A History Of Number Plates

Vehicle registration plates are usually made from metal or plastic and attached to a motor vehicle or trailer for the purpose of identification. The registration is identified by a numeric or alphanumeric code (the registration number) that is unique to the vehicle that the plate is attached to. Depending on the country in which the car originated, the registration number may be unique to the state or province, otherwise it will be unique to the country itself. Also, in some countries the registration is actually associated with the driver, rather than the car. Vehicle registration plates might also be referred to as license plates, number plates, vehicle tags, license tags, or simply tags.

There have been license plates almost as long as there have been automobiles, emerging during the final decade of the nineteenth century during the transition from horse to combustion powered transport. The first national licence plates were introduced as “driving permits” in the Netherlands in 1898. The first of these licences were simply plates displaying a number, beginning with 1 and continuing numerically. The last of this series of Dutch plates, released on January 15th 1906, was numbered 2065.

In the U.S, where each state issues plates, New York has required plates since 1901. Plates were not originally issued by the government in most American jurisdictions, and so motorists were obliged to provide their own. The first government issued plates were supplied in Massachusetts and West Virginia, and were made out of porcelain baked on iron, or simple unbacked ceramic, making them very fragile and prone to breakage. This has resulted in very few examples surviving today. More materials were later experimented with, including cardboard, leather, plastic and copper, and even pressed soyabeans during wartime shortages.

Depending on the area from which they originated, early models of number plate varied greatly in their shapes and sizes, to the point that new holes would need to be drilled into the bumper to accommodate the new plates should the driver of the vehicle relocate. Standardisation of plates came in 1957, when automobile manufacturers came to agreement with governments and international standards organisations. There are three basic standards worldwide;

* 12 by 6 inches (300 mm by 150 mm) – Used in the majority of the Americas.

* 20.5 by 4.5 inches (520 mm by either 110 or 120 mm) – Used in the bulk of the European countries and many of their former overseas territories.

* 14.5 by 5.3 inches (372 mm by 135 mm) – Used in Australia and some other Pacific Rim countries, about halfway between the dimensions of the other two standards, longer than Western Hemisphere plates but taller than European ones.

The formation of characters on a number plate also tends to change depending on the country of origin, and time period that the plate was made during. This has begun to change more recently, with France and Italy now adopting the same formation, for example.

Throughout a century of automobile use, number plates have become an essential tool for the protection of drivers, allowing for the identification of vehicles caught in accidents, and effective enforcement of law on the road.