|The history of oval plates began in Europe around the start of the 20th century, its end might just as well have started there too. |
By the end of the 19th century, registration of motor vehicles had started in many countries. In many places this was simply a local registration within cities - or sometimes some larger government - but very near the beginning of the 20th century a national form of registration had emerged in many European countries. Because international traffic had increased it was deemed necessary to put nationality marks on vehicles, this took on the form of a white oval plate with black marks to be displayed on the rear of a vehicle.
By 1910 this was introduced in 12 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Monaco, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom (actually Great Britain and Ireland). In 1911 followed Luxembourg, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland. Before the First World War it was also introduced in Denmark - 1914, Greece - 1913, Montenegro - 1913, Portugal - 1912 and the first non-European country - British India, 1912, as a colony.
Shortly after the war followed Czechoslovakia - 1922, Danzig - 1922, Finland - 1921, Liechtenstein - 1923, Lithuania - 1925, Norway - 1922, Poland - 1921 and Saarland - 1925. Also Ireland - 1924, just independent, French India - 1925, as a colony, Morocco - 1924, as a French protectorate, the remainder of the United Kingdom (Channel Islands, Gibraltar and Malta, Man followed later).
Finally, in 1927, followed Egypt (just a few years no longer a British protectorate) and Argentina (as the first fully independent non-European country). By the start of the Second World War nearly all European countries supported the plates, and the ones that did not have them officially had distinctive plates anyhow (see Andorra). Non-European countries almost all have them implemented now, but there are still some missing.
With the advent of the European Union, crossing country borders became increasingly easy. Nowadays you are sometimes are not even aware that you are crossing one. So, while previously customs officers could (but would not always) check if a valid oval plate is present, you can now cross borders in many cases without one.
Quite frequently you can find vehicles carrying an oval plate that does not match their country of origin. So the EU issued a directive that nationality marks should - in the future - become part of the plate in the form of a blue band with the EU logo at the top, and the country marks in white below it. Quite a few EU countries are already implementing this.
More amazing is that some non-EU countries are implementing a similar scheme: Hungary (at the left the Hungarian flag and the letter H below it, still black on white) and the Isle of Man (at the left a red band with the three-legged wheel and in white the letters GBM below it). So it can be assumed that in the future, at least in Europe, the oval plates will give way to nationality marks on the plates, and in that case both at the rear end and at the front end of a vehicle.