Towards the end of the 19th century, roads in New Zealand began changing because of new and varied motor vehicles being imported.
Although they were private vehicles, they were still governed by the laws for traction engines, dictating they must be driven no faster than walking pace and with men walking in front and behind to warn of their approach.
In 1898 the McLean Motor Car Act was introduced, recognising the difference between motor vehicles and traction engines.
With new laws came new rules and regulations.
Individual identifying number plates for these new vehicles were just one of the changes.
Early vehicle registration was managed regionally, rather than nationally.
Every vehicle was issued with a unique registration number which, to be displayed on the right side of the car. The number could be painted on or attached with a wooden or metal plate.
In 1925 the registration system became a national programme. Authorities began issuing every vehicle with steel number plates. The first plates used in New Zealand were made in America.
Each registration number consisted of the prefix NZ, followed by three numbers either side of a dot or star, such as NZ 123*456.
The first plates had white figures printed on a green background, but the system changed in 1926-1927 when the background was changed to black, and the NZ prefix was dropped.
Then in 1928 the numbers changed to orange.
During World War II steel supplies ran short, and from 1941 registration plates were issued with a five-year term rather than having to be re-issued annually.
Permanent plates were introduced in 1964, made from aluminium with silver digits on a black background.
The format also changed to two letters followed by three or four numbers. The first plate issued in this series was AA100.
Reflective plates were trialled in 1986 under the registration series MC1-MX999 and were formally introduced in November of the same year, beginning with the number NA1.
These plates had a reflective background that made the black digits easier to see. Older plates were still usable but had to be upgraded to reflective if they became damaged and needed replacing.
Individuality was welcomed with the introduction of personalised plates in 1988. The New Zealand Transport Agency contracted an independent company to produce the plates which consisted of up to six characters in any combination of letters and numbers, as long as it was not derogatory, offensive, deliberately confusing or the same as an existing plate.
Smaller changes have been made throughout the years. In mid-1990 a slash was added to the zero, changing it from 0 to Ø to help prevent confusion with the capital letter O.
The first plate to receive the special zero was PC1 Ø. The letter V was discontinued in 1971 to prevent confusion with the letter U, and the letter Q was only permitted to be used as the second letter in the registration number.
Some reservations had been made too. Plates beginning with DC, DCC, FC and FCC were reserved for vehicles belonging to embassies, consulates, and high commissions, while CC, CCC, CR and CROWN were reserved for ministerial cars.
In April 2001 the format changed to three letters and three numbers.
Another list of exclusions, including plates beginning with LSD, FAT, and BUM, was compiled. After the Christchurch Mosque attack in 2019, plates beginning with GUN were also banned.
• Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.