Colony of North Borneo ((CNB) until 1963)

November 17, 2012

Member John Pemberton EU83, a venerable nonagenarian from Suffolk, has reminded me that he has a plate, J 3500, from one of the the little-seen British colonial enclaves of  Borneo island, now known as Sabah state in Eastern Malaysia.     Independent  in 1957,  Malaya later combined with the former British territories in Borneo island, Sarawak and (then) the Colony of North Borneo to form Malaysia in 1963.    To see a plate from British Borneo (or from Labuan Island – a onetime Straits Settlement)  in those times was a rare sight indeed.

I have written to him thus:

Mr. P. – You write of having a ‘CNB’ numberplate, J 3500 – the CNB only identifying the Colony of North Borneo as it was designated between 1955  and 1963*, when it assumed (PTM) – six years after Malaya’s 1957 independence from Britain.   After another ten years, in 1967, the Malaysian  (PTM) international oval changed to (MAL) and vehicles from (by now, Sabah) would show the (MAL) oval IF they ever travelled outside Borneo or mainland Malaya – most unlikely.

British North Borneo 1950s-60s.     J=Jesselton (now Kota Kinabulu).

You sent me a photo of J 3500, and I have it my Sabah archive as above: Glorious!     You say that the late Roger Anderson passed it to you in 1976.   Did he ever say what vehicle it came from?   Did he see it in Britain?     John P replied verbally that a very old friend and an early spotter obtained it ‘out East’ in the 1950s, but was unsure of its origin.

The writer DID see Sabah once in London on a Mini, in 1963*, and fortunately, photographed it for posterity:

J 6186    1963 sighting in London of Jesselton (J) Morris Mini-Minor.    Showing the new Perseketuan Tanah Melayu (PTM) oval, which, since 1958, had replaced  (FM) (Federation of Malaya).   Until 1963 the oval  for this region would have been (CNB)          Brumby archive

I have now visited Sabah twice and collared quite a few of these earliest plates on photo – it’s a jurisdiction where old cars are kept running,  and, happily, the authorities don’t force owners to shed their original plates whenever a system change occurs.

Although, when Mainland Malaysia recognised that it’s newly-acquired Bornean territories, Sabah and Sarawak were already using regional codes identical to their own, Sabah hurried to add a suffix ‘S’ to their existing registered vehicles, (and Sarawak added a ‘Q’ suffix) to distinguish them, should vehicles move between Peninsular Malaya and north Borneo (now East Malaysia).   The Mini above would have adopted J 6186 S.

Newly-registered cars in Sabah first adopted an ’E’ (for East Malaysia) preceding their town code (E J-Jesselton, E S-Sandakan etc.)    In Sarawak, they added a ‘Q’ suffix to existing plates and a ‘Q’ prefix to new registrations.    The ‘J’ for example, which could have come from Johore (Peninsular Malaya) or from Jesselton (Colony of North Borneo/Sabah).

Until these changes had been implemented,  at that confused time, a PTM-ovalled car seen abroad after 1963, registered  ‘K’ nnnn could have been registered in Kedah (Peninsular Malaya), Kudat (Sabah) or Kuching (Sarawak)!       ‘T’ could come from Trengganu  (PM) or Tawau, and ‘S’  from Sandakan (Sabah), Singapore (old) or Sibo (Sarawak).

Little wonder the licensing authorities had to act!

The post -1963 Sabah plates had an ‘S’ suffixed to their original registration. K=Kudat, S=Sabah.   Most plates were re-made from scratch, for appearance.    Brumby archive

NEW vehicles were issued with the usual codes and a new ‘E’ prefix:

The Sabah system from 1963.   Later, having issued to 9999, a serial suffix A and B would be needed, in three of the Sabah registration districts – EJ-A, EJ-B, ES-A, ET-A.    Brumby archive


Eastern Malaysia – Sandakan – with serial suffix A 3024.    Brumby archive

There are still, dumped in kampongs, a few of the single-letter plates to be seen.   And photographed.     Some plate collectors would buy them off the village headman and take them away, but I like to leave them in their context, in case another member should chance by in years to come!


Mr. P – It is so evocative to read that in your early spotting day, you saw Danzig Free City plates – and India, including Jammu & Kashmir!     Did you take photos of any of them in those times?

LATER  (John Pemberton passed his album in January 2013 to the Club, as a result of this enquiry,  and the 80 or so pictures will be progressively released on the Blog.

Any other unseen material out there, readers????


The remarkable sight on two Jesselston-registered VW 1500s in London in 1969.   Note their numbers.

The remarkable sight of two Jesselton-registered VW 1500s in London in 1969. Note their numbers.     Brumby archive

p.s.   Does anyone have a picture of a Colony of North Borneo oval (CNB) or a State of North Borneo oval (SNB)????      We assume a few were made.