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24th February 2016

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Motorcycle Number Plates

For some classic bike owners, their machine's registration number becomes part of the bike’s character. Neil Cairns explains how the system has evolved over time, and why classic vehicles often end up with odd age-related plates...

The British system of registering vehicles is complex. Back in 1903 each county council and city were given their own allotment of letters. So the first vehicles had either a single letter (L1234), or two letters, followed by a number up to four digits, LA1234. (Nearly all the Ls were issued to London). When these numbers began to run out, an extra letter was added so you might get three letters. The first one was random and the last two related to the city or county. This system lasted up until about 1960 when serious problems arose as allotments ran out.

So the existing letter-number (ABC 123) system swapped to a number-letter arrangement (123 ABC). One of my vehicles has the registration 438 LRM, which was issued by Kendal in Westmorland in 1963. I know this, as Kendal is one of the very few councils to still have their original records; many scrapped them when DVLA returned the paper files to them in the 1970s. But that wasn’t its first registration; it was initially registered in Abingdon when new upon collection by the purchaser. Abingdon was then in Berkshire and they have not kept any records.

Although my vehicle carries a 1963 registration, it’s not A-reg as such (ABC123A). The new suffix system was not enforced until we got to the ‘C’ suffix in January 1965. When this system also began to run out, it was made into a ‘prefix’ (A123ABC) on 1st August 1983. I once owned the 188 2ED number from Warrington, which was was re-issuing its system back-to-front as it had run out of numbers.

Today we have a complex two letters (the area), two numbers (the year) and three letters (random) such as AB61 ABC. We also have many vehicles that still have their original registration, and many that do not. DVLA will issue an age-related number to vehicles that can prove their origins, and even give a very few their original number back. Both of these are ‘non-transferable’ meaning they cannot be personalised to other vehicles. Note that when a vehicle with a personalised number is sold, it gets its original number back.

Registering a Classic Vehicle
Classics to be Registered on Now...

Where does this leave we olde vehicle people? Well, it is rumoured that very soon that ALL ‘historic vehicles’ will have their registrations ‘frozen’ as non-transferable. Virtually all the age-related numbers issued to us are from areas that used few of their allotment, (Sunderland for instance, and little populated areas of Scotland) which is why so many have an ‘S’ in their registrations. Most age-related plates are ‘number-letter’ arranged, which as you can see from above, are post-1960 numbers. Look about at any show or gathering and those with ‘letter-number’ without an ‘S’ arrangements are often their original number; those with ‘number-letter’ are age-related issued, often with an ‘S’. I suppose some, probably very few left remaining now, were originally registered in Scotland…

Before the age-related system was set up, when a number plate was sold on, the vehicle left behind got an A-registration irrespective of its year of manufacture. My own 1962 AJS Model 18S motorcycle suffered this ignominy. In the 1980s when it resided in Stirling in Scotland, its number was sold (probably for ten times the value of the bike then) and it became WNL 643A. Luckily, after having lived in Dunfirmlin, for a while it travelled south in 2000 and was issued an age-related number NSK***. Whilst it has that ‘S’ in the number (‘SK’ from Caithness) the arrangement is correct for its year of manufacture, number-letter.

My 1959 Matchless G12 however, was not so lucky. Having resided in a barn in Kent for years, it was restored in 2005 and had lost its original, now untraceable, number. It was issued ***XUM (‘UM’ is for Leeds) with the number-letter system of the early 1960s so it is not quite correct. This may be because by 2005 DVLA were running out of the early letter-number unused allocations.

Registering a Classic Vehicle

Another way to come unstuck was when the chassis, frame and VIN numbers were checked when the new computerised MoT system arrived. This insisted upon an eyeball ID of the necessary number on the frame/chassis. My 1952 BSA B31 was caught by this. The frame number had been stove-enamelled over but I had to scrape this off for the tester. And, like thousands of other motorcycles, its frame number did NOT tally with the registration document. There was nothing fiddly going on here, it was just that people built up bikes from bits in the garage back then. If the old frame was damaged then a spare would’ve been used. My MoT examiner told me this was the tenth example he’d discovered that year where the actual frame number didn’t match the registration document. I lost the BSA’s original Nottinghamshire number of ONN 74 and gained ***XUP ( Durham, again with the wrong numbers-first arrangement for the year.) But the BSA club provided a frame number certificate that said it was built in 1947, five years earlier even though the rest of the bike was of 1952 standard!

Does all this matter? Well, there are enthusiasts who hate age-related plates and only want an ‘original’. But the registration number is only a system to enable taxation after all.

Then there was the windfall a neighbour of mine enjoyed. His ancient Volvo estate car had ‘RYD8R’ as its number. He’d bought it ages ago for a song from DVLA. Some years ago, he attended the Ryder Gold Cup golf tournament in it. Someone spotted the registration… and he had a nice new Volvo estate a few weeks later!

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