How old is my car? How to read number plate to check if your vehicle is E10 compatible - and for tax purposes

The different methods to check a car’s age using registration number or documents

Knowing the age of your car is important for a number of reasons. Its year of registration can have a major impact on how much tax you pay, how much it’s worth and even whether it’s compatible with the UK’s new E10 petrol.

The new petrol has been cleared as safe to use for all cars less than 11 years old and most cars up to 21. However it can have damaging effects on older vehicles and some cars built since 2000.

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Vehicle tax brackets have also undergone a number of major revisions in the last 20 years that can see the annual VED bill for the same model vary by hundreds of pounds simply because of the year it was registered - worth bearing in mind if you’re buying a used car.

So here’s how to check how old a car is.

Look at the logbook

The simplest method to check your car’s age is to refer to the V5C or vehicle logbook. This document contains all the key information about your car, from its make and model to colour, engine size and the date it was first registered.

However, you can also refer to your car’s registration number to calculate its age.

How to read a car number plate

At first glance, a car number plate might seem like a random array of letters and numbers but behind that jumble is all the information you need to find out your car’s age and where it was registered.

Since 2001 plates have been issued using a sequence of two letters, two numbers then three letters.

The first two letters are DVLA “memory tags” or regional identifiers, denoting where the car was registered.

The numbers indicate the six-month period it was registered and change every March and September.

For cars registered between March and September they are the last two digits of the year - for example a ‘21’ plate for cars registered between 1 March and 31 August 2021. For cars registered between September and the following March, 50 is added to the same two digits, so ‘71’ for cars registered from 1 September 2021.

The last three letters are a random assignment to ensure every registration number is unique.

Graphic: Mark Hall/JPI Media

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Suffix and prefix registrations

Before the current system, suffix and prefix letters were used to indicate the year of registration.

The suffix system from 1963 to 1982 used three letters as an area code, followed by up to three random numbers then a letter denoting the year of registration, for example ABC 123D. The prefix system from 1983 to 2000, reversed this so the age-related letter came before the numbers, with the regional identifying letters at the end.

Between 1963 and 1967, the registration change occured in January but switched to run August to August from 1967. From 1999, registration changes occured twice a year, in March and September.

Certain letters - I, O, U and Z - were never used as a suffix/prefix because they looked too much like other letters or numbers. Q is only used to denote cars where the age could not be determined, such as kit cars or imports.

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Of course, if a car has been fitted with personalised plates, these rules don’t necessarily apply. You can’t fit any plate that makes a car appear newer than it really is but you can put an older plate onto a newer model. If you’re in any doubt whether this applies to your car or a car you’re considering buying, check the V5C or have a vehicle history check, such as an HPI check, carried out.

In some instances, the year of manufacture might also differ from the year of registration. For tax and insurance purposes, the year of registration is the more important date but for some mechanical issues the build date can be relevant. Some cars have this information on a sticker somewhere in the vehicle but it is also included within all car vehicle identification numbers (VIN), although you’ll need to consult a dealership or garage to have the VIN decoded.

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