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60 years of the British motorway

The gentlemen with the Bedford CA are installing one of the latest Calvert-Kinneir signs for a new type of highway. On 5th December 1958 the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan, opened the Preston By-pass and this Movietone newsreel footage will give you an idea of the excitement prompted by the original British motorway -

Incidentally, the first non-official car to travel the road was the three-wheeled Bond Minicar – the factory was nearby and the chance for additional publicity was just too good to miss.

Nine years earlier, the Government had passed the Special Roads Act, which allowed for the development of motorways. By 1953 it was decided that the Preston By-pass would serve as a guinea pig for all such roads, with work commencing in 1956. Sir James Drake, the County Surveyor and Bridgemaster for Lancashire had been an advocate of such a road network since the 1930s, and under his guidance the project took shape.

One challenge was that the region saw some of the most torrential rain in memory but the fact that the By-pass was only five months behind schedule was in itself a considerable achievement,

It cannot be overstated that this 8 ¼ mile-stretch of road represented a wholly new form of motoring. In 1958 you might have seen US freeways on the screen at your local ABC or Odeon cinema or you might have been one of the comparatively few Britons to have holidayed in France or Italy and experienced the delights of the autoroute or the autostrada.

A few would have used the autobahn while if they were stationed in Germany during their National Service but to the majority of Britons, using the By-pass was unlike any previous form of driving. The government issued the Motorway Code, which sternly warned readers that these highways had ‘no sharp bends, roundabouts, traffic lights, or crossroads’ -

And the fact that the 70-mph speed limit would not be introduced until 1965, combined with the issue of the By-pass opening before the 1960 advent of the MOT test resulted in some interesting scenarios. Theoretically, it was possible to take to the motorway in a pre-war Austin Seven that you acquired for £10 5s 2d from a bombsite car dealer, even if it fell to pieces after two miles.

Even if you owned a more recent model, you might soon discover that the engine and the tyres could not cope with sustained high-speed travel. ‘In the event of a puncture, do not brake suddenly, but keep control of your vehicle as far as possible’ advised the Code. Fortunately, the AA had equipped its Ford Escort 100Es and Land Rovers with rubber bumpers, the better to push a stricken car to safety.

From a 2018 perspective, the By-pass is almost unrecognisable as the future M6. There were just two lanes, no overhead signs, no fog warnings, no central barrier and no speed limit. It was not unknown for motorists to attempt a U-turn while other challenges facing Lancashire Constabulary included pedestrians trying to hitch-hike along the hard shoulder and motorists reversing up the slip road.

But the claim in the brochure for the opening ceremony that ‘The opening of the Preston By-pass marks the beginning of a new era of motoring in Britain’ was indeed accurate as the county’s landscape, attitudes to driving, logistical planning and car ownership all irrevocably changed on the 5th December 1958.

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