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Cracking the Code

Cracking the code

The mysteries of the car registrations system revealed

Part 1: Where’s it From?
The numeric/alpha cyphers of UK registration marks could almost match the World War II Enigma code for complexity and obscurity. In order to make some sense of it, let’s take a look at the history of autonumerology.

The first car registration marks were a combination of one or two letters and up to four numbers. The letters identified the particular licensing authority responsible for its issue. For example, A was assigned to the London whilst AA was Hampshire and BA Salford (for no apparent reason).
Apart from the implication of A for the capital city, the only other recognisable, if somewhat tenuous, associations are BN (Bolton), CE (Cambridge), DT (Doncaster), G/GG (Glasgow), DV (Devon), E/KN/KT (Kent), LD/LN/LO (London), MD/ML (Middlesex), MN (Isle of Man), NH (Northampton), NL (Northumberland), RD (Reading) and, perhaps stretching a point, WY (West Riding of Yorkshire).
During the mid-1930s, when all the possible permutations were exhausted, licensing authorities simply added an extra letter at the beginning of their existing two-letter codes. So, e.g., BAA was still Hampshire (*AA) – and NOT Salford (BA*).

By the 1950s, the 3-letter codes had, of course, started to run out again. So it was decided to reverse the character pattern, e.g. allowing 1 AEV in addition to AEV 1. During the 1960s, the situation forced the issue of the first suffix registration marks – Three letters/three numbers plus a single letter denoting, for the first time, the actual year of registration. (Earlier registrations are, therefore, dateless.)

Naturally, due to the remarkable lack of foresight for which government agencies are renowned, it was soon necessary to supersede this system with the familiar prefix registrations, where the year indicator was placed at the beginning. This lasted until the advent of the new-style registrations in 2001. Under the present arrangement, the two-letter prefix once again represents the place of issue. Predictably, the opportunity to apply any logic to these was lost in favour of a random allocation.

Incidentally, Grimsby Corporation recently sold the number GY 1, which had adorned the mayoral limousine for many years. There was something of an outcry at the loss of this family heirloom because GY is well known as the code of the Grimsby fishing fleet. The truth, once again getting in the way of a good story, is that GY car registrations were, in fact, issued by the London County Council – the real Grimsby allocations being EE and JV.

The following table shows the common old-style letter codes and their derivations. Great fun for the kids on long journeys!

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Byron Marks – The World of Personal Number Plates Volume 3 Issue 2

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