Census and contract numbers

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Census (military registration) and contract numbers are very interesting reading. They help figure out when a motorcycle was approximately built and what its military identity was (before becoming a "rebuilt"). It will however never tell us what the active armed forces life of an individual bike has been. For reason of that, see also page on invividual motorcycle history.

Before the war, military motorcycles carried civilian type registration numbers on plates fixed to the front and rear mudguards.  These numbers were hand painted white characters on black numberplates. Pictures show many pre war Middlesex numbers which can be related to the fact that the
RASC/RAOC Ordnance Depot distributing MC's was based at Feltham, Middlesex. It was also the residence of the Ministry of Supply offices.
Additional to the "civilian" registration number came a military registration number, refered to as "Census number". On MC's, this census number was applied on the petrol tank, made up with white numbers in a black square with a white edges.
Picture shows a pre war 16H with registration plates, census numbers and a tax disk (Road fund licence) similar to those still used today, mounted to the handlebar (see picture left).

Pre war 16H with white lined black square carrying the census number

After beginning of the hostilities in 1939, the civilian type registrations were deleted, leaving only the census numbers for identification. The white edged black square was also suspended with. Early 1940 pictures show repainted bikes where the previous black square, was obscured by a later paint job, but reappearing underneath from it (see picture right). Early wartime models of motorcycles kept their number plates hardware sometimes carrying the census number .  As of the end of 1940 these number plates disappeared from new built motorcycles (see bottom picture). Many examples of the earlier MC's retained them long after that, probably until being rebuilt.Early 1940, repainted bike with previous black square shining through.

The census numbers were distributed by the services in blocks but not always in blocks equal to the amount of motorcycles (or actually any vehicle) of the contract.  It seems that initially, the numbers were applied to the MC's by the military and later  by the motorcycle manufacturers.
It would be nice if a document was unearthed in which the ministry stipulates how a manufacturer should apply the numbers.

Of the numbers applied by the manufacturer, it is generally believed to be applied in sequence with the frame numbers. Although this seems logical, I still believe it has not been proven that way. Numbers given by the military were probably not applied in sequence of production. Military just cared about quantities, not in sequence of numbers (see the PIB census number page). What can be said with certainty is that because of the pre war Norton numbering system it becomes very speculative to use the sequence of manufacture as a fact. Pre war Norton numbering system is chaotic in the sense that bikes were not made with consequetive numbering. 

Motorcycles for British (or foreign forces in Britain like the Dutch Prinses Irene Brigade) were provided with a number prefixed with a "C". Canadian motorcycles can be found carrying "CC".  When bikes used by Canadians  were actually "on loan" from British stocks, the bikes retained their "British" census number.  An example of the use of CC can be seen on the restoration page.

As the lists with these numbers are long and variable I will not put them on the site (yet). Most information is published in the book of Orchard and Madden. I already acquired quite a lot of what is in that book (on Norton's only) before it was published, the book adds however more detail to my lists. The database is growing, And I hope to find more details in future. I can look up what is available on request. Information not given in the book is about the Dutch Prinses Irene Brigade which I therefore have added to the site.

Canadian in Amsterdam 1945, Census number on petrol tank.In 1947 all wartime Census numbers were phased out and vehicles which were to remain in the British forces were renumbered in a system with numbers like "02-ZB-64". This re-numbering was recorded in the so called "Key Cards" now kept at the RLC museum in Deepcut, Surrey.

From the "Key Cards" it is clear that there were very few motorcycles in 1947 which still had the engine and frame numbers with which they were delivered originally. From various wartime publications and biographies which are still being published, it is evident that there was a constant vigil to keep the motorcycles on the road. Cannibalizing was officially forbidden by the  "Army Rules and Regulations", but was practiced in the field  by the responsible section fitters which tried to keep "their" machines on the road. Furthermore, dilapidated machines were completely dismantled, and "rebuilt" with whatever parts available in special workshops. These motorcycles were given a new identity (Census numbers between 1400000 to 1499999, not related to specific makes or sequence as far as can be found).