History of motorways

Half a Century of AA Service on Motorways

On 5 December 1958, the day the 8 mile Preston bypass opened, the AA was ready to help motorists

On 5 December 1958, the day the 8 mile Preston bypass opened, the AA was ready to help motorists

5 December 2008 was the 50th anniversary of the first stretch of motorway in the UK.  Motorways have transformed the way we travel.

On 5 December 1958, the day the 8 mile Preston bypass opened, the AA was ready to help motorists. Robert Gornall was the AA's first motorway patrol and he was on duty on the Preston by Pass (now the M6) from day one – he even attended the opening ceremony.

Robert recalls that in those early motorway days, when there was no speed limit or hard shoulder, things were very different when it came to dealing with breakdowns.

Breakdowns came thick and fast because cars just couldn't cope with the higher speed – engines just simply blew

Robert Gornall, the AA's first motorway patrol

Robert said: "This was entirely new and when we reached a broken down car we simply pushed it, bumper to bumper, out of the way to a place of safety where we could fix it – our vehicles were fitted with special rubber bumpers so as not to cause any damage.

Breakdowns came thick and fast because cars just couldn't cope with the higher speed – engines just simply blew. The vehicles we used were Ford Escorts and even a soft top Land Rover."

The motorway age

1958 really was the start of the motorway age of motoring. Britain's every growing band of motorists increasingly found they were able to stretch the boundaries of work and leisure when unthinkable journeys of the past gradually became the norm.

But what about the next 50 years?  Are we going to continue to invest in our motorways to build on their success, or do we want traffic to return to those places that the motorways by-passed?

Will motorways become high tech with electronic control of cars to maintain their distance or USA style multi-lane freeways?

Motorway facts

The AA was already 68 years old when Britain's first motorway opened in 1958. That milestone however was probably one of the most significant events for Britain's growing population of private motorists.

1958 2008
4.5 million cars 28 million cars
5970 people killed in road accidents 2946 people killed in road accidents
191,146 miles of road 246,000 miles of road including 2,200 miles of motorway
£500 million paid in motoring taxes £45 billion paid in motoring taxes
100+ motorway breakdowns dealt with by the AA 175,000 motorway breakdowns dealt with by the AA

Ten key dates in the history of British motorways


The first map was published showing a projected English motorway system in a form that can be compared to today's reality. The M1, M4, M5, M6, M62 and M18 are all there, along with a circle that would eventually represent the M25.

December 1958

The opening of the Preston bypass – both the first stretch of motorway in Britain, and the first 8.3 miles of the M6.

Although modified over the years into a 4 lane motorway, originally it looked little like a modern motorway – it had turf shoulders, no crash barrier, and by today's standards, little traffic.

November 1959

The opening of the M1, then looked upon as the London-to-Birmingham Motorway.

Its 61.5 miles symbolised the start of the motorway age. Although widened, much of this motorway, complete with its 1950s bridges is still in use.

December 1965

The introduction of the 70mph speed limit on an experimental basis, replacing a truly derestricted road. The limit was made permanent in 1967 and led to a 20% reduction in casualties on the growing motorway network.

October 1986

The M25 was completed and officially opened.

The first pieces of the London Orbital Motorway were completed in September 1975 and the whole ring was formally opened in October 1986. Prior to the M25 there had been many plans for motorway "boxes" around London.

January 1991

The M40 was opened, marking the completion of the last major link of the English motorway system.

May 1995

The variable speed limit on the M25 was introduced allowing speed limits to be automatically adjusted to match traffic flows. This helped significantly to increase the traffic capacity of the road and reduced holdups on what had become known as the world's largest car park.

October 2000

The completion of the M60 made Manchester Britain's third city to be encircled by motorways.

December 2003

The M6 Toll – Britain's first tolled motorway is opened, relieving congestion on the M6 to the north east of Birmingham. The M6 remained open as an alternative.

September 2006

A long series of modifications to the M42 was completed with automated traffic control not only allowing variable speed limits but also allowing hard shoulder running in peak times – two measures which reduce peak hour congestion, and are likely to spread to the rest of the network.

2011 to 2014

Automated traffic control (Managed Motorway - Dynamic Hard Shoulder) similar to that introduced on the M42 in 2006 is being rolled out to other parts of the motorway network - M6 J4-5, M6 J8-10A, M1 J10-13, M6 J25-30, M6 J5-8, M62 J 25-30, M4 J19-20, and M5 J15-17.

Highways Agency road projects - current and completed »

March 2012

The Highways Agency publishes a 'concept of operations' for a new type of Managed Motorway scheme - Managed Motorway All Lanes Running with the following key features:

  • Permanently remove the hard shoulder - no dynamic signalling telling drivers when the hard shoulder is available
  • Queue protection system - alerting drivers of congestion ahead
  • Congestion management system - determining speed limits for smooth traffic flow
  • Signs displaying mandatory speed limits, lane closures and other information
  • Advanced message signs - accidents and congestion ahead
  • Refuge areas at a maximum 2,500m


Work starts on the first Managed Motorway All Lanes Running Schemes with further plans to begin work on more than 100 miles of motorway in England by spring 2015 - M1 J32-35a, M1 J28-31, M25 J5/6-7, M60 J8-12, M62 J18-20, M60 J12-15, M1 J39-42, M25 J23-27, M3 J2-4A, M6 J10a-13

Read more (Highways Agency) »

The Highways Agency introduced the term ‘Smart’ motorways, to describe a range of different designs of actively controlled motorway

April 2014

England’s first ‘all-lane running’ (no hard shoulder) motorway (M25 junction 23-25) opened on Monday 14 April.

(16 April 2014)