Historic vehicle records: a guide

In the UK, the Motor Car Act of 1903 made it compulsory for vehicles to be registered with County or County Borough councils and to display a registration plate. These number plates were to assist the police in identifying speeding cars (it was a 20 mph speed limit from 1903, up from 14mph in 1896).  Registers of drivers were also kept but no driving test was necessary at that time (few of these registers survive sadly).

On 1st January 1904 when the act came into effect, the area now known as West Yorkshire, was served by 5 motor taxation authorities: the West Riding County Council (which covered all areas not within a County Borough) and the County Boroughs of Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Leeds.  In 1913, a sixth one was added when Dewsbury became a County Borough and in 1915, Wakefield became the seventh.

Each registration district was allocated a registration mark, comprising in the early days of one or two letters plus one, two or three numbers. Only 24 letters were used (I and Q were not used normally).  The marks were allocated in descending order of population for each English and Welsh authority (Scotland and Ireland were purely alphabetical), so London got A; Lancashire B; the West Riding of Yorkshire C, etc., then came the two letters, e.g. Halifax: CP, etc., up to F.  New sets of letters were allocated to an authority when they ran out of their current set, e.g. Leeds got UA, UB, UG and UM.  Later, as the two letter sequence ran out, they moved to three letter sequences.

Eventually three letter numbers ran out too, so inverted marks were then brought in the 1960s, with four numbers and then the letters. So instead of e.g. YWY 791 they turned them around and had e.g. 1004 YG or 1 LUA.  In the late 1960s suffixes were then added to expand the number range, e.g. BKY 11C.

When looking at three letter sequences, it is the last two letters which denote which authority it ‘belongs’ to, so FUG is a Leeds number (UG) rather than a Lincolnshire number (FU).

Records held by WYAS

Most (but not all) of our records date from after 1921 when the Roads Act of 1920 came into effect. The newly-formed Ministry of Transport was made responsible for motor taxation and they became public records, although still administered by the local councils on behalf of central government.

The collection reference is C192 for the Wakefield office records and covers 1903-c1977, but the registration numbers we cover mainly finish in the late 1960s. Not all records survived for all areas sadly.  However, the main types of records we hold are:

Registers of vehicles:

These cover the early years until 1920 and only survive for a few areas. Some of them give the registration number and a brief history of the vehicle, in terms of ownership, until the vehicle was cancelled (either scrapped or not taxed for years) or transferred (to another authority).

Registers of registration marks (number allocations):

These vary in information given but on the whole, list the registration mark and give the date the number was allocated and the date it was actually put on a vehicle; and the person/company that number was allocated to. The numbers were usually allocated to dealerships or organizations in batches, sometimes they are to private individuals.

Index cards:

These are little index cards which were produced throughout the years for various reasons. Sometimes they were made to show that a vehicle had been transferred to another region or had been scrapped or for later vehicles, to show that their records have been sent to Swansea.  They contain a varying amount of information, some have just the registration mark on, some have engine/chassis/frame numbers; some the last known owner’s name and address etc.

Vehicle files:

These are either a single sheet with lots of details on or are an actual file full of information, including the log books. They quite often do not survive for current vehicles on the road though, but someone with a ‘barn find’ can be lucky.  They could also be useful for historical research, for example researching a particular marque and/or model.

For further details please see our computer catalogue:


If you have any enquiries regarding vehicle registration records please contact our Wakefield Office by email: wakefield@wyjs.org.uk  or by telephone: 0113 5350142.

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