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The M1 motorway at 60: when the dream of unlimited speed became a reality

2nd November 1959: Traffic on the M1, the London to Birmingham motorway, near the Broughton flyover, shortly after Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, opened the motorway. (Photo by Terry Disney/Central Press/Getty Images)
Brave new world: the speed limit-free M1 only minutes after it opened in November 1959. Note the lack of a central barrier, meaning that U-turns were commonplace... Credit: Terry Disney/Hulton Archive

When Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, declared the M1 open on Monday, November 2 in 1959 the very idea of speed limit-free transport appeared almost science fiction.  

But now, you too could be the next Stirling Moss without the risk of being “gonged” for exceeding 40mph, all the while imagining you were behind the wheel of a new Jaguar Mk2 with the latest 3.8-litre engine, as opposed to a six-year-old Austin A70 Hereford.

To the average car owner, the stretch of motorway between Watford and Crick, to the east of Rugby, seemed almost alien, with its standardised Margaret Calvert/Jock Kinneir-designed signage and three traffic lanes.

Even the fleet of white-liveried Ford Zephyr Farnham Mk2 Estates, with their flashing blue lights, appeared more akin to a US TV crime drama of the period than British traffic policing. 

People made special trips at weekends, London Transport laid on special buses for sightseers, and there was also the enticing prospect of dining on the move. From the outset, the M1 was to be the first British motorway with a service area, although this first consisted of some fuel pumps. 

Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, points to an imagined bright future before officially opening the motorway, accompanied by Sir Owen Williams and a stiffly upstanding senior policeman Credit: PA

However, the northbound Newport Pagnell café opened on August 15, 1960 followed on September 13 by the northbound “Watford Gap”, where drivers were offered free ice cream on the first day of operations. 

Their southbound counterparts were established on September 30 and October 1 respectively, and the plan was for the Watford sites to appeal to car owners. One haulier complained to The Liverpool Echo that “these posh transport cafés they are setting up are not the sort of places where you can call for a mug of tea, eggs, chips and sausages for a couple of bob”. 

There was further publicity concerning the Automobile Association’s plans for providing a continuous breakdown service and how the RAC’s Land Rovers carried more than 300 spare parts and accessories. 

An aerial view of the new motorway at junction 14 near Broughton, east of Milton Keynes Credit: S&G / Barratts

There was also a spate of instructional films, one of which featured a Zodiac-driving rotter who, according to the narrator Jack Warner, attempts “one of the deadly sins of the motorway” – a U-turn. 

The Preston by-pass, the country’s first motorway-standard road, had opened on December 5, 1958, but drivers still needed to be informed of the dangers of using the hard shoulder for picnics, reversing up the slip roads and, at a time before the central barriers, changing direction. They were further advised to use the emergency telephones in the event of a breakdown, instead of flagging down a passing car.

The police observed “an almost total lack of lane discipline in the first hours”, and Marples stated he had “never seen anyone going so fast and ignoring the rules and regulations”. 

Transport minister Ernest Marples on a bridge over the M1 during the opening ceremony. In the background, tourist coaches queue to join this wonder of the modern world Credit: George W. Hales/Getty Images

AA and RAC patrols were constantly attending to the thousands of cars that were wholly incapable of motorway travel. The Association reported “two cases of overheating, two drivers were out of petrol, two had punctures, and one was out of oil”, all transpiring within the first half-hour of operations. 

The government did not introduce the MoT roadworthiness test until 1960, which resulted in certain drivers taking to the M1 in a car that even Steptoe and Son might have rejected – this Movietone newsreel features a brace of stricken pre-war Austins.

The first fatalities on the M1 occurred on November 6, when two lorry drivers were killed after a thick fog had reduced visibility to virtually zero. Three days later a Triumph TR3 careered across the “no-man’s land” in the middle of the motorway and collided with an oncoming Austin Cambridge but, incredibly, both drivers only suffered minor injuries.  

Driver's eye view of the motorway shortly after it opened. Modern drivers might marvel at the lack of traffic Credit: Manchester Daily Express / SSPL 

The Chief Constable of Birmingham City Police thought “unless a top speed limit is imposed on the M1 I think we will have a repetition of the tragedies that have already occurred”. As it was, the advent of the 70mph restriction would not arrive until December 22, 1965.

As for owners of more recent cars, even a short journey along the new motorway could highlight many and various outdated design tropes. Heaters and windscreen washers were frequently optional extras, while the Ford Popular 100E featured an appallingly inefficient vacuum wiper system. The Morris Minor 1000 was still equipped with semaphore trafficators and many goods vehicles were devoid of any form of direction signalling. 

The motoring writer Gordon Wilkins suggested banning all vehicles without flashing indicators and the Rootes Group threatened to withdraw the warranty from dealers who used the M1 for delivering a new model. Anyone planning to take a customer’s Sunbeam or Humber for a quick trip was sternly warned that “the motorway is not the place for a car that has not yet been run in”.  

So to the present: much of the M1 has been converted to four-lane 'smart' motorway in an attempt to ease congestion Credit: TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

Above all, the M1 was greeted as a harbinger of an exciting future, with advertisers rushing to associate their wares with the motorway, be they India tyres or the Vauxhall line-up for 1960. 

W. A. McKenzie of this newspaper thought the motorway had “come to this insular nation as an innovation as foreign as a ski-jump course or bull-fight ring”. 

Compared with life in semi-detached suburbia, where the highlight of the week was a trip to the grocer’s in a second-hand Standard Vanguard, the M1 seemed almost impossibly exotic. It conveyed a promise of virtually limitless motoring – right up to the moment the radiator overheated.

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