A Brief Introduction to Personalised Number Plates

Love them or loathe them, personalised number plates are increasingly popular – but where did it all begin?
Mention the words ‘Personalised Number Plate’ or ‘Private Number Plate’ and you get one of two reactions. Either someone is a fan, or they find the whole idea pointless and vulgar. The increase in sales of number plates however, seems to suggest that more and more people are succumbing to the idea.
As a child, I often heard people mention ‘Private Number Plates’ and 20 years ago they seemed incredibly exclusive. Only people with a very nice car and money to spend on it would purchase one.  They were strictly the domain of the super-wealthy or the 80s Yuppie.  Or at least that’s how it seemed. However, older and wiser now, I realise this opinion was mainly down to the fact that I knew little about the UK number plate system.
The Origin of the Number Plate
The first car registration issued was ‘A 1’.  It was issued in 1903 by London County Council and was purchased by Earl Russell. A 1 was a  ‘Dateless Registration’ as it featured no age identifier. The dateless range expanded due to the increasing popularity of the motor car and eventually incorporated registrations with up to 3 letters and a maximum of 4 numbers.
When the dateless range became exhausted in the 1950s, the letters and numbers were reversed to create the new reverse dateless range.
In the early 1960s, County Councils began issuing a new registration format called the ‘Suffix Plate’. These plates featured a single letter age identifier at the end of the registration, preceded by 3 letters and a number between 1 – 999. This new format coincided with the Government’s decision to move to a centrally administered registration system and hence the birth of the DVLC (now known as the DVLA).
In 1983 the Suffix range came to an end and the format was reversed to create the Prefix range. Prefix plates feature a single letter age identifier followed by a number between 1 – 999 and 3 letters. This range continued throughout the 1990s until it became defunct in 2001.
The current registration format is 7 characters in length and features a two-digit age identifier.  This system is due to run for the foreseeable future.
So what makes a number plate ‘Private’?
The term ‘Personalised Number Plate’ or ‘Private Number Plate’ refers to a number plate purchased privately (instead of a number that was automatically assigned to a vehicle by the DVLA). A ‘Private’ plate can be any format of registration sourced either directly from the DVLA, from a specialist auction, from an individual, or through one of the many number plate dealers up and down the country.
The expense associated with personalised number plates is a common misconception and registrations can be bought for as little as £39 on today’s market.