How tradition became letter of the law

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the Christmas present that was destined to last. In December 1903, the London County Council issued its first number plate - A 1 - to the second Earl Russell, the philosopher's elder brother, to put on his Napier tourer.

It was not the world's first: cars had been tagged by the Paris police since 1893. But little did London's municipal bureaucrats realise what a genie they had released. Last year 2.1 million vehicles were registered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and there are 25.2 million vehicles on the road in Britain.

Lord Russell knew he was getting in on the ground floor of an historic development. He queued all night to get that first plate, and was reported to have been only five seconds ahead of the next person.

Motorists bitterly opposed the innovation, complaining that it would disfigure their carriages and make them look like mere taxis plying for hire.

Autocar magazine led a campaign to stop the new system spreading from the Continent, pleading that it would prevent people from using their vehicles.

But horse owners were keen to curb the new monsters and the police wanted to be able to keep track of them.

So Parliament passed the 1903 Motor Car Act, which introduced licensing for vehicles and drivers with effect from January 1904.

Car numbering was based on groups of two and then three letters and numbers, allocated regionally because car registrations were administered by local authorities until the DVLA took it over 20 years ago. A remnant of the old regional system survives, in that the last two letters of a number plate indicate where a vehicle has been registered.

The annual letter identifier began to appear in the freezing January of 1963. The old letter- number combinations were running out, and the authorities wanted an easy way to spot whether a car should have undergone the MoT test, which was about to come in.

The yearly registration system went nationwide in 1965, and people soon skewed their buying decisions to ensure they were driving a car out of the showroom with the latest letter adorning it.

By 1967, January accounted for 9.4 per cent of annual sales, compared with less than 8 per cent before the new system.

That was the year in which the trade successfully pressed for the new annual letter to appear in August, a month which until then had attracted a trickle of just 5.5 per cent of sales.

Dealers were also concerned at seeing customers drive their new cars straight on to icy January roads, when there was a higher chance of seeing them brought back within a few days to repair a dent.

The switch immediately swelled August car sales to 7.9 per cent, rising to 11 per cent by 1971. But the trend did not reach problem proportions until 1985, when over a fifth of sales were timed for August.