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Britain's first motorway

Blog | By Andrew Roberts | Nov 03, 2019

Preston By-Pass under construction Credit: Lancashire County Council

At 11.15am on December 5th, 1958, Harold Macmillan recited Burns’s Epigram on a Rough Road before inaugurating the Preston By-Pass; an eight and a quarter mile stretch of highway that cost £2,960,481 to build.

The purpose of the by-pass was to relieve urban congestion in the North West and to serve as a guinea pig for a network of speed-limit-free roads; the 70-mph restriction would not come into operation until 1965. In charge was County Surveyor James Drake, ‘the Brunel of the Motorway’, who believed there should be three lanes on the motorway while the Ministry wanted a dual carriageway. The compromise was a wide central reservation that could be transformed into a third carriageway.

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.

The new road seemed to embody the automotive future. The bypass road signs were, according to The Times, a ‘complete breakaway from present British usage’. The first private vehicles on the road were fashionable, three-wheeled Bond Minicars – a tribute to the publicity department of the car’s Preston manufacturer, Sharps Commercials; and a harbinger of a succession of cars that were wholly unsuited to motorway use.

December 5th 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 50 mph, 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 hitchhikers.

On December 7th, a stolen Ford Zephyr had the dubious distinction of being the first crashed car on a British motorway. On Christmas Eve, a 14-year-old driver lost control of the family Vauxhall Velox that he had ‘borrowed’; fortunately, both accidents were non-fatal.

On January 21st, 1959, the motorway had to temporarily close 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 he travelled along the motorway in a 1940s Austin A125 Sheerline. It was a road, he said, that promised to be ‘a token of what is to follow’.