Tax Disc History

Earlswood Reproduction - The Tax Disc People, have been researching Tax Discs for many years. They have an interesting story to relate - there is far more to that funny round piece of paper than you might think…

The familiar British Tax Disc is a circular document, displayed on all road vehicles, to prove payment of the tax for the use a public highway in the United Kingdom. The display of Tax Discs on vehicles in the United Kingdom all started back in 1921, with the implementation of the Roads and Finance Act 1920, but the whole story of taxation of road use goes back way before then.

Pre- History

In late medieval times, tolls or turnpikes were created for the use of a specific length of road, or even a bridge. This was a very direct form of taxation: if you used the road, you paid the toll or tax. It did not matter who you were or whether you rode or had the (relative) luxury of a coach or carriage. Vehicular taxation did not rear its ugly head for the first time in Great Britain until 1637, when Hackney cabs were licenced. Things went quiet for nearly a century and then in 1747, all horse-drawn carriages, drawn by two or more horses attracted a similar annual tax or licence. The first tax on mechanically-propelled vehicles followed surprisingly swiftly, in 1770. However, these machines were steam-powered and crude and were never used in numbers, largely due to their inefficiency and the rough roads: the railways did away with the poor surface problem and did not look back for a considerable time.

By 1861, the Locomotive Acts controlled taxation of vehicles of British roads. At this stage, the administration of the Acts was via the local county offices, a system that was to remain right up until 1974, when the DVLC was created at Swansea - now the DVLA, though it still maintains about 40 local offices. The Locomotive Act of 1865 created the infamous 4 mph speed limit and the man with the red flag! It was around this time that the term 'keeper' came into use, rather than 'owner', a term still in use today on the modern V5C.

If you owned a steam vehicle or a coach and four back then in the 1860's, then you needed to purchase an annual licence, through your local county council, valid until the December of that year. Just like the modern-day Tax Disc, if you had more than one coach, you had to buy a licence for each one in your possession. Unlike the present system, the piece of paper that you held only permitted you to use the roads of the county for which it was bought. If you had the misfortune to live right in the corner of a county, in close proximity to one or two others within your likely radius of operation, then additional licences were required for each county's roads used……… At typically two guineas a shot ( £2.10 in modern parlance ) per carriage, this was potentially a very expensive exercise!

The licence itself at this time, took the form of a certificate, printed on thin paper, rectangular in shape, that contained the address of the owner, a description of the vehicle ( eg 'carriage drawn by four horses' ), the county of issue and the amount paid.

A typical Carriage Licence. Printed on very thin paper, note the December expiry date, and the term 'keep'. Though bought in August, 1889, the full annual rate of two guineas has been paid.

Despite our researches, we have been unable to discover just how enforceable this was - number plates did not exist and there was no law mandating evidence of payment to be displayed. However, traffic police were, no doubt, so much a thing of the future, that it may not have been too much of a problem to evade.

And so to the advent of the motor car on our roads, with the first car appearing in 1894 - a Benz as it happens, and this car probably still survives. Yes, Britain was importing cars as long ago as that!

The 1896 Locomotive and Highways Act was generally more friendly to the driver, enabling more popular light motor vehicles to be used - vehicles under 3 tons were exempted from the legislation requiring the man with the red flag, and the speed limit went up to a dizzying 14 mph! However, regulations followed on soon, reducing it back to 12mph and introducing such niceties as passing on-coming traffic on the left, and keeping to the right when overtaking. In addition, the driver was required to stop at the instruction of a police officer or any person 'in charge of a restive horse'. Prior to this, driving on a British road must have been something akin to the roads in Bombay, or even Paris today, but we digress….


Origianl Registration CertificateShortly after this, by 1889 the unstoppable grasp of the Tax Man meant that virtually all vehicles on British roads were subject to an annual tax or licence. Though an increasing number of motor and steam-powered road vehicles began to use our roads, the first legislation to refer to motor cars by name, was the Motor Car Act of 1903. This is a seminal Act, inasmuch as it introduces number plates to identify individual cars on the road as they pass, as well as specifically requiring them to be registered annually at the county offices by number. County Councils and County Borough Councils were made Registration and Licencing Authorities. The number plate incidentally, is a French invention, like the roundabout, first used in Paris in 1893.

The 1903 Act sets the annual registration fee at £1 for a car and 5s ( 25p in today's money) for a motorcycle. The Act also passed the responsibility for collecting the tax from the Inland Revenue to the county councils themselves, with whom it stayed until 1974. The speed limit was also a more realistic 20 mph by then.

So, we now have the basis of a modern system of controlling the motor car: a car is identifiable as it blats past you at 20mph ( just imagine what Top Gear would have been like back then.). Having noted the registration number, the police or any other authority could locate the owner very simply. Not surprisingly fines for driving unlicensed vehicles, speeding and reckless driving all increased as it became possible to identify the culprits. It should be said though, that the amount of such offending behaviour, especially speeding was rising with ever greater numbers of more efficient cars.

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The RAC Rating Cometh…..

The Government did not leave things there. The Finance Acts of 1909 and 1910 introduced a sliding form of annual duty on cars, based on a notional horsepower rating - the notorious RAC rating. These Acts also stipulated that the money raised from vehicular taxation should be 'hypothecated' for road maintenance and construction. ie money raised from roads should be spent on roads, sadly no longer the case, as we all know.

From then on through the Great War, motor vehicle use continued to expand. This had an increasing adverse effect on the condition of Britain's roads, which led in 1919, to a Royal Commission being set up to review the situation and make appropriate recommendations. This Commission was the parent of the Road Traffic Acts of 1919 and 1920.

The passing of the 1920 Act greatly tidied up what was at the time an extremely confusing situation, and we must remember that motoring was still a relatively 'new' method of transport then. The horse had been around for a very long time and was being replaced at a frightening rate by the internal combustion engine.

Prior to this Act being passed, various forms of taxation had been implemented with reference to 'Locomotives', number of wheels etc, appearing in both the 1888 and 1896 Acts. As we know, the Motor car Act, 1903 led to measures designed to identify vehicles and licence (tax!) them annually. The 1908 Finance Act introduced a 3d. per gallon tax on petroleum spirit. The Finance Act of 1910 introduced the hated 'Horsepower' rating.

Unfortunately, this formula did not take account of the length of an engine's stroke, and in order to keep the horsepower figure as low as possible, long-stroke engines with small diameter piston areas were the order of the day. The RAC formula was expressed thus:-

HP = (D2 x n)/2.5

Where D2 = the diameter squared of the pistons and n = the number of cylinders.

There were three constant assumptions lying behind this formula. These never change, despite the actual statistics for a given engine. The notional pressure within the engine's cylinders was presumed always to be 90lbs per square inch. The engine was always presumed to be 75% efficient and the mean speed of the pistons always 1000 feet/minute. This presumption led almost invariably to the resulting figure being very low. An example: the Singer 9 has an RAC rating of 9 horse-power. Its actual BHP figure is around 31. It was this that led to the common habit amongst British car manufacturers of calling their cars the '16/60' or something similar- ie RAC rating of 16 hp but actually the engine produced 60 bhp. Squared and over-squared high compression engines took many years to evolve as a result of this ruling! The trade guides of the period, as used by second-hand dealers, all listed the RAC rating for each model, as a car that was expensive to tax, would be less easy to sell. Curiously, one of the first cars intended for the masses, the Austin 7, was rated at 7.8 hp, which rounded up to 8 for taxation, should really have been known as the Austin 8.

The Treasury did not let the motorist get off lightly, having chosen to use this formula. OK, a Singer 9 may only be rated at a third of its actual power but the boys from Whitehall then levied a whopping £1 per horse-power on it! Remember, only back in 1903, it was just a £1 for the whole year for the whole car, not just one measly RAC horse!

However, there was at least, an accepted method of determining an engine's size for annual taxation purposes, with an initial rule of thumb being that one horsepower would cost £1, the rating being rounded up to the next complete horsepower during the calculation, regardless.

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The Tax Disc is Born

This is the story of the Tax Disc, and it is here that our hero makes his entrance. The Acts of 1919 and 20, laid down the specifications for the first Tax Discs and exactly how they should be displayed - by using a holder that shall be circular. It was defined as proof of payment of the Road Fund Licence and thus the Tax Disc as we know it today was born.

For the years the years 1921 and 1922, Tax Discs were by today's standards quite basic: plain grey paper, black ink with simple instructions on the reverse - sometimes even advertisements - and no perforations.

The very first Tax 'Disc'The very first design of Tax Disc issued, printed very simply in black on thick grey paper. Note again the December expiry, four national symbols on the surround, and minimal anti-fraud devices.

Life itself must indeed have seemed simpler in those days - until you tried to fit the disc into the holder. Some cut round them with scissors whilst others preferred to just fold over the edges repeatedly until it could be crammed in. Presumably, the Acts stipulated that they should be round because the holders were more easily produced in circular form, but why were they not perforated from the start?

1923 saw the introduction of colour. Background intaglio printing - very fine, repetitive security printing behind the basic design, similar to a bank note - together with an over-printed broad green band also appeared this year.

The first coloured Tax DiscThe first coloured Tax Disc from 1923. The plain green background is, in fact, security print. Note the wording 'Amount paid (if different from the Annual Rate of Duty above)
If only two month's tax was bought then the amount is entered here.

The intaglio print read: 'Road Fund Licence'. This was done, as the first two Tax Discs were too easy to forge. In addition, the selection of a colour for each year enabled the enforcing agencies to quickly identify those with out of date Tax Discs. At this time, all Tax Discs purchased during a year expired on the last day in December. So, if one was caught driving with a grey Tax Disc in 1923, instead of a green one, you were nicked!

As previously mentioned, the Tax Discs all expired within the year of issue. A Tax Disc purchased in March 1923 could not carry 12 month's rate of duty: the maximum would have been nine months. The annual rate of duty payable for that given vehicle would always be shown on the Tax Disc, but the actual amount paid would be written on the counterfoil, at the bottom, and thus hidden from view when in the holder. This system of December 31st expiries was to remain for many years and cause enormous problems at the issuing offices as they struggled to cope with the task of renewing so many licences in a short time over Christmas and the New Year as they all expired simultaneously.

Introduced at the same time as the 'annual' Tax Disc, was the quarterly Disc. As its name implies, these were only issued for three months or part thereof. Their design was similar to the annual but with a solid background colour of light green, light blue, dark blue, buff, pink, yellow, orange or grey, with no intaglio print. Over this solid colour was either black or red print, of a similar basic design to the annual Tax Disc.

Quarterly Tax Discs

Four quarterly Tax Discs, each with a different solid background colour unlike the annual Tax Disc. Note that the design is virtually the same as the 1921 annual Tax Disc.

Though known as 'quarterly', they weren't quite. The second, third and fourth quarterly licences all expired when you would expect: 30th June, 31st September, and 31st December. However, the first quarterly always expired on the 24th March. Why? Because many more impoverished drivers laid their cars up for winter and put them back on the road for a run at Easter ( which can come early some years) and so would have to fork out for another quarter's licence.

Starting with 1923, various colour changes took place thenceforth for every year's licence until the present day. The coloured bar started out as vertical in 1923 and remained that way until 1932 when it became a horizontal bar. By 1935, it became a cross. 1935 was also significant because the rate of duty was reduced to fifteen shillings per horsepower, probably due to the fact that the government wished to encourage the motor industry and the tax take would be larger overall if there were more cars on the roads.

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Everyone's after My Little Perforations!

The first Tax Disc that was perforated was for 1938. By then, the yearly coloured stripe was diagonal. Note that the perforations cut into the design unlike some
later designs.

Perforated Tax DiscA major innovation in 1938 was the introduction of perforations around the outside of the printed circle, making the Tax Disc much easier to fit into its holder. It is curious that this had not been done earlier though some older Tax Discs had been rouletted. In addition the wording of the intaglio print was changed from 'Road Fund Licence' to 'Mechanically Propelled Vehicle Licence'. The perforations lasted only until 1942, not reappearing until 1952. The precise reason for this is unknown but it is thought likely that the equipment was destroyed during bombing raids.

Just before WW2, an entirely new Tax Disc appeared, both in annual and quarterly forms: the Farmer's Disc. The first years of these had a totally different design, including a large outline 'F'. They intended solely for the use of agricultural vehicles, both tractors and goods.

From the start in 1921, the four symbols of the United Kingdom, the Thistle, Shamrock, Daffodil and Rose, appeared on the face of the Tax Disc, as well as the corners of the counterfoil. These symbols lasted as a feature of the Tax Disc until 1951, when they were removed to make way for a bolder expiry date.

Last of the Old Tax DiscsThe dreaded RAC rating lasted until 1947. In 1948, a flat rate of duty for all cars was introduced, at £10 per year, though goods vehicles and Hackneys - that is buses as well as taxi cabs, had complicated rates of duty as they do to this day. The 'HP' box still remained as part of the design of the Tax Disc and was sometimes filled out that way, but more often showed engine capacity as 'cc', hand-written.

The last of the 'old design' Tax Discs, that looked very similar to the original '21 Disc, appeared in 1956.
It was followed for four years by a totally different design that totally lacked the United Kingdom symbols and no longer had a box for 'colour'. It featured two solid bands of colour at the top and bottom of the Disc. The farmer's version included a large outline 'F' on the left, filled in with the colour for the year. All Tax Discs were still expiring no later than December 31st each year.

The short-lived design of the late fifties, very different from previous Tax Discs. Still with December expiries only, the four national symbols have been deleted, the intaglio print is restricted to the Disc and appears over a contrasting background colour in two segments.

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The Modern Era Begins

New Style Tax DiscBig changes to all aspects of the Tax Disc and its administration occurred in 1961. In a major effort to make life harder for the forger, a new design consisting of various circular vignettes and bands of solid colour, plus a half-tone background was launched. ( Figure 7 ) Artwork, however was not the only big change. Monthly taxation was finally introduced to get away from the bottleneck of the December 31st expiry. From January onwards in 1961, one could buy twelve month's car tax at any time, the Tax Disc you received having January, February, March etc of the following year as the expiry. In addition, the quarterly Tax Disc disappeared totally as a separate design and four-monthly taxation replaced it. However, the Tax Disc design allowed the issuing clerk to write in '4 months' on to a standard design Disc. The farmer's Disc still survived these changes but was simply hand-stamped with a black 'F' on the left of the Tax Disc.

This well-known design accompanied many big changes -annual taxation from any month in the year being the most significant. This is the second year of this design - the infamous Guinness Disc.

The attempt to beat the forgers proved to be a little off target. The years of 1961 and 1962 were to the less scrupulous, relatively easy to 'amend' to their own advantage - Guinness bottle labels being used to evade payment! Consequently, in 1963, an additional expiry date, printed in a light tint on the lower half of the disc was added and Anti Forger Tax Discquickly put an end to this practice. This defined the design of the Tax Disc for the next fifteen years until May 1978. During this time, the Tax Disc continued to change colour with each year ( not monthly, as many believe), in the sequence blue, brown, green, and red.

In response to the supposedly widespread fraud allowed by the Guinness Tax Disc of '62, the expiry date was duplicated in the toned area of the design from 1963 onwards.

During the postal strikes that occurred between 1971-75, there were 'emergency' Tax Discs in either pink or yellow, hand-stamped and hand-written.

Another seismic shift in Tax Disc history was brought in by the government in 1974 - the advent of the DLVC or Driving Licence and Vehicle Centre, known to all now as 'Swansea'. This new national system of driver and vehicle registration, computer-based, took on all the responsibilities previously the domain of the County Licencing Offices. From this point, the Counties ceased to have any responsibility to keep records of drivers or vehicles, or for the issuing of Tax Discs. Swansea and its 81 regional offices took over entirely.

Digital Style Tax DiscStarting in 1977, a new 'digital' style Tax Disc design arrived. This showed the entire expiry date in large print on a coloured band, repeated in toned colour lower on the Disc. ie 31:3:77 This was the first 'Swansea Disc'. These lasted until August 1987, during which time the four-month Tax Disc was abolished due to administration costs, this being replaced with the six-month option that we have today. In 1983, the Welsh bi-lingual Tax Discs appear. The Farmer's Disc was abolished during this time too.

The first of the 'wavy line' designs begin in September 1987, again yet another round in the eternal battle with the forgers - instead of a straight toned band, we now have thin parallel wavy lines with the expiry date superimposed. This developed further in 1993, with a return to the larger month and year format, dropping the day from the design. By this stage, there was also an HGV Tax Disc. This had slightly different shading in the design, and featured 'HGV' embossed into the top edge of the disc.

The 'wavy line' design came in during 1977, and survived, with a variety of changes, until October, 2003. The one illustrated is one of the last before the big change was made then. Note the elliptical perforations at the edge and in the body of the Tax Disc and the embossing along to top.

Bar Code Tax DiscBy 2001, the design has become even more complex, on water-marked paper. 'DVLA' is now embossed repetitively across the top of the Disc. By this stage, the Government has introduced variable rates of taxation according to the capacity of a car's engine, so we are now almost full circle again with different cars attracting different amounts of duty as in 1921, where we came in. However, still the tussle with the forgers goes on apace, and in October, 2003, star-shaped perforations, gold foils, bar codes and holograms have all been added. By popular demand from the driving public, the day of expiry has been re-introduced too. The strange thing is that we at Earlswood Reproductions have been producing legal copies of Tax Discs, albeit up to 1992, and yet we have never been shown one of the forgeries that the Government is so worried about! And we do get to see a lot of Tax Discs….

Up to date with the design launched in October 2003.Apart from the two star perforations, the Tax Disc has acquired a bar code ( readable from the roadside)j, foil, and holograms which pixelate coarsely when scanned.

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Reproduction Tax Discs

If you have been intrigued by this article and wish to dress your vehicle correctly, Earlswood Reproduction has been supplying facsimile Tax Discs under an HMSO licence from 1995 to 2008 when the responsibility for issueing the licence passed to the DVLA. We use the original tax tables and statutes to a complete customer's facsimile disc with all the correct details. It shows the duty payable for a full year's use of the road when the vehicle was new. A comparatively simple task for motor cars but more complex for agricultural and commercial vehicles or showman's engines etc. where the various weights of vehicle and nature of the tyres etc has to be considered. As described above, your Tax Disc may also show quite a lot of other information as well, depending on the year. We also supply a range of suitable period Tax Disc Holders.

It is entirely legal to display a reproduction Tax Disc whilst driving on a British road, provided that a current Tax Disc is also displayed. This is so for tax-exempt vehicles also - you may not need to pay for a current Tax Disc but you must display one on the road.

For American readers, you may freely display your reproduction Tax Disc on your car in the USA and use it on the road. To correctly position it, the Tax Disc should be mounted in a holder and located on the inside of the windscreen, readable from the outside, or for early vehicles, the holder should be attached to the left-hand forward side of the body. The Tax Disc should be placed on the inside lower left-hand corner of the screen for a right-hand drive car. For left-hand drive cars, the right-hand lower corner, or right-hand side of the body would possibly be more suitable. Earlswood Reproduction can supply a variety of suitable holders to suit the varying eras of motoring.

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