Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

The first car tax discs in the UK

Austin 10 car
Austin 10
Image courtesy of Jon Bennett on Flickr CC-BY

Taxing the British car drivers.

Until October 2014, vehicles used on the public road in the UK were required by law to display a small paper printed disc showing that they have paid car tax for the vehicle. It had to be renewed every 6 or 12 months.

The car tax disc was enacted by the Roads Act and Finance Act of 1920. The disc showed that the 'Licence For A Mechanically Propelled Vehicle' had been paid.

The 1920 Acts reformed the confusing situation created by the previous acts relating to taxing mechanically propelled vehicles and transferred the taxing responsibilities from HM Customs and Excise to County Councils. Fuel tax was removed, but taxing by the horse power of the vehicle remained. The law required that the vehicle should have a holder into which the licence could be slotted and then prominently displayed.

The wording of the statute caused confusion to many drivers. This is the first paragraph of three which set out the positioning of the licence. The next two were even more confusing:

"The licence is to be carried in a conspicuous position on the nearside of the vehicle facing towards the nearside of the road, and not less than 2ft 6ins., no more than 6ft 6in., from the ground level between two parallel lines, the first drawn vertically through the rearmost part of the driving seat or cab..., and the second drawn vertically 6 inches in front of the base of the front glass wind screen where fitted; or where no such windscreen is fitted, through a point 4ft forward of the first line."

The laws were due to be implemented on 1 January 1921, but such was demand for the new licences that a 2 month period of grace was given to allow motorists to obtain the new licences. In the first two months 200,000 cars alone generated £2.810,000 in revenue.

The licence disc for the first year was of a plain background and set out details of the expiry date (twice), car registration number, the type of vehicle, and a stamp of the issuing council or post office.

Within a year it became necessary to introduce a background with 'road fund licence' repeated in small letters. One criminal court case in early 1922 showed that a criminal had drawn his own licence using pen and ink which could pass inspection at night-time.

More complex designs, other security backgrounds and colours followed. The perforation which appears all the way around the disc to make it easy for removal from the printed sheet was introduced in 1938.

At first the licence could be purchased for annual or quarterly periods, but only for that current year. It was later changed to twelve or six-monthly. Complaints about long queues in post offices and county council offices later result in changes to continuous months.

Other changes for motorists during the 1920s and 30s is revealed in a look at the first driving tests

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