Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

The 1950s to 1990s

After the Second World War, we led the protest against petrol rationing, which was finally lifted in 1950. It was a campaign that reflected our traditional role of championing motorists' rights.

Night service, London (1949)

Night service, London (1949)

The introduction of two-way radio after the Second World War saw the 1949 launch of a night-time breakdown service in the London area, which was gradually extended to cover most of Britain.

The Queen's Coronation on 2 June 1953 was 18 months in the planning and while the police were engaged with security arrangements, the AA – whose then president was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh – was asked to manage the road signing, parking and traffic control.

The new-look square AA logo was launched in 1966.

Preparing signs for the Coronation ((1953)

Preparing signs for the Coronation ((1953)

AA Insurance Services was formed in 1967 after a number of cut-price companies had crashed in the 1960s. Motorists wanted insurance cover from an organisation that they could trust, and they turned to the AA in their thousands.

Following tests in Oxford in 1961 roadside pedestal telephone boxes were introduced from 1968 (timeline of AA roadside telephones)

AA Roadwatch came into being in 1973 with the advent of commercial radio in the UK.

Motorcycle combinations for AA patrols – introduced from 1920 together with roadside telephones - were replaced by four-wheeled vehicles by 1968. But solo motorcycles were re-introduced in 1972 to combat urban congestion.

Mini vans replaced motorcycles (1961)

Mini vans replaced motorcycles (1961)

In October 1973, AA Relay was launched, guaranteeing to transport any seriously broken-down vehicle – together with driver, passengers, luggage and trailer or caravan – to any destination in Britain.

1973 also saw us move our headquarters from London's Leicester Square – the AA had moved to the area in 1908 and occupied premises in New Coventry Street in 1929 – to Fanum House in Basingstoke, Hampshire.

The AA computer system, Command and Control, started to replace paper-based operations from 1986. The system's award-winning successor, AAHELP, together with automatic vehicle-location technology, using global positioning satellites, has been key to achieving our current speed of response at the roadside.

Membership milestones

  • 1950 – 1 million members
  • 1951 – HRH Duke of Edinburgh becomes AA President
  • 1954 – 1.5 million members
  • 1955 – AA Golden Jubilee
  • 1957 – 2 million members
  • 1960 – 2.5 million members
  • 1961 – AA patrols no longer salute while on the move
  • 1962 – first four-wheeled breakdown vans introduced
  • 1963 – 3 million members
  • 1969 – 4 million members
  • 1973 – 5 million members, AA Relay Service introduced
  • 1974 – HRH Duke of Kent becomes AA President
  • 1982 – Home Start Service set up
  • 1987 – 7 million members
  • 1994 – 8 million members
  • 19951998 – AA highstreet shops closed
  • 1998 – 9 million members

Publishing activities expanded rapidly during the 1990s, producing a growing range of maps, atlases and travel guides to worldwide destinations as well as many British titles.

In 1992, the AA driving school was launched, initially in Southern England. It is the only national driving school to only use fully qualified instructors.

Vauxhall Brava technology demonstrator

Vauxhall Brava technology demonstrator

In 1999, we set a new standard for the breakdown and recovery industry and came first in the annual JD Power survey of UK roadside assistance providers.

Our online route planner service first appeared in October 1999 and served its one millionth route by the end of April 2000, only six months later.

In 1999 AA members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the AA demutualising and joining the Centrica group in a £1.1 billion acquisition.

Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

Highland patrols

The first four-wheeled vehicles used by patrols were Land Rovers deployed in London in 1949.

Berriedale, Caithness (1958)

Berriedale, Caithness (1958)

These were extremely useful and soon employed in other parts of the country, especially in rough terrain such as the Highlands of Scotland.

A dedicated Highland Patrol Service was set up in 1953 to deal with bad weather conditions, and was put to the test when severe blizzards hit Scotland in January 1958, stranding dozens of motorists.

Conditions were so severe that AA aid even included dropping emergency food packs from AA aircraft.

Bonar Bridge (1957)

Bonar Bridge (1957)

Described at the time as ‘the troopers of the north’ and operating mainly beyond the Caledonian Canal, the job of the Highland patrol was arduous in winter, as blizzards blocked roads and stranded vehicles.

Often attending isolated breakdowns in remote areas and covering some of the highest classified roads in the UK, the patrols had to be both hardy and resourceful.

AA members phoning for assistance from an AA telephone box would be put through to the Inverness ‘Road Service Centre’ (a control room in a large static caravan at Millburn, Inverness) who would relay instructions to a patrol.

Mobile control office, Inverness (1958)

Control office, Inverness (1958)

Highland Patrols didn't just help motorists. The AA’s two-way short-wave radio system provided vital communications for remote Highland communities during harsh winters, and many a crofter welcomed a patrol carrying food parcels after days of heavy snow.

Return of the Highland patrol »

More archive pictures (AA Flickr) »

Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

Floods and major accidents

Because of the nature of their work, AA patrols are often the first on the scene at major accidents or disasters.

Nottingham (1955)

Nottingham (1955)

Serious flooding in Lynmouth in 1952 involved the AA's biggest rescue operation, followed six months later by the major East Coast floods when patrols helped to rescue people, animals and endangered property.  AA people helped clear roads of debris as the floods receded.

In the 1980s AA patrols were involved in rescue operations at the Clapham rail crash in 1988, the Lockerbie disaster in 1988 and at the air crash on the M1 at Kegworth in 1989.

In recent years, the AA has been involved in flood and severe weather response in a number of locations - Gloucester and Tewkesbury in 2007 and many places since including York, Sheffield and Cumbria.

Chertsey (January 1939)

Chertsey (January 1939)

The increase in severe weather events prompted the AA in 2008 to establish its Special Operations Response Team (AA SORT), a specialist resource equipped and professionally trained to undertake vehicle recovery in floods and other severe weather.

Kent (October 1955)

Kent (October 1955)

Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

Garage approvals

The AA had a close relationship with garages from the very earliest days, as anywhere that stocked tyres and batteries and could carry out repairs was vitally important to the early motorists.

Garage agent sign

Garage agent sign

Garages played a key part in the development of the AA and supplemented the work of the first patrols – they reported on road conditions, passed messages to drivers and were instrumental in setting up the system of village name signs.

Known as road agents, garages also took part in a scheme to warn motorists of speed traps – garages displayed a pole with a moveable ball, painted yellow with black AA letters. Raising the ball to the top of the pole indicated to passing motorists that a speed trap was operating in the area.

As early as 1908 road agents were listed in the AA handbook and members encouraged to use them.  Good relations with garages were important and as patrols carried out more roadside 'first aid' they were careful not to take business away from the trade.  Cars that couldn't be fixed at the roadside were towed to the nearest garage – at the member's expense until 1946 when it became a free service.

A 'three spanner' garage (1970s)

A 'three spanner' garage (1970s)

Unfortunately the quality of work in many garages fell to a very low standard in the post-war period leading the AA to introduce the Garage Plan in 1968.  Garages were inspected and appointed to one of three grades, with the results being published in the AA handbook – 4,000 garages were listed in the 1970 edition.  By the end of the 1970s complaints against garages had greatly reduced.

As garage services and members' needs evolved, so did the Garage approval scheme.  In 1983 a new scheme identifying the more specialised repairers was instituted and by the end of 1991, 6,000 garages had an AA appointment.

AA garage, bedford (1948)

AA garage, bedford (1948)

Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

Package holidays

Foreign travel took some time to recover after the Second World War, but during 1952 111,000 members applied for car ferry bookings.

The AA pushed to expand opportunities for overseas motoring and in 1957 reached agreement with the USSR to allow motorists to visit Russia. 

By the 1970s overseas travel had become more affordable and many people were now taking package holidays by plane.  The AA became part of a consortium which owned Thomas Cook, and arranged holidays around the world in conjunction with local motoring clubs

Holiday packages became more elaborate and the brand name Argosy was introduced.  By 1978 there were 41 AA travel agencies, one of the largest groups in the country.

Towards the end of the 1980s as the package holiday market became ever more competitive, the AA decided to scale down this side of its activities and concentrate on motoring holidays in Europe.

The AA Five Star Overseas Touring Service – now known as European Breakdown Cover – was introduced in 1964. Five Star cover made available assistance provided by Continental motoring clubs, co-ordinated through an AA centre, initially in Boulogne and later in Paris.

Later the AA, the Dutch (ANWB) and the German (ADAC) motoring clubs created ARC Transistance with a new centre opened at Lyon in France in 1993.

Historic AA vehicles
Historic AA vehicles

The AA collection of heritage vehicles representing many different periods in the history of AA roadside services.

Routes - growth and computerisation

By 1948 AA membership returned to the pre-war level of over 700,000 and demand for routes increased rapidly again, particularly when petrol rationing ceased in 1950.
'Places of interest' information was dropped at this time when details of the return route were added to the reverse of the route sheets.

By 1965, with membership exceeding 3.5 million, annual demand for routes exceeded 1.25 million.

The demand for overseas routes information increased too from about 40,000 in 1949 to a peak of 221,387 requests in 1965.

The expansion of the motorway network reduced the need for strip maps, and so in 1968 we introduced the unique AA 'Throughroute' maps. Based on some 50 different towns, each showed the AA recommended route from that town to over 500 destinations. These helped reduce demand for individually tailored routes.
In 1969 a series of overseas 'Route Books' was introduced, with pre-printed driving directions and basic route maps.

In 1975 'Throughroute' maps were also introduced for Europe showing major routes from each of the main Channel ports. A charge was made for these for the first time in 1976.

The Home Routes Service was fully computerised in 1984, followed in 1987 by the Overseas Routes Service.

Thousands of printed route sheets were transferred onto computer, so that routes could be generated automatically without the need for staff to 'pick' and collate each route – a single route would often include many separate sheets.

In 1990 the Home and Overseas routes services were amalgamated for the first time.

A single routes processing – compiling and posting routes – unit was established in Bristol, and the research team became part of the cartographic department in Basingstoke.

The research team was responsible for gathering data, usually by driving and recording road layouts, signposting and places of interest. A team of some 15 staff were dedicated to this function during the Nineties.

In 1999, 250,000 routes were generated for the members' routes service.

In 1999 the first AA route was calculated from the AA's new website, and for the first time AA routes were available free to members and non-members alike.

This development completely changed the way customers accessed travel information and inevitably the routes processing unit in Bristol closed shortly afterwards.

The research team continued collecting information 'on the ground', to ensure that what the customer saw on the route plan was what they would see on the road. This approach was, and still is, unique to the AA and ensures that AA routes give directions like people give directions - 'turn right at the Red Lion pub signposted Reading'.

In the first full year online (2000) a total of 4.5 million routes were generated – 18 times the number produced in the final year of postal operations.

Volumes have grown rapidly since routes went online – in 2007 the AA website generated 171 million routes!

Research methods developed quickly as GPS location technology matured – accurate coordinates of road features identified in the field could be transferred immediately to the database.

In 2005 full 'street-level' routeing for Britain was incorporated into the online route planner so that it is now possible to calculate a route to/from any street or postcode.
More detailed mapping was also added at this time – users can now access a detailed map of any part of the route itinerary, and can quickly link to places of interest and places to stay en route.

AA Route Planner celebrated its 1 billionth online route in 2010.

For over 10 years AA Route Planner has been providing free online driving directions to motorists, in recent times averaging 16 million route requests per month.

Between 2000 and 2010 the AA Route Planner helped motorists travel approximately 125 billion miles. This astounding distance is the equivalent of driving around the world over five and a half million times, or 700 round trips to the Sun.