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UK Motorways hit the big 50

Sat, 06 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0800


It’s hard to imagine travelling round the UK, or any other country for that matter, without Motorways. Circumventing London on the M25, much as we complain, is infinitely better than using the North and South Circular roads used to be. London to Leeds is just a few hours and, despite the huge traffic problems on the M5 in the summer months, the West Country is accessible in an acceptable length of time.

But it wasn’t always so. As a young child in the 60s, I can remember going to Bournemouth for a holiday from our then home in Lancashire. It was a major operation. Food for the journey; endless stops and a 12 hour trip in the Austin 1100. I’ve done London to Barcelona in much less time, and with a car full of people!

So we’ve come to rely on the much maligned Motorway, and this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the very first UK Motorway, the Preston bypass in Lancashire, which was the first section of the M6 to be built.

The First UK Motorway sign - Nice M-Way Logo!

It must have been fun to play with the early Motorways, if a little less safe than we’ve become used to. No central reservation barriers (U-turns were not uncommon!), no speed limit (the national speed limit didn’t come in until 1967 – thank you Barbara Castle) and cars just weren’t built to hit any sort of speed and maintain it, so breakdowns were a regular feature, with steaming cars littering the sides of the carriageway.

Motorways in the early days were also a ‘Day Out’ for families. Cars used to stream on at the weekends for a day out with the family. Not, you understand, on the way to a day out. Oh, no. The Motorway was the day out.

And away from the weekend day trippers the Motorways were a drivers delight. car reliability permitting. I remember my Dad, a Policeman, driving the Chief Constable of Rochdale down to London for a meeting in the 60s. 100mph+ all the way, he claimed, in his Ford Zephyr 4 with the Police spec Zodiac engine. All without the aid of blues and twos. Try doing that now, even with headlights and sirens blazing.

But it didn’t take long for the powers that be to decide we couldn’t be trusted to drive at whatever speed we wanted on the Motorways. A temporary 70mph limit was introduced in late 1965 after a spate of accidents in fog, a limit that was made permanent in 1967. But it’s said that the real reason was down to AC Cars testing its Cobra on the M1 at speeds over 180mph, which at a time when most cars struggled to even hit 70mph, and a good 0-60 was in the low 20s, must have been a sight to behold.

So, love ‘em or hate ‘em. we can’t live without the Motorway. Happy Birthday.

By Cars UK