship must occur forthwith. Or just click here to buy it now for 27 large. 

We head ever deeper and faster towards autonomous driving, ANPR as opposed to police officers and no doubt bar or QR codes instead of the humble plastic number plate. For all their idiosyncrasies; Me, I’ll stick with what I’ve got: TFN, which is (almost) Ta Ta For Now

Footnote: Think of a Number was a BBC children’s programme from the 1980’s with presenter, Johnny Ball who made maths and science cool.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

11 thoughts on “Think of a Number, Add a Letter”

  1. In the United Kingdom, personalised number plates seem to provoke irrational antagonism whenever the subject is raised online, with those opposed often hurling violent personal abuse at those who own one, accusing them of vanity, vulgarity and profligacy.

    The DVLA, which issues all registration numbers and makes a very tidy profit selling* personal plates, displays a rather duplicitous attitude in this regard: on the one hand, it reminds you of regulations that forbid any alteration in the spacing or shaping of characters (e.g. making an “8” resemble a “B” or a “6” resemble a “G” etc.) but, on the other hand, is happy to sell you a personal plate that will only makes sense if altered in this manner. I do think there’s something rather tragic about spending a lot of money to have your name mis-spelt on your Range-Rover’s** number plate, while attracting the unwelcome attention of the traffic police.

    A few years ago, I succumbed to an old-style prefix plate with the number 10 followed by DJO, my initials. This plate cost £500 from the DVLA and it’s now on its second car, my current Boxster. Certainly, it was an indulgence, and a vanity purchase, but can’t everything one buys, other than life’s essentials, be regarded as such? Nobody (sane) abuses people who own a Rolex, a far more expensive and indulgent purchase. This is my first personal (to me) plate, but back in the late 90’s I bought a Mercedes-Benz SLK, an ex-dealer demonstrator, that came with the plate P333 SLK. This was a nice but pointless number, since the car was obviously an SLK and it would have made no sense to hang onto it after I sold the car.

    Finally from me on number plates, many of you will be familiar with the Republic of Ireland’s current numbering convention and will already have heard this tale, so apologies for telling you what you already know. The format comprises two digits to represent the year, followed by one or two characters to represent the county, followed by a number up to five digits long. This worked very well from 1987 until 2012, after which the scheme was altered to three digits for the year, “131” for the first six months of 2013, followed by “132” for the last six months of 2013, and so on. It’s nice to see that, amongst all this rationality, there’s still room for some good old-fashioned superstition!

    *Actually, leasing, since you never actually “own” the number plate.

    **Crude stereotyping on my part, apologies to Range-Rover owners to whom this does not apply!

    1. Talking of succumbing, yes I also did. When I moved into the canton I live now, I would have got a regular number in the 160000s, but opted to pay 100 Swiss Francs for a five digit plate. So far so good, but I’m still working on my dialect to pass off as a native…

  2. Andrew – Thanks for bringing us this topic! It’s a very special aspect of the motoring world which usually doesn’t get much coverage. Your piece gives me some more insight into the British numberplate system, but I have to admit that it’s still a riddle for me – starting with the fact that I never know what’s a letter and what’s a number. I guess the O/0s and the I/1s have some kind of double identity.

    The possibility of having a personalized numberplate is a sympathetic trait of bureaucracy, I think. I don’t know how many countries offer this possibility. In Germany you can have a personal combination of up to two letters and four numbers behind your mandatory Landkreis (county) designation – which offers the possibility for some counties to combine to a full word. But not if you live in Heidenheim, as there are no words starting with ‘HDH’. And make sure you don’t include ‘SS’ or ’88’ in your combination, that’s illegal. In Austria you can choose more letters, I think up to five or six, followed by at least one number. Some companies use their name and number their vehicles this way.

    In Switzerland, the possibilities are a bit more limited. There is always the mandatory two-letter code for the canton, followed by a number up to six digits. Some cantons sell or auction special plates, and tend to make good money from it. Generally, Swiss people like low numbers, as they signify either someone who has been living at a place for a long time (the plates belong to a person, not to a car!), or someone with enough money to buy a low number. In my canton, the rule of thumb is that the number of digits on the plate plus the number of digits of the purchase price usually equals eight. If you own a Porsche and all low numbers are unavailable or too expensive, you might also go for 911911 or 911356 or something the like. Or you choose 251289 if you will turn 30 this year on Christmas.

    1. Good morning Simon. You reminded me that I forgot my manners: my thanks also, Andrew. This topic really appeals to my geekish side, as you’re about to see!

      Regarding 251289, yikes! I’m not at all sensitive about my age (58, since you ask) but why would you reveal your date of birth to all and sundry, in an era of widespread identity fraud?

      Still confused about the UK system(s) of registration numbers? You’ll be sorry you told me that! Here goes:

      In the UK (excluding Northern Ireland), “I” has never been used as a letter, because of the potential confusion with the digit, and another reason I’ll return to. Bizarrely, “O”, the letter, and “0”, the digit, have both been used, despite the same risk of confusion, as they both use exactly the same character and are indistinguishable on a plate, except by their position. “Z” was never used until 2001, when the current system was introduced, again for reasons I’ll explain later. ” Q” is reserved for imported secondhand vehicles whose age is not possible to detetmine, or one-off custom built cars, hence the term “Q-car” used to describe heavily modified, souped-up vehicles.

      On 1st January 1963, a new registration system was introduced, with the format ABC 123A. The first three letters identified the geographic area in which the car was registered, the three digits were assigned sequentially, and the final letter was the year indicator, an “A” suffix for 1963, “B” for 1964 and so on. However this caused a rush of new car purchases in January, which didn’t suit manufacturers or dealers, so in 1967 “E” was only used until 31st July, and “F”was introduced on 1st August. Thereafter, the year letter changed on 1st August, which also didn’t suit the manufacturers as it coincided with their summer break!

      In 1983, the system was reversed to what was called the “prefix”, as opposed to “suffix” format. The new format was A123 ABC, with the letters and digits meaning exactly the same as before: an “A” prefix for 1983, “B” for 1984 and so on. This continued until 2001, when the “Y” prefix was used until 31st August.

      On 1st September 2001, the current system was introduced, with the format AB51 ABC.
      The first two letters identified the geographic area in which the vehicle was registered. “51” identified the vehicle as being first registered between 1st September 2001 and 28th February 2002. The final three apparently random letters were assigned consecutively; “AAA”, “AAB”, “AAC” etc.

      This age identifier was replaced with “02” on 1st March 2002 and ran until 31st August 2002. That was replaced by “52” on 1st September 2002 and so on, each number lasting for six months. New cars today are issued a “19” plate, which will change to “69” on 1st September 2019. The thinking behind this scheme was that it whould even out car sales throughout the year. The scheme could last for about fifty years until 31st August 2050, when the year indicator “50” will expire, although they could theoretically use “00” from then until 28th February 2051, then “01” until 31st August 2051, since these numbers weren’t used at the start of the current system.

      What about the letters “I” and “Z”? Historically, these have been reserved for vehicles registered in Northern Ireland. Here the format is ZZZ 1234, there letters followed by four digits. Both letters and numbers are assigned sequentially and, unless you know, it’s difficult to work out the age of a vehicle registered in Northern Ireland. My two company cars when I worked in Belfast were OIJ 2175 (1983) and FXI 4686 (1986). The obscurity of the year is why you often see Northern Ireland registration numbers used on public service vehicles like buses…and hearses!

      Regarding spacing, only one space is allowed on all UK formats, and I’ve shown this space correctly in my illustrations above. Only two typefaces are allowed, one on the old “suffix” and “prefix” plates and a slightly narrower version on current format plates.

      Still with me? Good, you’ll be tested on this later!

    2. Wow Daniel, that’s pretty impressive. My understanding of a Q car though was that it was the direct opposite of a souped up car. I thought it was named after the Q boats in WW2 which were warships designed to be mistaken for a civilian boat and was intended to lure a U boat to attack. Therefore a Q car was a very powerful car designed to look like a run of the mill car, a real wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    3. Oh my god…

      Someone in the car registration offices clearly has too much time on hand and too much creativity. Why would one have to have the age of a car on the plate? The age of the owner makes much more sense…

    4. Yes, Mick, you’re certainly right about the wolf in sheep’s clothing aspect of a Q car, so perhaps my story about the “Q” suffix or prefix letter is a more recent urban myth? I bow to your greater knowledge of maritime history and am pleased to have learnt something new today. The “Q”, according to Wikipedia, refers to Queenstown, now known as Cobh, the port near Cork in what is now the Republic of Ireland that was the base for the WW1 Q-ships.

      Simon, perhaps it is I who have too much time on my hands? Or, at least, too much junk like the above occupying the increasingly scarce real estate in my brain? The UK system makes sense insofar as the plate applies to the car, not the owner. At least, it does until you start transferring them…

      Incidentally, the DVLA tries hard not to issue registration numbers that might be considered rude and cause offence, but the creativity of those looking to shock or offend occasionally defeats its best efforts. This photo was published in one of the UK red-top newspapers a couple of years ago:

      Happily, karma had since intervened and the plate now resides on a 2011 Audi A1 diesel with no MOT…

  3. Good evening chaps
    Sorry it’s a delayed response but I can’t always get access at work and if I do, rarely the time to do anything meaningful.
    Your responses could have made an article in itself; the systems of registration out there can easily become baffling. Check out India’s versions or Russia’s. I could’ve mentioned them but feared the article may have bogged down. And you’ve explained things nicely.
    As for geeky ideas and articles in general, hopefully there’s more to appear. Time and the blessings of Messrs. Doyle and Herriott permitting.

  4. From the internets:

    “The name “Q-car” comes from the “Q-boats” or “Q-ships” used by the British forces in World War I & World War II that were armed military ships, but disguised to look like a civilian passenger or shipping vessel.”

    But yes, I find the concept of a second hand market for personal numberplates objectively perverse. That is good money thrown on vanity and greed, and that money could be put in better use. 375k pounds for a plate is the new “Let them eat cake!”

  5. For those with the vanity to need a personalized plate, our Nova Scotia system is cheap and friendly. Although, one gentleman is fighting in court to keep his surname on the plate after the PC crowd went after him and the bureaucrats woke up and rescinded what they’d issued two decades ago – his sin has been to have his surname displayed: GRABHER.

    Here’s how cheap our system is:

    https://www.novascotia.ca/sns/rmv/registration/personal.asp

    Yawn. I can’t see the correlation between a Rolex and and a personal plate myself. An excuse or justification, but it boils down to vanity and that’s how the plates are known colloquially in North America. Google the term. Who needs one?

  6. My thanks to Ingvar and Bill for neatly demonstrating the point I made in my opening paragraph above!

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