A Life in a Year – 2nd November, Motorways and Minis

In 1959 there were two important news items that celebrated significant events in British motoring.  First of all the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened on 2nd November.   The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a three-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.  The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.

When it first opened this was practically the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic.  This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men and that was about one mile every eight days.  Compare that to the sort of productivity road builders achieve today – a twenty mile stretch of road between Spalding and Peterborough, the A1073, for example has taken nearly four years!

In 1959 cars were still a bit old fashioned and basic design hadn’t changed much since the 1940s but the new motorway age needed a new breed of car and in August 1959 the world saw the introduction of the Austin Seven, Morris Mini-Minor and Morris Mini-Minor DL two door saloons, all with transversely mounted 848cc engine and four speed gearbox and known collectively as the MINI!  The car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis who had previously designed the Morris Minor and was intended as a small economic family car.  The first Mini was immediately popular and sold nearly two million units and by the time production ceased in 2000 a total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured.  Nearly everyone has owned a Mini at some time, I did, it was a blue 1969 model, registration BUE 673J.

Not that all of this mattered a great deal to us however because like lots of families in 1959 we didn’t have a car and dad didn’t even learn to drive until the early 1960s and mum not until ten years after that.  His first car was an old fashioned white Austin Cambridge A55, registration SWD 774, which was a car with few refinements and even lacking modern day basics such as seat belts, a radio, door mirrors or satellite navigation.  There were no carpets and the seats were made of cheap plastic that were freezing cold in winter and if you weren’t especially careful burnt your arse in the summer.  After that he had a white Ford Anglia, 1870 NX, which I always thought was a bit chic and stylish with that raking back window and big chrome front grill and after that he had a couple of blue Ford Cortinas before he moved on to red Escorts before finally downsizing to Fiestas, and back to blue again.

My first car was a flame red Hillman Avenger, registration WRW 366J, in which I did hundreds of pounds worth of damage to other peoples vehicles because it had an inconveniently high back window which made reversing a bit of a challenge for a short person.

I remember car registration numbers because this was something we used to do as children.  Car number plate spotting was a curiously boring pastime and on some days it would be possible to sit for a whole morning at the side of the road outside of the house and still only fill one page of an exercise book.  These days you would need a laptop and a million gigabytes of memory.

4 responses to “A Life in a Year – 2nd November, Motorways and Minis

  1. Fascinating stuff and right from my era. I was born 1946 and lived in Watford near the M1 when it newly opened. My dad took us for a spin in his Triumph Vitesse and we legally touched 100mph which was a thrill.

    The M1 I think only went up to Hemel Hempstead at that stage but soon got nearly to Birmingham.

    I don’t ever remember seeing anyone stopped for a picnic at the side. It was illegal and no stopping unless broken down was permitted.

    Big signs as you entered the motorway then showed No Learner Drivers; No Motocycles or Mopeds under 50cc. No Pedestrians; No Horse Riding; No Agricultural Vehicles; No oversize loads; No Powered wheelchairs etc.

    Penalties were quite strict from the beginning over stopping on the carriageway. There was a centre reservation but it had no barriers. In the early days Centre Reservation got a considerable number of birds nesting in it as they were protected from predators if they flew in and out. A very safe if noisy haven!

    Loved the bit about car number spotting or collecting. We did that a lot.
    Thanks for a super blog. Many good memories in there of a motoring orientated childhood.


    • Jeremy,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I remember those big signs which listed everyting that was prohibited from using the M1. A couple of years ago I was driving in Portugal and they still have signs on the motorway slip roads that say ‘No Horses’
      I was exaggerating about the picnics of course!
      Do you remember I-Spy books and how pointless some of them were?

      • Thanks Andrew for those appreciative comments.
        Glad you were joking about the picnics – you had me going there for a moment!
        I have a memory that 3-Wheelers weren’t allowed on the Motorway but I’m not sure. I think that’s wrong and they are allowed but only if they can do more than 30mph otherwise they’re considered a hazard. I don’t remember seeing one on the M1 unless my memory’s lost some clusters during a defrag!

        Yes I Spy books. What a laugh they were. Largely used to keep kids quiet in the back of cars on boring long trips – an extension of I spy with my little eye, games. The books were sometimes on some bizarre topics but again I can’t remember those either ! I can remember the numbers of my Dad’s first 7 cars which is rather sad. He used to work for Smiths Aircraft Instruments the place that made clocks watches and dashboard instruments in cars. One of his colleagues worked for KLG (The Spark Plug maker remember them?) and he was working there when he accidentally invented a product when mucking about with some iron filings he’d collected off the factory floor. What he discovered was a substance later named Hylumina which was like a porcelain insulation. It was adopted by KLG to make their plugs from then on.

        George Schubert was the fellow. The company refused to let him claim the patent as he’d discovered the material in company work time. So he was given a promotion plus a raise in salary and never got the wealth it should have brought him.

        I still have a KLG Hylumina material bottle opener which is quite a memorabilia piece. They were part of Kelvin and Hughes.

        I hope you find that interesting and not a boring bit of trivia.

      • Jeremy
        I’m not sure about 3 wheelers but I don’t think those blue invalid cars, bubble cars or those 3 wheeler Messerschmitts were allowed on but I could be wrong there.
        A nice piece of trivia about the spark plugs!
        A wrote a blog about ISpy earlier this year – https://aipetcher.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/i-spy-books/
        My dad’s first car was SWD 774!

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