The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : When Motorways Were Glamorous The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : When Motorways Were Glamorous
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When Motorways Were Glamorous

When the nation was young and The Goodies was the highlight of the week, motorways were rarely associated in mind with glamour. In fact, in terms of sheer lack of charisma, a night-time visit to Fleet Services on the M3 in the late 1970s ranked alongside the Marlands Bus Station in Southampton – although I hasten to add it is very nice today.

But back in the days when Billy Fury and Adam Faith were in the Hit Parade, people would send postcards of the Watford Gap to their no-doubt envious neighbours. And naturally Vauxhall used the M1 for this stunning photograph – as their sales campaign from 1960 stated, ‘Drive into the Motorway Age!’.

This year, of course, marks the 60th anniversary the M1, which we will be celebrating in a special blog this November. Work commenced on the 24th March 1958, over eight months before the opening of the Preston By-pass, Britain’s first motorway. The project cost the then-incredible sum of £20 million and this film made for Laing Construction gives an idea of the challenge of building the M1 in under two years -

We are glimpsing into another world – chaps in  horn-rimmed glasses, the flap for hand signals in the side-screen of an Austin Gipsy and an incredibly venerable-looking petrol tanker.

And throughout 1959 there was a succession of news stories to further whet the appetite of any press-on drivers.  In April Laing warned some bounders who had been using the completed Bedfordshire section were causing damage and ‘putting themselves in danger’. The AA commissioned a fleet of patrol vehicle carrying ‘over 100 items of equipment to help motorists in difficulties’.  

Meanwhile, Luton tempted various Cambridge, Consul, Ensign, Minx and Oxford owners with advertisements promising that a Victor could ‘purr along at speed on the motorway’.

In October, the BBC screened five warning films made by BP-Shell Mex on how to use the M1 – essential viewing given how few Britons had ever experienced speed-limit free driving’. 

In that same month, a reporter from The Daily Mirror previewed the M1 - ‘At first I found it so strange it was hard to believe I was still in England’. To a driver used to A-roads that twisted and turned their way through the countryside this was indeed a strange new realm of blue signage, concrete - and no speed limits.

Twenty years later, none of this occurred to the younger me, stuck in the wilds of North Hampshire and contemplating the delights of a hot dog at Fleet, with 40 miles still to go in our Citroën Dyane 6. But the early motorways did mark a watershed in British social and automotive history, and this preview newsreel encapsulates the sense of anticipation for the opening of the M1.

All it needs to complete the scene is a fleet of new Victor F-Types and Cresta PAs….



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