50 years of the M1

The motorway that revolutionised travel in the UK

29 October 2009

An AA Ford Escort patrol van on the M1 near Bletchley on the day the Motorway opened

Fifty years ago on Monday (2 November), the first stretch of the M1 opened, heralding a revolution in travel, according to the AA.

The 62-miles from Berrygrove, near Watford (now junction 5) to Crick, near Rugby (now junction 18) – opened by then Transport Minister Ernest Marples – linked north and south and is still part of the UK's longest motorway.

1959 - Broughton flyover on the M1, near Newport Pagnell Paul Watters, head of road and transport policy at the AA, says: "The significance of the M1 can't be underestimated – it is the backbone of the UK. It revolutionised travel as Britain's first long-distance motorway – before it opened, you'd be lucky to get to the Scottish border within eight hours from London but now you can be halfway up Scotland in that time."

The AA was instrumental in the development of the M1 – it was a founder member of the Roads Campaign Council, which put pressure on government to build new roads to reduce congestion and road accidents – and laid on a big AA presence at the opening ceremony near Slip End (now junction 10), just south of Luton.

Pictures from the AA archive on our flickr photostream »

Leading the way

The AA led the way in modernising roadside assistance, moving from the days of saluting patrols on motorcycle-sidecars to the widespread use of patrol vans with modern equipment. It formed a special motorway patrol force, equipped with Ford Escort estates and Land Rovers, and an AA spotter plane – a de Havilland Dragon Rapide piloted by a former WWII Mosquito pilot – monitored traffic flow and reported breakdowns and accidents, which were then radioed to patrols from a mobile office located at Broughton flyover, near Newport Pagnell (now junction 14).

Early days

The traffic in the early years was much quieter than now and, with no speed limit, overheating and blown engines were the most common call-outs. Retired AA motorway patrol Stan Hallard recollects watching AC Cobra cars being driven at more than 150mph.

However, Stan says that most cars of the day were simply not designed for sustained high speed driving: "We would often go out to cars where the engine had literally blown up – people would naively drive flat-out in cars that often only had a basic one-litre engine with no temperature gauge. One trip on the motorway could be the death knell of a car."

Safety equipment was limited and the hard shoulder relatively narrow and soft, so stricken cars were often just towed off the motorway – sometimes in convoy with a stricken vehicle on tow at the rear and another at the front, pushed down the hard shoulder using special rubber bumpers.

The future of the M1

The engineers who designed the M1 estimated traffic of 20,000 cars per day but it now carries up to 140,000. Without upgrades, it is estimated that traffic on the M1 will flow at between 50mph and 60mph in peak periods by 2025 and will be stop-start on many sections.

Broughton flyover on the M1, near Newport Pagnell (now junction 14) The current solution is to improve capacity largely through limited widening, such as the recently completed scheme from junction 6A to 10. The AA says that by 2030, it is likely that most of the M1 will be 'widened' through 'active traffic management' using variable speed limits, traffic control and hard shoulder running.

During this period, technology will move forward and many vehicles will be equipped with electronics that communicate with the 'road' e.g. autopilot-type speed control and 'platooning' (when groups of vehicles 'lock together' by radar cruise control). Cars will likely produce around half the CO2 they do now – many will be hybrids or use hydrogen fuel cells – and service areas will undoubtedly have electric vehicle recharging points or battery exchange facilities.

Paul Watters says: "We should never under-invest in this key part of British life and the economy – it is arguably, in communication terms, our most important motorway.

"When it opened, the M1 was able to satisfy Britain's rapidly growing demand for car travel but today it struggles to deliver. Without action, congestion will increase by around 30 per cent by 2025, costing business and households £24 billion.

"In 50 years time, the M1 and the vehicles on it may look different – and be propelled by and contain new technologies – but you can be pretty sure it will still be there linking north to south and beyond to Europe."


M1 facts and figures

  • The top section of the M1 (Crick to Pepperstock) was built by John Laing; and southern parts built by Tarmac (Pepperstock to Beechtrees), and Cubitts and Fitzpatrick with Shand (Beechtrees to Berrygrove)
  • Construction cost for first section was £26m (£388,000 per mile at 1959 prices) or £400m at current prices
  • The M1 north of Rugby is the sixth busiest motorway in England (beaten by various sections of M25, M60, M62 and M6) with average daily flow 100,000 vehicles per day
  • The section of the M1 with the most delays (1,000 hours) for the year ending March 2009 is between junctions 19 (M6/A14) and 32 (M18), which makes it the third ‘most delayed’ motorway section in the country

Motoring in 1959

Motoring facts and figures about the year 1959 (source: Whitaker's Almanack for 1961)

  • In April 1959, there were 192,000 miles of public highway in England, Wales and Scotland: 8,300 miles of trunk road; 19,725 miles of Class I road; 17,600 miles of Class II road; and 48,900 miles of Class III road
  • In the year April 1958 to March 1959, trunk road expenditure (including M1 construction costs) totalled £45.4m out of a total road expenditure of £166m
  • At 30 September 1959, there were 4,966,000 cars; 1,733,000 motorcycles; 1,273,000 goods vehicles; 437,000 agricultural tractors and vehicles; 92,000 hackney carriages (buses, coaches and taxis); and 55,000 trade plate licences
  • These provided a road tax income of £107m in the year 1958/9, of which £61.4m came from car tax
  • During 1959, there were 261,000 recorded road accidents which involved injury, with casualties totalling 6,520 fatalities, 80,700 serious injuries and 246,000 other injuries

History of the motorway

  • 1924 – First motorway opened (Italy)
  • 1958 – 5 December: Preston bypass opened by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (first UK motorway)
  • 1959 – 2 November: first section of M1 opened by Rt Hon Ernest Marples, Minister for Transport
  • 1959 – Motorway regulations introduced
  • 1962 – Anderson report on motorway signing
  • 1963 – Worboys Report introduces present day traffic signs
  • 1964 – Introduction of trial speed limit of 70mph on motorways
  • 1966 – Motorway warning signals introduced following accidents in fog
  • 1967 – Speed limit of 70mph rolled out
  • 1967 – HGVs banned from the outside lane of motorways
  • 1988 – All coaches first used from 1 April 1974 must have 70mph limiters fitted by 1 April 1992
  • 1994 – Speed limiter settings lowered to 65mph for new buses and coaches and to 56mph for HGVs

Traffic growth

In 1960, cars travelled around 80 billion vehicle kms (bvkms). Today they travel around 400 bvkms.

Year-on-year traffic growth was very high between the 50s and 70s (up to 20% p.a.) but is much flatter now (just a few %)

AA facts and figures

  • In 1959, the AA had 2.3m members (it now has around 15m)
  • The famous AA salute was abolished in 1961 on safety grounds
  • The AA now attends almost 3,000 breakdowns on the UK’s motorways each week

Motorway breakdowns

Top motorway breakdowns attended by AA patrols (2009)

  • Tyre, torn/punctured – 26.4%
  • Engine – 7.0%
  • Cylinder head gasket – 5.9%
  • Petrol, run out – 4.8%
  • Timing belt – 4.2%
  • Clutch – 3.6%
  • Diesel, run out – 3.5%
  • Alternator – 2.9%
  • Exhaust pipe/silencer – 1.5%

Join the discussion in the AA zone


28 October 2009