The Story

License plates. A legal means of identifying cars, mostly used by authorities to tell you that a certain amount of money is due to them. But also for the fans of the history of motor racing a means to identify cars in pictures etc. Now be careful, license plates are fitted to cars, and they can be changed, sometimes even legally so. Basically the easiest for us is when a certain license belongs to a car, and is never exchanged for another one. This applies to a lot of British license plates, though it is certainly not a guarantee that a certain car will always be identifiable by its license plate.
Several rules do apply. A car must have a license from the country it belongs to, so when it is sold to another country, another license plate will be applied. In several countries license plates are issued per province, department, kreis, canton, county or whatever the local name, and moving to another area will mean a new license. But British licenses can move to another county without having to change apparently. Let's just list the countries that are mentioned on this site and what basic rules apply:

Great Britain
A license belongs to a car and stays with it, if possible, during its entire life. All licenses since 1904 are still current, so ideally, a license plate should be as reliable as a chassis number. Indeed many British motoring historians refer to a certain car by its license number, even when it has left the British isles, and in many cases classic cars in other countries retain their British license plates, usually with the local plates superimposed. However, there is a large amount of trading plates, and license plates can be easily and legally swapped for others, usually "cherished" plates. In that case a certain plate almost belongs to its owner, and doesn't identify the car as such.

French licensing as we know it started in 1950, and before, there were two different series, with a changeover date in 1928. Licenses belong to car and department, and when a car changes hands, it retains its license plate unless it is sold to another department. It seems to be that people with some influence can get a number that fits well with the car, but it is not sure whether this is official or just by knowing the right people. Apart from that the rest seems to be very straightforward.

Another country where license plates belong to cars, as long as they stay within a certain Province. No instances have been seen where one license refers to more than one car, so that seems to be impossible. Where this appears to happen we can be sure it concerns trade plates. The license in question have been used since 1932, or 1928 to be exact, but in 1932 a change took place in which the letters are placed before the numbers instead of behind them. Regardless of that, front license plates still use the version with the letters behind. Before 1928 there was a different series, but Italy being a poor country then, not many cars are listed from that period, and no real details are known about them. The main series has been discontinued now, but since racing cars are no longer licensed, this is irrelevant for this site.

For this list, there are several Germany's. First the pre-war Germany with a continuous licensing history from 1906 through to somewhere during the war when it all collapsed. After the war there first was a Germany consisting of several occupied parts, but in which the Russian zone didn't want to play. Licensing was done per area then, as can be seen on the page for German licenses. And then from 1956, there was the Wirtschaftswunder Germany, where licensing was done per Kreis, still the current system. About the first two series, detailed information is now known to me through the internet, about the current series, a lot more is known. Cars must change their license plate when they move to another Kreis, Owners can hold on to a certain cherished number for several cars (see Paul-Ernst Strähle with his WN-V1). People can get a number they like (See Rolf Stommelen, K-SR904 on a Porsche 904), yet somehow the whole picture still isn't quite clear to me.

The Netherlands
Two periods. Before 1951 there were the provincial licenses. They belonged to the owner of the car. After that there were the licenses that belonged to a car, no matter what happened to it. Preferred or cherished numbers are not possible and have never been. A car can change identity if you lose all the papers (loss on holiday or theft etc.) and apply for new ones. Depending on the period, the authorities reacted differently to that. Current licenses are often used to determine a cars age, but with second hand imports (like the cars on this site) that method often fails. In the early fifties, quite a few cars were reregistered after being on provincial plates before 1951, so this period is notoriously unreliable.

As far as I know, a license plate belongs to the owner of a car, and on buying a new car , it is transferred to that one. Now the Belgians have a very special relationship with their authorities, so it is virtually impossible to determine anything substantial from a picture of a car with a license plate. If you have got such a picture and you can read the license plate, you can only be sure that you have a reasonably sharp picture.

I don't know much about this, and I have seen both two cars with the same license plate and owner, suggesting that the plate belongs to the owner, and one car with the same license plate and two owners, which suggests it belongs to the car. I am waiting for a Swede to explain more about it.

The United States of America
I know that Americans have to get new license plates or validation stickers every year, and that personalised license plates is big business, but apart from that, I know surprisingly little about it all. I don't even know whether it is common to keep your license number from year to year, nor what happens when a car is sold. And these things might vary from state to state.

Swiss license plates certainly belong to the owner of a car, not to the car, and it is even possible to have more than one car with the same license plate, as long as you don't take them out together. Therefore Swiss license plates give excellent feedback on the owner, but are notoriously unreliable when trying to identify cars.

The licensing itself seems to be rather complicated. Also several editions of the Europlate's books were rather vague about Portuguese licenses. It appears to have been solved by now, but I am still not an expert on this subject.

Other Countries
The other countries no doubt have their own rules, but I am not really aware of all of these, so I give you the information just as is.

So now you begin to understand the extent of this minefield. Another complexity is the use of trade plates. Whatever the country, they are issued to those in the business, to have a license plate on a car when it is sent out into the world. The use of these plates only serves to identify the owner of the car, but never to the identity of the car. Therefore a lot of cars can use the same license plates at different moments, and any attempt to identify a chassis number from that is bound to fail. These plates are used very often on racing cars. Most countries have specific series of licenses set apart for this, and usually it is easily visible when a license plate is a trade plate. The Italian prova plates are the most famous example.

We have seen the story of cherished license plates where people can decide for themselves (mostly after paying an amount of money) what license plates will be on their cars. Another way of deciding for yourself is just plain illegal. And a lot of these instances have been seen in history, and have been recognised. No doubt a lot more have been seen but not identified, which means success to the perpetrator but a pitfall for us. This concerns sending a car out into the world with a license plate that is not its own, or one that doesn't even exist. Lots of examples are known, and I will mention just a few here.

It is not unknown for two cars wearing the same license plate, I even once saw two identical cars overtaking me on the highway with the same plates, but as far as know Lotus holds the record for sending three cars to a race, all wearing the same license, and there is a picture somewhere of all three cars with the same plates visible.

Lagonda wanted to have their cars licensed in the order of their chassis numbers, and once, when that failed, they disregarded the official license plates and used the numbers they thought proper. Only when the cars left for the continent (The continent is an island off the British east-coast), they had to use real numbers.

A lot of times, in the days of slow paperwork, a certain car with its license plate has been earmarked for a trip abroad. The car in question turned out to be unavailable at the last moment, so another car inherited its place, using the paperwork and thus the license plate of the original car.

To fool those who want (lots of ) money from you (governments, license offices, customs etc.) , a replacement car for an earlier one has taken the identity of the first one to save money. This could mean double or changed identities. Usually these instances have become known later on, but I am convinced that we missed a few. This also works the other way around, and another group of people that are after your money (car dealers etc.) have created duplicate cars that have taken on the identity of more famous cars. This belongs mostly to the period when the cars were no longer current racing cars, so we disregard these here.

At the end of the period when sports cars needed to be licensed, some people made up license plates that looked like personal plates. Since there was no need for license plates on the track anyway, this is only decoration. I am convinced that most of these never saw the inside of a license office, but who cares.

These are the main reasons for cars using license plates that are not their own. I am sure that there are more, and the perfect crime of course involves things that are never found out.

Somehow a burden fell off peoples shoulders when road races (The Targa Florio) ended, and racing cars were no longer expected to be licensed. Cars were usually trailered to the circuits, so never on an open road, which they were not suitable for anymore anyway. Some crossovers with rally cars still used license plates but on the serious end of the grid it disappeared. In my mind, the last serious racing car with a license plate was the first series of Porsche 917's. After that common sense achieved one more victory, and historic car spotters lost another means of identifying cars.

This implies one more warning to car spotters using photographs. When using license plates to identify cars, also take care of the place on the car where the license plate is mounted, and the style of lettering plus possible damage to it. If it is not the same you have to be aware of the possibility that the car is not the same. Sure, it can also be after repairs of front end damage to a car, just try to find out why.

Some people claim that no license plates can be trusted, that it was common practice to swap license plates and chassis plates around at will, by all those who were working in the motor racing industry. Since I found that those people also don't understand the concept of freely changing trade plates (quite legally), I think there is a lot of exaggerating there. Sure, some changing of plates has occurred, but it is not as omnipresent as some people are trying to make you believe. Hidden agenda's however are everywhere, so take a lot of things (including this site evidently) with a pinch of salt.

Do you still believe anything that is shown on this site? It could all be false of course, but it is my opinion that everything is not as bad as it could be. Most things are quite reliable. It's just that we can never be sure which ones are false. So enjoy but be aware that we all can be led astray. And never put serious money on the line when this kind of information plays a role. Try to be sure about as many facts as possible, and only use information on this site to double check things that you already know. Too many unscrupulous persons are known to have taken advantage of other persons gullibility.

Selection Criteria:
What cars are listed on this site?
It starts at my database of sports car racing results. This includes firstly all races counting for the world championship sports car racing. Then all races were added that were the same as those included but from different years when the race didn't count. This made me include all the Le Mans 24 hours from 1923, but also the Tour de France until it became more a Rally than a set of Races. Then all races were included that were equal in spirit (and entry list), yet never counted for any world championship.
This gave a distinct set of cars. For types with small production runs, all cars of the same type were included (when I could find data about their licensing), but for types with larger production runs (the most notorious for this is the Porsche 911 and all its variations) this turned out to be impractical. What is missing is the Rally World Championship, including predecessors like the Monte Carlo Rally through the years. Only the information from one book, about BMC Rally cars has been added, because I happened to own it. Apart from that, I am not really a Rally fan, so I am counting on someone else to help me here.

Last update: 13-04-2014
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