Number Plate Fonts of Europe

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand

Links to font downloads begin halfway down the page.

Background and History

Strong government role in font selection. Unlike the United States, in Europe the specific fonts used on number plates may be mandatory and legislated by the national government. (In the U.S. everything is administered at the state level, so there is a patchwork of differing fonts. Even at the state level, U.S. font designs are arrived at on an ad hoc basis rather than legislated. The design may change whenever manufacturing facilities are updated, or when the contracted supplier changes in cases where a state prison does not produce the plates.)

The effect of private plate makers on font variation. Another difference is that, in the United Kingdom at least, plates are apparently not supplied by the central vehicle licensing agency, but can be made by any private number plate supplier, providing they register with the agency. (Owners can have them produced either by nationally known firms or local ones — the latter often apparently garages or car dealers — who will produce plates once furnished with the vehicle’s valid V5 registration document.) This means that font design might vary slightly depending on the source. In Britain the legislated font stroke widths, character height/ width, letterspacing, plus the overall letter shapes seem to be the prime points of concern. Despite the U.K.’s currently mandated font, as long as these items are adhered to, the character designs may differ very slightly so long as the overall shapes are followed.

Other than the U.K., we are not clear about how common this arrangement may be, whereby private number plate makers supply plates to the public. We believe it is more common for an agency of the central government to make the plates, however easily located information about other European countries on this point has been scarce in the research we have done.

Note: Since we operate in the U.S. and are less familiar with the overall European Union approach to license or number plates, if anyone who knows about the practices of various countries in Europe would like to point us to good information on these issues, we’d appreciate it. Wikipedia has no information about fonts for any European countries other than the U.K. and Germany, and information in its entries about whether governments or private businesses manufacture plates is also scarce to nonexistent. (Email us at: .)

The enduring influence of DIN 1451. Design-wise, European number plate fonts have been heavily influenced by the 1936 decision of the German Institute for Industrial Standards that established a typeface now known as DIN 1451 as the standard font for Germany’s industrial applications. (DIN, which stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung, is the abbreviation the institute is known by.) These uses included traffic signage and vehicle registration among others. Many other countries followed suit at that time, and DIN 1451 or variations thereof predominated on European plates for many decades after.

Newer fonts starting to be used in recent years. Beginning roughly in the mid-1990s, a few countries have been starting to move to the use of other fonts, including Germany itself. See the discussion specific to DIN 1451 below for more details, plus an overview of countries who have since moved to using something different. We’ve included the full commentary about DIN 1451 on this page due to its central and historical influence for most of Europe, rather than on a separate page as with most of the other fonts in the listing.

How wider European plate proportions have affected font design. Compared to the U.S., European-style plate lettering is in general somewhat wider with a less crunched appearance. This is a “design luxury” afforded by the wider horizontal space available on most European plates, so that fonts need not be so compressed to fit. (European plates are commonly 520 mm by about 110 to 120 mm, or approximately 20.5x4.5”, compared to the U.S. at 305x152 mm, or 12x6”).

Less noticeable monospacing distortions. The wider space available has also meant that with European fonts the distortions in letterforms caused by monospaced or near-monospaced font design are less noticeable. Monospacing means that all letters take up exactly the same width, and the wider characters on European plates allow more leeway for finessing character designs to fit a monospaced character grid. In addition, some European countries appear to use, or to allow the use of, proportional fonts rather than strictly monospaced fonts as do U.S. plates. Sometimes these may utilize a modestly varying range of widths that remain close to a common average, so that normally wider characters such as M and W look less obviously crunched, as they often do from strict monospacing. In addition, spacing will be visually even and better-looking in proportionally spaced fonts, especially for very narrow characters like numeral 1 and capital I (which look gappy in monospaced fonts), when they are not required to take up the same (wider) space as the rest of the characters.

European Number Plate Fonts

Fonts are grouped below in sequence by country, except for DIN 1451 which is listed first because of its special status as the basis for the font designs used by a substantial number of European countries. A grunge number plate font is also included at the end of the list.

The “one-liner” font samples below intentionally show just key uppercase font characters and numerals, since those are the typical characters of interest with license plates. Note that the commercial replicas of license plate fonts shown here may not be strictly monospaced. I.e., character widths may be individually tailored for better letterfit more suited to general graphic design use. Click font name link or image for a full character showing, additional information, and download links.

Legend:  Font Name  |  Year Designed, Designer, Permitted Use. Additional notes follow if applicable.

DIN 1451 Mittelschrift  |  1936, by Ludwig Goller (based on an earlier Prussian Railways design from 1905), later redrawn by Linotype staff, commercial. Other implementations also available from various foundries. Note the alternate forms for numerals 6 and 9. In addition to the overview just below, for more information on countries that use DIN 1451 and the idiosyncrasies of their varying implementations, click the typeface link here, or see individual country links further down the page.

DIN 1451 font specimen

About DIN 1451’s influence and history. If you look at a range of European countries’ vehicle plate samples over the last several decades as exhibited at collectors’ websites, many were or still are based on the font DIN 1451. The typeface had its origins in a Prussian Railways font developed in 1905 (Wikipedia mistakenly lists the date as 1906), and was later chosen by the German Institute for Industrial Standards (DIN) as the model for DIN 1451. In 1924, development of DIN 1451 began as part of a larger effort to set nationwide industrial standards aimed at improving the quality of German products, and was headed by Ludwig Goller of Siemens, president of DIN’s Committee of Drawings.

In 1936, the typeface was released and defined as the standard for industrial applications in Germany, such as technology and traffic as well as for administrative and business use, due to its legibility, simplicity, and ease of reproduction. (All character strokes were identical in width, intended to facilitate ease in producing standardized lettering in a variety of situations regardless of the tools used.) This proved to be a key event Continent-wide, as most of Europe followed suit and the pattern was set for decades. However, over time, and particularly since the mid-1990s or so, the fonts for the various European countries have become more individualized. Some countries have made a few progressive/ cumulative modifications of DIN 1451 itself, while others have moved to using completely new designs.

DIN 1451’s visual vocabulary. Due in part to DIN 1451’s influence, European number plate font characters tend to be “boxier” on average than the somewhat more “ovalized” theme of U.S. plate lettering, although neither of these tendencies for either Europe or the U.S. are hard-and-fast rules. A distinguishing feature of DIN 1451 is the use of straight vertical sides on characters such as C, D, G, O, and Q that would otherwise feature continuously rounded arcs. Also, curved strokes are based on perfectly circular rather than ovalized/ elliptical arcs. Both of these characteristics give DIN 1451 its simple and basic industrial feel or “constructivist” look.

Original DIN 1451 font design vs. number plate implementations. There are a couple of common differences between the original design of DIN 1451 compared to the way it’s usually been implemented on license plates. In the original design the numerals are significantly narrower than the average width of the capital alpha characters, but on license plates all the characters including the numerals usually target a common average width. (Germany, where the font originated, was an exception to this rule, with numerals retaining their narrower width even on number plates.) Such monospaced design is typical practice for number plates (though not without exceptions depending on the country), and an accommodation to the desire for a predictable amount of allotted space for any given plate number, regardless of the specific characters used. This brings up the second difference, which is that this shared average width is usually somewhat narrower than the average alpha character width of DIN 1451’s original design, but a bit wider than the original numerals.

More recent European number plate fonts have sometimes utilized straight horizontal strokes for both the tops and bottoms of normally round characters or character arcs (C, D, G, O, Q, S), in addition to the vertical straights as on DIN 1451. The result is noticeably squarish letterforms overall but with rounded curves connecting the horizontal and vertical straights. This might be termed the modern European design “aesthetic,” as typified in the classic Eurostile display typeface family familiar to typographers and graphic designers. The strongest examples of this design style for number plates are the current fonts used by Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. (Although in comparison to the squarish alpha characters, the Swiss numerals are more humanistic in shape.) Most of the other countries use a DIN-based character set, but there are a few who employ more humanistic, non-DIN-influenced and non-Eurostile-influenced fonts. These countries are Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway.

In-depth retrospective article series on DIN by designer of FF DIN, a remake of the original. For more information about the development of DIN 1451 and a popular modern successor, FF DIN, see the article series, “FF DIN: The History of the Development of a Contemporary Typeface.” Written by FF DIN’s designer, Albert-Jan Pool, in Encore Magazine online, the series is accompanied by numerous graphics and photos of both typefaces in early development as well as use over time.

  • Part 1: Industrial Archaeology. DIN — The First German Typeface?
  • Part 2: DIN — A Child of its Time. Constructing a Standard. New Typography, New Alphabet? Architect’s Standards. Looking Back.
  • Part 3: Setting a Standard. A Confession to Constructivism? DIN 1451 on its Way Up. FF DIN — New at the Start.
  • Part 4: One Typeface for All Situations. New Times, New Habits.
  • Part 5: Questions about FF DIN. How German is the DIN Typeface? If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren at the Autobahn.

Austria

Number plate font based on DIN 1451 but with round endstrokes. See DIN 1451 page for specific changes.

Belgium

Based on DIN 1451 with some modifications. See DIN 1451 page for more specifics.

Numberplate Belgium  |  2000–2004, Stephan Müller, commercial. Includes regular straight cut plus an alternate font with rounded corners for embossed appearance.

Britain – See United Kingdom (link goes to next page).

Czech Republic

Font based closely on DIN 1451 with some differences.

Denmark

Unlike many European countries, the Danish font does not appear to have ever been based on DIN 1451, but is a more humanistic design.

Finland

The Finnish font is a mixture of some characteristics from DIN 1451 with more humanistic influences. See listing on DIN 1451 for specific character changes.

France

The current French font, of which Numberplate France below is a replica, appears to have been officially in use since the late 1990s, although exactly when is unclear. Also unclear are what kind of guidelines govern the font(s) used on French plates, since it’s quite common to see other typefaces in use on current-issue passenger plates.

Numberplate France  |  2000–2004, Stephan Müller, commercial. Includes regular straight cut plus an alternate font with rounded corners for embossed appearance.

Germany

Counterfeiting of plate numbers in 1970s drove eventual switch in typeface. The two primary typefaces of note that have been used for German license plates are DIN 1451 from 1936 till November 2000 (see DIN 1451 writeup above on this page), and FE Schrift which has been mandated since then. The idea for FE Schrift had its origins as a response to the tampering of number plate characters practiced by the Red Army Faction in Germany in the 1970s to disguise the identity of stolen cars. Because DIN 1451 is based on a regularized and symmetrical character grid, it was not too difficult to use strips of tape or paint to add strokes to certain characters and falsify them. Falsifications possible with the original DIN 1451 design are:

  • C could be altered into G, capital O, or Q
  • E or L transformed into F
  • Capital I into numeral 1
  • J changed to U
  • O made into Q
  • P into B or R
  • 3 into 8

  • Also, if capital I were the rightmost character in a plate number, it might have been possible to modify it into any number of other characters (B, D, E, F, H, K, L, M, N, P, R). In this case, though, the resulting off-center placement of the number as a whole on the plate might have given away the tampering.

Supposedly “unforgeable” typeface has been controversial. FE Schrift — an abbreviation of the German fälschungserschwerend Schrift, meaning “falsification-hindering script” — was designed purposely to make the above kind of ad hoc alteration of characters difficult, though did not see the light of day until years later. (Note: With FE Schrift, white paint would be required in addition to black tape or paint to pull off character falsification. However, white paint is easily detectable against the unique surface sheen of retroreflective plate surfaces, especially when reflecting light at night.) The resulting design with its irregular character construction has caused controversy, some admiring its quirky charm, others decrying it as a breach of good visual design. Also, some have questioned whether the design is really that effective against falsification. Susanne Schaller’s synopsis on FE Schrift’s origins has more information and includes some reader responses.

Car-Go 2  |  2000, Anke Arnold, shareware. A low-quality version of FE Schrift, particularly if compared to FE Mittelschrift and Sauerkrauto (below), but the only shareware offering available.

FE Mittelschrift  |  1995–1997, Stephan Müller and Hansjakob Fehr, commercial. Intended as a faithful reproduction of the German government’s original FE Schrift, and of high quality, with a lowercase added to the original typeface’s caps-only alphabet. FE Mittelschrift is the regular weight, while Engschrift is the condensed version.

Sauerkrauto  |  1998, Martin Fredrikson, commercial. Also a high-quality font, but more of an “inspired by” interpretation of FE Schrift with some altered characters to harmonize with Sauerkrauto’s more typographically and aesthetically consistent design vision. Three styles: Regular, Alternative (both with an added lowercase that the original German government typeface lacks), and Small Caps.

Hungary

Collectors’ examples dating from 1990 we’ve studied on the web show Hungary’s number plate font to be a close derivative of DIN 1451 with relatively minor differences.

Italy

Since 1985, Italy has used a font based on DIN 1451, although the weight is a little lighter than usual for number plate implementations. Prior to that, the font had been changed a few different times. As far back as about the late 1920s, a squarish sans design was used. In 1932, the font was changed to an oldstyle serif design, then in 1951, switched back to a sans serif, though not so constructivist in style as DIN. After moving to the DIN 1451-derived variant in 1985, the font underwent several changes in 1994, by which time it had assumed a form very close to the current font. A few minor changes in 1999 then resulted in the currently used version. See the DIN 1451 page for a list of specific differences.

Collectors’ examples:

Numberplate Italy  |  2000–2004, Stephan Müller, commercial. Includes regular straight cut plus an alternate font with rounded corners for embossed appearance.

Italian Plates 1999  |  2002, Michele Berionne and Brian Kent, free.

Next: European Number Plate Fonts (Cont.)

Previous: Going Beyond 3M’s Default Font for U.S. Digital License Plates — States Using Digital Replicas of Embossed Fonts (North America, cont.)

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand