A license plate is a plastic or metal plate attached to a car or motorcycle for the purpose of official identification.
All vehicles are required to be registered on a central database in each country or state, and the plates feature an individual registration code featuring a combination of letters and numbers.
The order and amount of letters and numbers on a plate will depend on the country or territory of origin, and most have a specific combination to signify this.
‘Vanity’ or ‘personalised’ license plates can feature a chosen combination of letters and numbers, which are often used to spell a particular word personal to the owner. In the U.K these configurations cannot be chosen, but there is a strong market for plates which coincidentally spell words or have a particularly low number of characters (such as ‘M 1’).
The license plates of U.S states carry different images and state mottos, and can be personalised for a fee to include other images and slogans including those of charity organisations and political parties.
The hobby of license plate collecting is practiced world-wide due to their varied and collectible nature.
Constantly-changing designs and colours, country and state variations and unusual shapes mean collectors tend to focus on a particular area.
This could range from all the plates from a specific year, to a series of plates from every year issued by a particular territory.
License plates pre-date motorized vehicles, as they were issued to horse-drawn hackney carriages.
The first vehicle license plates were issued by the city of Victoria in the province of British Columbia, Canada in 1884. The first plates issued to a motorised vehicle were seen in France in 1893, followed by Germany in 1896.
In 1898 the Netherlands was the first country to introduce a national licence plate, called a ‘driving permit’.
A plate bearing the number 1 was issued to a Mr J. van Dam, who purchased the first 100% Dutch-built motorcar, which was manufactured at the Groninger Motor-Rijtuigen Fabriek.
The United Kingdom began to issue license plates in 1902, and in 1903 both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the U.S and the province of Ontario in Canada began to use them.
By 1918 license plates had been adopted throughout the U.S with each state issuing their own plates with unique designs, a practice which continues to this day.
During this time plates in the U.S were made from a variety of materials including leather, rubber, iron and porcelain, and it wasn’t until around 1920 that embossed and painted tin plates began to see widespread use.
In 1928 the state of Idaho was the first to use an image on their plates – that of a potato.
During the 1920s states also began producing their plates in prisons, using inmates as a cheap labour force.
As the number of vehicles on the roads skyrocketed countries changed their systems of registration numbers from one digit to include letters and other numbers to allow for a greater number of combinations.
In 1957 the standardization of plate sizes came into operation, when automobile manufacturers came to agreement with governments and international standards organizations.
The world’s most expensive license plate
The most expensive license plate ever sold at auction is an Abu Dhabi plate with the registration number ‘1’. It was sold at a license plate auction in 2008 to businessman Saeed Khourifor for $14m.