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The Registration of 3-wheelers from the 1950s to 1970s. (UK).

By John Harrison.

It might seem strange to start by talking about motorbikes in an article about registering three-wheelers, but it is necessary to do this! Until October 1974 when responsibility for registering new vehicles passed to a number of regional Local Vehicle Licensing Offices (now called Local Offices) linked to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea, local authorities undertook the task of registering new vehicles. From the early 1950s when authorities started issuing “reversed” marks, i.e. ones in 1234 AB or 123 ABC formats through to the introduction of year suffix letters, quite a few authorities perceived a problem with trying to put a four-digit line onto a smaller motorcycle plate. This would be necessary with a number like 1234 AB or ABC 123D was issued to a motorbike and the part I have underlined had to go onto one row.


GRE 33N - A 1974 plate from a Reliant Robin.

 Interestingly from 1903 when the British registration system was introduced until the 1930s when three-letter combinations were brought in many motorbikes had plates in the AB 1234 format and no problems occurred!  By the 1950s, however, most motorbike manufacturers and dealers were geared up to providing bikes with plates which were not wide enough to take a four-digit line. Thus, the Ministry of Transport asked local authorities, as far as possible, to avoid issuing registrations to motorbikes with four digits, though quite a lot of authorities did not heed this advice.

Many local authorities adopted one of two approaches to avoid issuing 1234 AB format plates to motorbikes:

  • By reserving numbers below 1000 in two-letter combinations for use on motorbikes and numbers above 1000 for cars, etc. Denbighshire, for example, used this practice.
  • By using three-letter combinations for motorbikes and two-letter ones for cars, etc. Durham is an example of an authority that followed this practice.

Some authorities adopted a combination of both practices at different times, e.g. Hull. It should be noted that, because trade plates were in the format 123 AB and most authorities wanted to avoid potential confusion of ordinary issues and trade plates, many did not issue two-letter combinations from 1, but from a higher number. This affected how many plates were potentially available for use on motorbikes for authorities adopting the first practice and was a reason why many authorities had to use a combination of the two practices.

To avoid the problem of plates in an ABC 123D format on motorbikes, after the introduction of year letters, some authorities adopted a practice of reserving numbers from 1 to 99 for motorbikes and numbers from 100 to 999 for cars, etc. In a few cases when it was necessary the numbers 1 to 199 were reserved for use on motorbikes.

Particularly in the year-letter era the practice of segregating motorbikes and other vehicles was not always rigidly adhered to. For example, if someone specially requested a low number for personal reasons for their car or had an American car which had smaller plate apertures, they would be given a number below 100. Also, sometimes when 99 had been reached for motorbikes, but the car series had not reached 999, a motorbike would be issued with a number in the 800s or 900s. Conversely, if the car, etc series had reached 999, numbers below 100 would be used for such vehicles. Practice varied from authority to authority. Some were very rigid with very few or no exceptions, but some were far more flexible.

When on 1 October 1974 responsibility for issuing registrations for new vehicles passed from local authorities to DVLC at Swansea, the practice of reserving numbers below 100 for motorbikes ceased.

On the assumption that a few readers have stayed with me after reading lots about motorbikes with no mention of three-wheelers, I will move on to the subject of three-wheelers at last! Some, but by no means all, authorities treated three-wheelers for registration purposes as motorbikes and these were given marks in the motorcycle blocks in this period. Some authorities differentiated between reversible and non-reversible three-wheelers and only non-reversible ones were treated as motorbikes. Furthermore, some authorities would issue blocks in motorbike series to Reliant dealers, so not only the three-wheelers received marks in motorbike series but four-wheelers such as Reliant Scimitars did too. The outcome of the practice of many authorities treating three-wheelers as motorbikes for registration purposes is that such vehicles with marks in the 1234 AB and ABC 123D format from this era are slightly less common than would be expected.

To conclude this article I must make special mention of the practice of two local authorities in regard to three-wheelers. Coventry started using separate series when it began issuing reversed marks. It adopted the practice of using three-letter series for motorbikes with two-letter ones for cars, etc. When it went onto year letters, however, it continued motorbike segregation, not like other authorities by reserving numbers 1 to 99 or similar for motorbikes. Instead, it reserved separate letter trios for motorbikes (and also other separate series for commercial vehicles and vehicles bought tax free for export). The motorbike series were those commencing B, O and X. For these purposes Coventry treated three-wheelers (this included many invalid carriages) and sidecar combinations as motorbikes, though it is not clear whether this included vehicles such as Reliant vans and three-wheeled milkfloats or such vehicles were classed as commercial vehicles for registration purposes. Apart from special blocks for motorbikes bought tax free for export, Birmingham did not practice motorbike segregation at any time. From 1937 to 1974, it segregated commercial vehicles using separate letter trios for these. Commercial vehicles were quite widely defined and included estate cars and even Austin Maxis. For three-wheeled vehicles, however, the split between commercial vehicles and others was defined by weight. Vehicles under 8 cwt such as Reliant vans and estates were not classed as commercial vehicles, but vehicles over 8 cwt such as three-wheeled milkfloats and Scammell Scarabs were treated as commercials!

The author edits a quarterly newsletter on all aspects of vehicle registrations, “1903 and all that”. If anyone is interested in subscribing and would like to see a sample copy, send a large SAE with a stamp to cover 250 grams to him at 175 Hillyfields, Loughton, IG10 2PW.

My thanks go to John Harrison for writing this articl for