A tax disc was a circular certificate that vehicle owners had to place on the front windscreen of road vehicles, as visual proof that vehicle tax has been paid. Similar systems exist in some other countries, such as in Ireland, but the use of automatic number plate recognition has rendered tax discs redundant in the United Kingdom.
The collection of tax discs was first popularised by Elite Registrations, dealers in vehicle number plates, and has since developed a niche following. In response to the interest, a collector's magazine, The Velologist, is published monthly. The study of expired and historical tax discs is also a central component of an affiliated industry: the production of replica age-appropriate tax discs for collectors of vintage and classic cars; these can be legally displayed alongside the required modern disc or Exemption certificate.
Collectors value specimens which are intact, unfaded and rare. Those of particular interest include Emergency discs (serial number prefaced with an E, issued when supplies of normal discs were interrupted) and Welsh language discs. Another variation was the "Farmers' disc", identified by an "F", which was displayed on agricultural vehicles.
History of tax discs
Although vehicle excise duty was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1889, it wasn't until 1 January 1921 that it became compulsory to display a tax disc on the vehicle. Initially, they were issued quarterly or annually. Early discs were made from plain paper, without perforations; the selvedge was cut or folded to create the main circular shape. Colour printing was introduced in 1923. Advertising on the reverse of the disc was allowed from 1924, with companies such as Shell Oil placing advertisements. This was abolished in 1926, after which the reverse showed text relating to the refund available for unexpired licences. Perforations were used from 1938, enabling a better fit within the standard disc holders; however, the perforations were missing from 1942 to 1952, perhaps as a result of equipment damage during the war. In 1961 major changes occurred, with a redesign of the printed pattern – for better security – and a new system of monthly issues, rather than the standard December expiry of the past. From then on, the expiry month was displayed. From 2001, watermarking and embossing were added to prevent fraud.
The design of British licence disc has varied over the decades since its introduction on 1 January 1921. Among the factors for its evolution are the changing legislation and the increase in security features to mitigate counterfeiting. The latest series (2003) incorporated a bar code to verify its authenticity with the vehicle it was registered to, and to increase efficiency of renewal applications as renewal via the internet was introduced. A design variant was adopted in Wales in the early 1970s with the month expressed as a number instead of by name and other details printed additionally in Welsh. This was introduced when the government decided that all official documentation in Wales would be bilingual, but it was judged that the print size would be too small for the name of month to be abbreviated and displayed in two languages. Later, this design with the month expressed as a number was adopted throughout the UK.
The 1921 series was the first design of the licence disc which were required to be displayed in every British vehicle since 1 January 1921. They were issued with two possible lengths of duration: one year (annual) or three months (sometimes referred to as a quarterly licence). Quarterly licences were issued on coloured paper to differentiate between the two periods of duty they were issued for.
|Annual Road Fund Licence (1921 and 1922)|
|Year of expiry||Main colour||Image (obverse)||Obverse||Reverse||Remarks|
|1921||None||Cross-shaped layout with emblems of Regions of the United Kingdom; Circumference text reads: “Expiring 31 Dec. [Year]. … Licence for a mechanically propelled vehicle.”||Text within circular ring reads: “This Licence Card must be exhibited in the regulation position on the vehicle when in use upon a public road [See Note in the Licence Registration Book]. It must be given up to the Post Office or to the Registration Authority on expiry. A new licence cannot be issued until the old one is surrendered.”||(None)|
|Annual Road Fund Licence (1921-1931)|
|Year of Expiry||Main Colour||Image (obverse)||Lifespan of design||Obverse||Reverse||Remarks|
|— Cross-shaped layout with emblems of Regions of the United Kingdom and vertical colour band
— Circumference text reads: “Expiring 31 Dec. [Year]. … Licence for a mechanically propelled vehicle.”
— Background text: “Road Fund Licence”
|Text within circular ring reads: “This Licence Card must be exhibited in the regulation position on the vehicle when in use upon a public road (See Note in the Licence Registration Book). It must be destroyed on expiry unless renewed at a Post Office when it must be surrendered.”||January 1923: First issue of annual licences with colour printing|
|1925||Blue||Advertisement for Shell Motor Oils|
|1926||Orange||Surrender of Licences text|
|These images are to scale at 0.7 pixels per millimetre.|
The 1938 series of Annual licence discs were a minor design revision to the 1932 series, and were issued from 1 January 1938 to July 1950. The background pattern text was revised to read "Mechanically propelled vehicle licence", instead of "Road Fund Licence".
The 1951 series were first issued on 1 January 1951 as a revision to the previous series. The emblems of Regions of the United Kingdom were replaced with the expiry year and the arrangement of the expiry date was modified to increase legibility. Licence discs issued for 1954 to 1956 removed the requirement for specifying the colour of the vehicle. A diagonal colour band overprint was used for licences for 1951 and 1952, and a vertical band for the remainder of the series.
The 1957 series were first issued on 1 January 1957 and continued until the replacement of quarter-year licences with four-month licences on 1 October 1960.
|Annual Vehicle Licence (1957-1960)|
|Year of Expiry||Main Colour||Image (obverse)||Obverse||Reverse||Remarks|
|1957||Red||Expiry year flanked between issuing stamp area; circumference text: “Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1949. - Licence for a mechanically propelled vehicle.”; background text: “Mechanically propelled vehicle licence”||Surrender of Licences (Vehicles (Excise) Act, 1949, Section 12.)|
|1958||Blue||The type size of the expiry year was increased.|
|Vehicle Licence (expiring from 2003 to 2015)|
|Year of Expiry||Main Colour||Image (obverse)||Obverse||Reverse||Remarks|
|2003||Blue||Upper half: Gold expiry date (DD MM YY) in Univers type over colour background with wavy text “EXPIRES” alternating between gold and white, with two star holes above the day and year.
Centre: Barcode in middle with foil strip and two elliptical holes.
|Refund of Duty and Non-transferability clause; lower half inverse in black.|
|2005||Red||Tax discs issued from 1 September 2004 have a black expiry date with gold outline.|
|As before, but expiry date in black with gold outline.|
|2011||Red||As before, but expiry date in Arial type and black only.|
- "10 things we didn't know this time last week". bbc.co.uk. 2004-02-13. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
- Hill, p. 5
- The Velologist
- History of the Tax Disc
- Hill, p. 50
- "House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee" (2008-07-22). "Vehicle Excise Duty as an environmental tax". "The Stationery Office Limited".
- Hill, p. 7
- Hill, p. 8
- Hill, p. 12–13
- Hill, p. 14
- "Barcoded Tax Discs". National Numbers House. 2004-01-15. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
- Hill, Tony; (2006) Trade and Collect Tax Discs UK: Collecticus ISBN 978-1-873313-10-7 excerpts available online