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From X 1 to XXX 1: The Mysterious World of Number Plates

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As with any profession dealing with government bureaucracy on a daily basis, people in the business of buying and selling car number plates can get a few blank stares when they talk about the ins and outs of their industry. I suppose the assumption is that anything associated with a numerical formula controlled by government rules and regulations must, by definition, be rather dull. One of my main challenges as features writer at Regtransfers is to convince people otherwise, and actually all it takes is a subtle shift in perception.

Like many things in life, number plates can become quite fascinating, and even entertaining, if you look at them in a different way. Really, the history of number plates is the story of government trying to keep up with the meteoric rise of the automobile as the preferred method of transport: a quest that has led to several reconfigurations of the system, as possible combinations have been exhausted by demand.

One of the first number plates registered in the UK was X 1, which was allegedly owned by the chairman of a Tynemouth committee that fought to end 1865 legislation requiring motorists to adhere to a speed limit of four miles per hour. Under the rules current at the time, each motor car was required to have someone walk at a specified distance in front holding a red warning flag. Such was the fear of these powerful new machines.

As the British public, and indeed the world at large, fell in love with the automobile, it became clear that new rules were needed to regulate, control, and identify vehicles. Thus, the UK government created its first stab at vehicle registrations in 1903. The original numbering system consisted simply of a letter code for registration location followed by a unique identification number. However, such was the rapid growth in car ownership, the available combinations under this system were nearly exhausted by 1932.

Scrambling to keep up, several extensions were introduced over the following years, but it became clear by 1962 that a new system was needed. So, the suffix series was born. This series added a letter to the end of the plate that signified the year of issue, which further helped identify vehicles and by age. In 1983 all the possible permutations in this system were depleted and it gave way to the prefix system, which simply moved the year code to the front. Again, this format could only keep up with demand for so long, and a new one was introduced in 2001, which is what we are using to this day.

The current system calls for a regional code of two letters at the start of the sequence, which is rather romantically called the "local memory tag", a two-digit code for the year, and then three random letters that uniquely identify the vehicle. For example, BD51 SMR is for a vehicle registered in Birmingham (BD), in 2001 (51), and SMR is the random bit. New registrations are now released twice a year and the two-digit date code allows for more possibilities. This format is forecasted to last us until 2049, but only time will tell.

Aside from the truly riveting mathematical history of number plates, the results can be fascinating. Just because something is regulated and somewhat randomised doesn't mean there can be no humour involved. Automatically generated numbers can actually create some very amusing combinations. And the risque. This occasional emergence of meaning from chaos has spawned an industry specialising in matching number plates resembling names and words to the people for who those names and words have significance or appeal. In exceptional cases, when people finally find their DR11 EAM or PR11 ZZE registration number they can be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to obtain it. Private number plates can be a sound investment. Happy is the person who buys a plate representing a name only to sell it a couple of years later to a hideously wealthy celebrity of that very name. It does happen.

One of the most popular and, in many people's opinions, most entertaining, types of cherished DVLA registrations is the "naughty numbers" category. Of course, humour and degrees of naughtiness are entirely subjective, so we let our customers decide for themselves what they feel to be appropriate. There are hundreds of valid, perfectly legal combinations that, by chance, have formed rather eye-catching words and phrases. Some of the tamer ones that are fit to print here include: V14 GRA, ORG 45M, FAB 53X, 911 BJ, ORA 11Y, 69 ER, BOO 8S and, of course, the infamous PEN 15. There are countless others listed on our website, but just a final word of caution, some may not be ideal for those of a sensitive disposition!

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