The right numberplate can make any classic car look just right. John Simister explains what you need to know
A registration number is a car’s unique name. Displaying it in the right style is vital to the car’s visual integrity, but classic-car owners often get it wrong.
British numberplates had digits 3½in high when the numbering system had no more than six digits, as on the 1955 Land Rover of Octane’s Mark Dixon, above. In 1963 the seven-digit system arrived, which required the digits to shrink to 3⅛in tall. From 1965 all local authorities were on seven digits, but any car could use the new digits from 1963.
Reflective numberplates arrived in 1968 and became compulsory for new cars from 1973, although that date is now moving forwards to coincide with the rolling 40-year tax-free status.
There is nothing illegal about using 3⅛in digits on a pre-1963 car, but it looks wrong. Also visually jarring is the use of the post-2001 narrower font on a pre-2001 car. Strangely, some suppliers of black-and-silver plates for classic cars are now using this narrow font.
A legislative anomaly technically prohibits the supply of new acrylic, reflective numberplates in the older, wider font for on-road use with pre-2001 cars, but in practice you can buy them as ‘show’ plates and, as a member of the Parliamentary Historic Vehicles Group once told us, it would be a very bored policeman who took any action over it.
Before smooth acrylic plates arrived, the default choice was die-pressed aluminium but separate, raised digits were a popular option with fonts rounded or squared-off, plain or seriffed.
For pre-1963 plates, the raised digits are usually triangular in cross-section. Silver digits are polished aluminium; white ones are either painted aluminium or moulded plastic. From 1963, the cross-sectional triangle’s peak was flattened and both silver and white could be either aluminium or plastic painted as required. Most of these styles are available today, so recreating that properly period look is easily achieved.