Cracking the Code: British Number Plates

by Terry Walker

Many Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners have cars which were first licenced in Britain and later brought out to Oz. Some of us even know what the original UK registration number was. Quite a lot of us are familiar with British rego numbers attached to famous cars: SU 13 and AX 201 for instance. And if we have read a few UK road tests of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, we know all about 1800 TU, which has been attached to many Company road-test cars over the years, as has 100 LG. And of course quite a few of us know that there is a sort of year-coding involved in UK plates. Instead of saying "I’ve got a 2001 Bentley Azure Convertible", a Pom would say "I’ve got a Y- reg Bentley Azure Convertible." (Don’t I wish...)

And it’s true enough, Since 1963, UK plates have used a sort of year-code system. What’s less well known is that ever since 1904 all UK plates have also had an "area" or "county" coding, rather like the West Australian system (YL for Yilgarn, K for Kalgoorlie, etc). This article explains them both. And I’ll start with "county" coding.

1904-1931: 1 or 2 county letters; numbers 1 to 9999

In 1904, when license numbers became the law, it was the responsibility of Counties (eg County of Middlesex) or Boroughs (eg London) to issue the numbers. The Home Office controlled the allocation of identifying letters. Each licencing authority was allocated an identifying index letter, or combination of 2 letters. The council then issued licence numbers with that letter or letters, followed by up to 4 digits. Eg: B 1; A 13; CT 123; DF 8073. (The council only allocated you the "index number". You had to organise your own actual plate!) For the sake of simplicity, I will hereafter call these "1-4" plates and "2-4" plates.

In WA, the council letters, however obscure (VP? KTY?) were abbreviated from the council name. Not so in UK. There, "A" was for London; "N" (not M) was for Manchester; and so on. There was no obvious connection between letter and licencing authority. Instead, the Home Office apparently allocated index letters on a first-come, first-served basis, first issuing single-letter codes until they ran out, then moving to two-letter codes. A = London; B = Lancashire; C = West Riding of Yorkshire; AA = Southampton; AB = Worcestershire; AC = Warwickshire; etc.

AX 201SU 131200 TU1  WO

AX = Monmouthshire; Hon C S Rolls came from there. Plates on "the" Silver Ghost

SU = Kincardineshire. Plates are on 10 hp 2-cyl Rolls-RoyceTU = Cheshire. The only Bentley Camargue!WO = Monmouthshire. The WO symbolises WO Bentley; Company also has WO 1.

AX was for Monmouthshire, and Charles Rolls lived in Monmouthshire. The early Rolls-Royce cars which Charles raced or rallied, and there were several, had AX plates. Have a look at that famous photo outside the Cat and Fiddle.

AX 201, AX 205, AX 192, N MR 8
The 1907 15,000 mile Rolls-Royce Reliability Trial. The Cat and Fiddle is a lonely pub on the moors above Buxton

There are three R-Rs with AX plates in the photo: AX 192, AX 201, and AX 205. The other car is N.MR.8, with N = Manchester, and the interpolated MR = manufacturer; ie, a trade plate.

TU was allocated to Cheshire, and guess which county the Crewe factory is in? Cheshire! So all those TU plates in the road test and publicity photos, 20 TU, 1800 TU, 3500 TU etc, are simply ordinary Cheshire plates.

And SU, as in SU 13, the famous 10 hp 2-cylinder survivor? Well, this is a bit trickier. Most pre-1974 UK plates with S in them were for the Scottish counties and boroughs. SU was for Kincardineshire. The first owner of SU 13 was Sir Sydney Gammell of Countesswells House, Bielside, Aberdeenshire, Bielside being a small town a few miles out of Aberdeen. Aberdeenshire had the code RS. So what was he doing with a Kincardineshire plate? Well, in fact, the plates don’t necessarily relate to where the owner lives. They tell you the location of the issuing authority. Bielside is only about a mile from the boundary between Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire, so Sir Sydney Gammell possibly just registered it with the most convenient licencing authority. Or did he? A kindly UK correspondent, Alistair Baxter, tells me that Sir Sydney Gammell's main residence was Drumtochty Castle, which is indeed in Kincardineshire. (Today Drumtochty Castle is a wedding and business activities centre, and was, for a period up to the 1970s, a prep school.)

A famous Bentley number, WO1, is another Monmouthshire plate, acquired by Bentley Motors long ago to celebrate W O Bentley. RRM 1 (Rolls-Royce Motors 1) is also a carefully acquired plate, this time from Cumberland. Another plate encountered in magazines is 100 LG, sometimes seen on factory road-test Silver Clouds and Silver Shadows; LG is, like TU, a Cheshire code.

1931-1963: 3 county letters; numbers 1 to 999

Obviously London would get to from A1 to A9999 very quickly (in less than a year, in fact!) and need new letters, while others, pocket-handkerchief shires like Flint or Clackmannan, both about the size of Rottnest, might never get to 9999. Equally obviously, with rapidly increasing production, some counties would soon use up all possible "1-4" and "2-4" combinations.

The crisis arrived in 1931. All possible one- and two-letter county codes had been issued, and some counties were soon going to run out of "1-4" and "2-4" numbers. The solution was very British.

Instead of starting afresh with some new scheme, they embroidered the old one. When authorities ran out of old "1-4" and "2-4" numbers, they could now issue three-letter, up-to-three-digit numbers (The "3-3" system.)

FSJ 548TOC 339972 GBLFPO 416
#SJ = Bute, Scotland. This is a rare Bentley Mk 6 Cresta.
#OC = Birmingham; on Silver Cloud
#BL = Berkshire. An example of a "reversed" number/letter combination on a Bentley Continental S
#PO = West Sussex; on "Cleopatra", the Buckleton 1939 Park Ward Wraith

The "3-3" system consisted of tacking new letters in front of the old 2-letter combination, thus when AX filled up at AX 9999, Monmouthshire could then issue a new series of plates AAX 1 to AAX 999, BAX 1 to BAX 999, and so on. Let’s shorten this to #AX, where the # indicates any letter. As for counties and towns which still had plenty of "1-4" or "2-4" numbers to go, they simply kept going. The "3-3" numbers were never universal across the nation. "2-4" numbers were still being issued by some counties as late as 1963.

A few counties got around the problem of shortages by reversing the letter-number arrangement from, say, TU 1234 to 1234 TU. Which, of course, accounts for 1800 TU having the letters last. TU 1800 and 1800 TU are different numbers.

1963-1983: 3 county letters; numbers 1 to 999 plus a suffix year-letter

In 1963 the second crisis came. Once again, some populous counties and cities were running out of possible "3-3" numbers, so the scheme was further amended by introducing a year code. This took the form of a suffix letter. This system meant that a number like, say, BAX 999, could be issued year after year: BAX 999 A, BAX 999 B, etc.

For the years 1963 to 1966, the year letters were for the calender year 1 January-31 December: 1963 was A, 1964 was B, etc. What soon happened was that new car buyers would rush to buy and licence a new car as close as possible to 1 January to show off by their number plate that they had a brand new car. This was not a convenient time for either dealers or licencing centres, so in 1967 that year’s letter, which was E, was replaced by the next letter, F, from 1 August 1967, shifting the busy season to summer. From then on, the year-letter "year" was 1 August until 31 July next. (Some possible year-letters were skipped: I, O, Q, U and Z were never used.)

KLT 568D BGC 225G XWV 183A
#LT = London. D suffix = 1966. A very early MPW 2-door saloon.
It's the one-off Pininfarina Bentley "T". #GC = London; G suffix = 1968-69
Bentley Flying Spur. #WV = Wiltshire; A suffix = 1963

UK plates now looked like this: SJH 754 H.

In fact, this is the original UK rego of my own Silver Shadow. It tells us it is a 1970 model from Hertfordshire. The H-year letter was from 1 August 1969 to 31 July 1970. That fits; the car was actually delivered in January 1970. The county code, #JH, is from Hertfordshire, a county on the northern edge of London. However, I happen to know that the first owner lived in Hendon, within Greater London’s licencing area. Why then, is it a #JH number?

The answer is simple. The build sheets to my car tell me it was sold through a well known Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealer (and Bentley Mk Vl rally driver) Mike Couper of St Albans, in (you guessed it) Hertfordshire which is not far north of Hendon. Couper was easily the nearest R-R dealer to Hendon. No doubt Mr Couper obligingly organised the licence number as he clinched the deal, and probably even provided the plates as well, buying them in from a nearby plate manufacturer.

Interruption: The Big Bang of 1974

In 1974 the whole business of registration of cars was taken away from the councils and handed over to a national body known as the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licencing Authority) , with its main processing centre in Swansea in south Wales. This coincided with a vast reorganisation and amalgamation of ancient county boundaries.

Instead of going to your county council offices, you now went to licencing centres known as VLOs. And now that the whole business was centralised, the DVLA did a reshuffle of unused index letters. Counties with surplus letters suddenly found some of them shifted to the other end of the country. Mostly, however, they were somewhat reshuffled within the amalgamated or reorganised counties.

1983-2001: Year letter prefix; numbers 1 - 999; three VLO identifying letters

B995 RLN
F655 SYN
Year prefix B = 1984-1985; #LN = London North West, on a Silver Spirit
Year prefix F = 1988-89; #YN = London Central. Late Bentley Corniche convertible.

The story is not yet over. The scheme could obviously only last for a maximum 21 years, given that only 21 letters of the alphabet were used as year-letters. No probs; when they got to "Y", which covered the period 1 August 1982-31 July 1983, the system was flicked around so that the layout had the year letter (starting with A once again) as a prefix followed by the number, and finally the three-letter area code, eg H 754 SJH. (Hertfordshire, 1990). There’s quite possibly a car in UK with that number, the reverse order of the number which was issued to my Silver Shadow back in 1970.

2001 onwards: 2 VLO identifying letters; 2 year digits; 3 sequence letters

This scheme lasted until 2001, when a baffling all-new system was introduced where the plates look like this: AB 02 CDE; or this: AB 51 CDE. Lots of letters, very few numbers.

When I first saw these plates on the streets of London in 2002, I quickly noticed that, while the letters were highly variable, there were just three numbers: 51, 52 or 02.

In this new scheme, that 2-digit number is the year indicator. In 1999 they had begun issuing two "year-codes" a year to reduce congestion in August, and this scheme was continued for the new scheme. The 51 number is for registrations from 1 September 2001 until 28 February 2002. The 02 number is for 1 March-31 August 2002. 52 commenced 1 Sep 2002; and so it goes on through 03 and 53, 04 and 54 etc, until they get to 10 and 60, after which your guess is as good as mine.

Furthermore, the old county letter codes at long last vanished from the new plate series. Instead, England, Scotland and Wales were divided into a small number of regions, each region having an identifying letter which is, for a wonder, roughly related to the region’s name. This is the first letter on the plate.

MN 2530
H = Hampshire. X = Portsmouth. 03 indicates 1 March to 31 Aug 2003. On 2003 Phantom
We saw this car here at York! RR = Reading; 03 indicates 1 March to 31 Aug 2003.
On a 20-25. MN plates were never issued "in period", but are now available (see footnote below)

Thus A = "Anglia", the region comprising Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. The second letter on the plate is the licencing centre or VLO which issued the plate. Using the example earlier, AB 51 CDE, A = "Anglia", and the B is for Peterborough, the county town of Cambridgeshire where its VLO is located. In fact, AA, AB, AC etc all the way to AN, are Peterborough. AO up is Norwich VLO (Norfolk), and AV up is Ipswich (Suffolk) VLO. As usual, some letters are not used: there is no AI, AQ or AZ. So, looking at our example AB 51 CDE again, we can see that it was issued by Peterborough VLO in the region of Anglia within the period 1 Sep 2001 to 28 Feb 2002. Simple, really.


And what of the fabulous 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom which made its Australian debut at the 2003 National Rally in York? It’s UK Rego plate is RR 03 ONE. This is not a special personal plate in the WA manner. It is a legitimate ordinary plate under the new scheme. RR is for the VRO in Reading in Berkshire. 03 signifies the period 1 March to 31 August 2003. And ONE are just letters, like CDE in the example above. But I bet the proud owner twisted a few arms to get that exact combination!

Next time you’re stuck in a traffic tailback on the M25 outside London, and you haven’t got a good book to read while you wait, you can amuse yourself by reading the numberplates on the cars. Oh yeah, that Mini Cooper S there. FAJ 277 G. It’s from the North Riding of Yorkshire (#AJ); and it’s 1968 (G).



Since this article was published in Winged Wessenger there have been further developments.

The DVLA has begun to issue previously unissued numbers from all series since they first came out, such as the MN series, which was withheld to avoid confusion with the Isle of Man's similar MN series. There are hundreds of thousands of these unissued numbers. Furthermore, the various series allocated to Ireland until self-rule in 1921 were never filled, and those numbers, now issued, are to be seen on UK roads. They can be identified by being three-letter four-digit combinations without year letter: eg ABC 1234. I saw a few of these on the road in UK in 2004. There are quite a lot of owners who presumably don't want a year identifier!

To look at the complete List of UK licence plate codes, click here.