The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : The M1 at 60 The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : The M1 at 60
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The M1 at 60

The year is 1959, the date is 2nd November, and the occasion is the official opening of the first stretch of the M1 -

Britain’s first motorway, the Preston By-pass, commenced operations on the 5th December 1958 but this new highway promised a brave new world, one where motorists would eventually be able to travel to and from London with no speed limits.

Here are 12 facts about the M1:

1)      There were no speed limits on British motorways until 22nd December 1965. AC’s highly publicised use of the M1 as an unofficial test ground is believed to be one reason for the eventual introduction of the 70 mph signs. Some drivers were most vexed by this development -

2)      The cost was believed to be in the region of £400,000 per mile - The rate of construction was approximately one mile every eight days and a bridge every three days.

3)      The M1 was to be the first British motorway with a service area although this consisted of fuel pumps until 1960

4)      There was no central barrier and drivers were known to attempt U-turns; ironically, the motorway police were believed to be some of the worst offenders in this regard. The M1 was also devoid of a fog warning system - – and, amazingly, cats’ eyes.

5)      Other unfortunate habits encountered by the authorities in the early days of the M1 included picnicking on the hard shoulder and attempting to flag down other drivers in the event of a breakdown.

6)      The Ford Zephyr Mk. II Farnham Estate’s used by the traffic police attracted much attention, especially for their white livery and blue flashing beacons. There was even a Corgi die-cast model for the junior motorist

7)      The construction of the M1 received wide publicity - – and certain drivers were known to conduct highly unofficial (and illegal) speed trials on the construction site.

8)      The hard shoulders were initially found to be unsuited to accommodating broken-down heavy goods vehicles.

9)      The AA and the RAC employed special fleets of patrol vehicles – Ford Escort 100Es and Land-Rovers (see photo) -  to cope with mechanical maladies on the M1. Blown engines, worn tyres and overheating were just some of the problems encountered by their crews.

A picture over a bridge on the M1 lined with cars on the opening day

10)  Shortly after performing the opening ceremony, Ernest Marples – the then Minister of Transport – stated he was appalled at the standards of driving on the M1:

I was frightened when I saw the first drivers using the road. I have never seen anybody going so fast and ignoring the rules and regulations. Out of the first four cars I saw, three were not keeping to their traffic lanes – they were straddling them. Another car came along and broke down.

11)  The initial length of the M1 was 64 miles.

12)  The great racing driver Tony Brooks wrote that the new motorway was:

More than anything – more than Espresso bars, jeans, rock ‘n’ roll, the smell of French cigarettes on the underground, white lipstick – it is of the twentieth century. For all that, it is very welcome.



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