The Motor Car Act of 1903
The registration of motor vehicles, and the licensing of their drivers, was introduced throughout the United Kingdom by the Motor Car Act of 1903. The bill, like the rest of the measure, aroused considerable controversy, with complaints that to number private cars was to treat them as though they were hackney carriages or omnibuses. It says much for contemporary views of the likely growth of car ownership that opponents seriously suggested that private cars should carry names, like boats or houses, rather than numbers. An effective system of identification, capable of more or less infinite expansion, was however essential if the other provisions of the 1903 Act and earlier legislation relating to the speed at which vehicles might be driven were to be enforced by the police. It was to assist the police in this task, rather than as a means of raising revenue, that registration, using a system of index marks, was introduced in 1903, together with the licensing of drivers (but with no test as to their proficiency).
The Motor Car Act merely established the general principles of registration and licensing; detailed arrangements for England and Wales were set out in the Motor Car (Registration and Licensing) Order issued by the Local Government Board on 19 November 1903, accompanied by a circular to local authorities explaining the new measure. Similar instruments were issued by the Scottish and Irish offices for the remainder of the United Kingdom. Both registration and licensing were entrusted to county and county borough councils in England and Ireland (counties and large burghs in Scotland). The local authorities were to open registers in a form prescribed in a schedule to the order for motorcars and motorcycles, with the option of keeping either a single set of books for both or two parallel series. The issue of driving licences was to be registered separately. A fee of 20/-. was payable for each motorcar registered and 5/- for each motor cycle; owners were to be supplied with a copy of the entry relating to their vehicle. Changes of ownership, or the permanent export or scrapping of vehicles was to be noted and, in the latter two cases, a number thus becoming available might be reallocated to another vehicle. Councils were permitted under the order to supply and charge for number plates but few, if any, appear to have done so. Finally, the order also established the ‘general identification plate’ system, whereby motor dealers might be assigned a number which they could attach temporarily to a vehicle which was being delivered to or collected from a customer. Such ‘trade plates’, as they have long been known, were to be listed in a separate register and distinctively coloured: again, the familiar white lettering on a red ground still in use today dates from as long ago as 1903.
The numbering system itself set out in the order was kept as simple as possible and was probably envisaged at the time as adequate to meet any foreseeable increase in the number of vehicles on the road. Each registration authority was allocated an index mark consisting of one or two letters. Initially, 24 single-letter marks were introduced (I and Q being omitted to avoid confusion with J and O), together with two-letter combinations as far down the alphabet as those beginning with F. In addition, special arrangements were made to identify vehicles registered in Scotland, where all marks were to include the letters G, S or V, and Ireland, which was to use I (although only in combination with another letter) and Z. It is characteristic of the attitude of the Local Government Board of the day, as well as that of Walter Long, its President, that no similar concession was made to Wales, which was treated simply as part of England. Had registration been introduced only a few years later, after the election of the Liberal government in 1906, when for the first time the separate identity of Wales began to be recognised officially in numerous ways, it seems likely that index marks including the letter W would have been reserved for the seventeen Welsh registration authorities, which in the event were never accorded special recognition. Each registration authority was initially allocated a single mark and, in some rural counties and small county boroughs, this provision sufficed right down to the abolition of local authority registration. In other cases, new combinations of letters were issued at intervals by order.
The LGB regulations of 1903 enjoined local authorities to issue registration marks consisting of the index letter (or letters) followed by a number. This was to form a simple series from 1 onwards, although authorities which chose to register cars and motorcycles separately issued two parallel series, with the result that (until the system was changed under the 1920 Roads Act) the same registration mark might be borne by both a car and a motorcycle. The regulations asked local authorities not to issue numbers beyond 999 for any one index mark and offered to allocate a new two-letter mark when a council exhausted its initial block of numbers. In practice, although a number of additional index marks were allocated in the period up to 1920, local authorities issued numbers up to 9999 to provide greater scope for expanding the system. In general, despite the opposition to vehicle numbering expressed when the 1903 bill was introduced, once it had passed into law the measure appears to have been implemented without difficulty. In any case, the Act made it an offence not to display a number plate in the prescribed manner or to use an unregistered vehicle on the highway except to drive to a registration authority’s office. The only problem seems to have arisen with two-letter marks which were construed as offensive. Thus, when BF was allocated to Dorset, local automobilists objected and, in December 1904, the Local Government Board was persuaded to issue FX to the county instead, giving owners the option of retaining their BF number or exchanging it for a new one prefaced by FX. BF was not reused in the 1921 numbering scheme. The only two-letter combination not issued by the LGB (or, after 1920, by the Ministry of Transport) to avoid giving offence appears to have been WC; curiously, no such inhibitions were felt about allocating VD to Lanarkshire.
The Act of 1903 came into effect on 1 January 1904 but, in the order issued the previous November, local authorities were instructed to open vehicle and driving licence registers at once (taking advantage of s. 37 of the Interpretation Act, 1889), since owners were free to apply for registration as soon as the bill became law. In most, if not all, counties, at least in England, there would already have been some vehicles on the road by the autumn of 1903 and so, in most books, the first few pages would have been taken up with the retrospective registration of vehicles which had already been in use for some time, rather than cars newly acquired in 1904. The arrangements made under the 1903 Act continued to operate until just after the First World War, with the growth in car ownership being accommodated by the issue of additional index marks to the larger local authorities, especially the London County Council, which by 1916 had not only exhausted its original allocation (A) but had also run through combinations beginning with L as far as LR. In 1906 the system was extended to the Isle of Man by an Act of Tynwald. The index mark MN was issued for Manx vehicles and has remained in use as the sole mark for the island since 1906 (except that MAN is used in preference to AMN in marks containing those three letters). The Channel Islands also introduced registration about the same time. In Jersey the letter J was used, followed by a serial number, and in Guernsey a number alone. (For further details of registration in both the Isle of Man and Channel Islands see Appendix 2.) In 1909 the first of a succession of international conventions concerning the passage of motor vehicles between nations was concluded at Paris, which presaged the later use of two-letter index marks beginning with Q in Great Britain for vehicles temporarily imported from abroad; ZZ per formed similar duty for vehicles temporarily entering the Irish Free State or Republic of Ireland.
By 1932 the scope for further extension of the two-letter, four figure system was exhausted and from that year local authorities began to use the more familiar three-figure, three-letter marks Thus, for example, Hampshire, having reached AA 9999, issued numbers preceded by AAA, BAA, CAA and so on, in blocks of 999 in each case. When this device also failed to keep pace with the growth of car ownership after the Second World War, local authorities were instructed to reverse the order of letters and numbers, which provided sufficient capacity to enable the system to continue into the early 1960s. The practice of adding a suffix letter to six-digit marks was introduced in some registration areas in 1963 and generally the following year. Initially changed on l January annually, the suffix letter was later allocated to twelvemonth periods beginning on 1 August, at the (far from unanimous) request of the motor trade. By the time most local authorities closed their registers and handed over responsibility to DVLC, the suffix letters had reached M or N.
with many thanks to Jim Blacklock