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How Kenyan vehicle plates have evolved over the years

CSs Joe Mucheru, James Macharia and Fred Matiangi during the launch of new number plates. [File, Standard]

An announcement by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i that all vehicles will be fitted with new registration plates attracted mixed reactions.

According to the directive, issued last month, car owners have only 18 months to replace their old registration plates at a cost of Sh3,000.

Matiang’i said the new registration will enhance security and tame rogue businessmen as well as criminals, who have used the registration system to commit fraud.

“Commissioning of the new generation number plates marks a historic moment by eliminating loopholes exploited by financial fraudsters and unscrupulous motor vehicle importers,” he said.

Many Kenyans were, however, quick to note that the government had issued a decree that would net Sh12 billion, with data showing that the country has close to four million registered vehicles. Defaulters stand to be fined Sh20,000. 

While issuing license plates is nothing new, the first person to drive in Kenya just offloaded his car from a ship in Mombasa in late 1903 without having to worry about the number plates. 

George Wilson, a road engineer from Australia wowed locals with his new French-made De Dion Bouton car that had only a rudimentary mechanical system.

Vehicle registration in Kenya dates back to the 1920s when a system borrowed from the British used single letters to represent the then 14 districts.

The letter would then be followed by a number (1-999).

Thus, N-23, for example, would stand for a car registered in Kiambu.

From the 1940s and into the 1950s, another letter was introduced to the regional numbering system, but due to the lettering limits, some regions like Nairobi would exhaust their series faster than other regions.

Official records about the motives behind the regional numbering are hard to come by.

Even those who owned vehicles registered through this system could only guess the reasons behind the idea.

Former Provincial Commissioner, Joseph Kaguthi, bought his first car around 1975 while serving as a District Officer in Western Kenya.

It was a 1969 model Datsun 1000 that cost him Sh4,700, a princely sum back then.

“The registration, KLE 310 was registered in Western Kenya. The question of regional registration would come up as we read about the travel exploits of Mr and Mrs Mutabingwa and their two children, Kato and Kokogonza and their dog Jack, while in Class 8 between 1962/63. Certain sections of the book required the teacher to explain to us the meaning of vehicle registration, but our teacher did not know. So I still don’t know,” said Kaguthi.

Musila Musembi, a former director at the Kenya National Archives, explains the early forms of regional vehicle registration.

“Back then, owning a vehicle was a sign of prosperity and this could have helped the government in allocating financial resources to what was perceived as the most productive regions. That is why Nairobi, and Kiambu would always record more vehicles than say, Ukambani and North Eastern,” he says. 

“The registration system would also help in the placement of government workers within the regions. For example, there would be no point to having such officers in a region with just a handful of vehicles thus saving public funds.”

The region-based registration system was abolished beginning 1980 when registration was centralised as the LLLNNN(L for letter and N for number) series began to be used.

The last vehicle in the series was KZZ 999 registered in 1989.

Then, began the second generation number plates, or the LLLNNNL (three letters, three numbers and a letter), the last vehicle to be registered under this system being KZZ 999Z.

The current registration has followed this system that is currently at the KDJ series.

 The letters ‘I’ and ‘O’ are omitted in the registration system since they can easily be confused with numbers. 

Similarly, there have been no civilian vehicles bearing the KAF or KDF letters as these are abbreviations for the military: Kenya Air Force and Kenya Defense Forces respectively. The Kenya Army and Kenya Navy wings of the military carry the KA and KN tags respectively. 

While Kenya has always followed a systematic way of registering vehicles, some developed nations had their own unique challenges in this exercise. 

When New York became the first state in America to register vehicles on April 25, 1901, all that a vehicle owner needed to do was place “the separate initials of [his] name upon the back thereof in a conspicuous place, the letters forming such initials to be at least three inches in height.”

There were no restrictions in style, material, or colour of such labelling, as some used pieces of leather or wood to stick the initials. Others simply painted them on their vehicles. But such a system was bound to have problems.

“As the number of cars and drivers increased, the painted-on-initials system began to fail, for a simple reason: There were just too many people with the same initials,” stated Time magazine. 

Some countries in Africa have retained the regional numbering system, including South Africa.

For example, vehicles registered in the capital, Johannesburg, bear the prefix ‘GP’ for Gauteng Province while those registered in Durban bear the initials ‘KZN’ for Kwa Zulu-Natal. 

And did you know the moon rover of Apollo 15 that made the first ‘road trip’ on the moon had a registration plate as well?

The miniature license plates manufactured by Boeing in 1971 bore the registration number LRV 001, the letters standing for Lunar Roving Vehicle.

The name ‘Moon’ was inscribed on top of the plate in order to denote the territory in which it operated.