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In Great Britain we have had a little coloured jewel in the bottom corner of our windscreens since January of 1921. This was when the tax disc was born. The earliest discs came on uncoloured paper (1921 – 1922), but it wasn’t long before it was realised that the constabulary needed an easier way to spot untaxed vehicles from a distance. So, in 1923 a vertical green stripe appeared and ever since colour has been the tax discs main identifying feature.
The user friendliness we enjoy with modern cars was absent in the early days of motoring. Many vehicles had to be hand cranked from the front to start them, but this was only after an array of levers and knobs had been tweaked to set the choke, advance and retard the ignition and so forth. You may even have had to “tickle” the carburettor to get things moving. Starting a vehicle was almost turned into an art form.
Even something as basic as petrol could have been purchased from some pretty strange places. This oddly included chemists and coach houses, but soon it was virtually wherever storage tanks could be placed.
Many early trucks were petrol powered and if the company had several trucks then they more than likely stored fuel and sold some of it on to motorists at marked up prices thereby becoming the prototypes of early petrol stations. If you’re of a certain age you will probably remember the many independent petrol pumps that sat in front of haulage company premises
In the early days most businesses were closed on Sundays (Sabbath) under the province of the Lord’s Day observance. Because of this the use of jerry cans was quite common when you travelled any distance on that day. The RAC and AA also carried small quantities of fuel; enough to likely get you to the next town after they’d got you up and running again. You even got a compulsory salute from these smartly suited mobile mechanics, bless ‘em. (Ah! Those were the days…)
The tax discs colour swathe (vertical, horizontal, diagonal or cross) changed yearly, but the discs always expired in December. Needless to say this caused a flood of work in Post Offices across the country in January each year when most people came to renew. Remember, daily car usage was not that common in those days and many pleasure drivers would wait until after the harshness of winter to use their vehicles. In the absence of antifreeze back then radiators had to be emptied if frost was expected. They would have to be refilled again before use. Most cars of the day also required grease points to be attended to before an outward journey of any great length was undertaken and you’d possibly even have to do them again before the end of the journey.
Early cars were taxed on their Horse Power (HP) not Brake Horse Power (BHP). Working out the HP involved measuring across the top of the piston, multiplying by the number of cylinders and then having a mathematical formula applied. What this did was to restrict “over square” engine development as most engines became long stroke. This kept the piston diameter as narrow as possible enabling you to pay less tax. This was pretty much standardised at £1 per HP from 1921 to 1948.
3. Tax Discs Overview