Sixty years ago, Britain’s first motorway opened to the public. At 11.15am on 5th December 1958, Harold Macmillan recited Burns’s Epigram on Rough Roads before inaugurating the Preston Bypass: an eight-and-a-quarter mile stretch of highway that cost £2,960,481 to build.
Some of the construction vehicles were recycled Sherman tanks. Torrential rain in the winters of 1956 and 1957 meant the bypass opened five months behind schedule.
Times, a ‘complete breakaway from present British usage’. Still, the first private cars on the road were creaking, three-wheeled Bond Minicars – a tribute to the publicity department of the car’s Preston manufacturer, Sharps Commercials; and a harbinger of a series of cars that were wholly unsuited to motorway use. The opening date was also the day the Queen made the UK’s first automatic trunk telephone call; both events heralded a new world of rapid communication.
The MOT test still lay two years in the future. It was fortunate that many drivers were too apprehensive to exceed 50mph, as speed-limit-free motoring was beyond the capabilities of many pre-war relics. The late 1950s was still an era of cross-ply tyres and six-volt electrical systems. On many family saloons, heaters and windscreen wipers were frequently extras – as were indicators on the Ford Popular.
To assist drivers, the government issued the indispensable Motorway Code. It contained helpful advice about what to do in the event of a puncture: ‘Do not brake suddenly.’ On seeing a knot of vehicles in the distance, the book advised you to ‘reduce speed steadily’, in case it denoted an accident. There was no central barrier, so there was always the temptation to make an illegal U-turn in your Hillman Minx. The police used their bumper-mounted Tannoys to deter any hard-shoulder picnickers or hitch-hikers.
On 7th December, a stolen Ford Zephyr had the dubious distinction of being the first crashed car on a British motorway. On Christmas Eve, a fourteen-year-old driver lost control of the family Vauxhall Velox that he had ‘borrowed’; fortunately, both accidents were non-fatal.
On 21st January 1959, the motorway had to close temporarily due to ‘frost heave’ – a result of the Ministry’s failure to invest in a proper drainage system. Still, over the previous 46 days, road transport in the UK had already been transformed for ever.
Harold Macmillan may have had an Edwardian air. But he got it right on the morning of the opening, when his car took him along the new motorway. It was a road, he said, that promised to be ‘a token of what is to follow’.