Last Friday was exactly 60 years since the opening of the first section of what would later become known as the M1, the oldest ‘motorway’ (first called) in Britain and one of our most historic and beloved roads.
Connecting London to the north of England, the motorway is now an established and even - especially to the jaded commuter - mundane part of our motoring landscape, but travelling along the M1 wasn’t always such an everyday thing. In fact, when the motorway first opened for traffic, its appearance was immensely exciting, and seen by many as a symbol of modernity.
This sense of excitement and anticipation is palpable in a feature on the “London-Birmingham Motorway” in the 30 October 1959 issue of Autocar, just prior to its official unveiling. “On Monday, 2 November, the new Minister of Transport, Mr Ernest Marples, will snip the tape at Pepperstock junction as simultaneously police in radio contact will remove the barriers at all the connecting flyover access points, and traffic will begin to flow up and down the new London-Birmingham Motorway - the M1, as it is to be called,” the piece begins, registering the huge sense of occasion that accompanied the new motorway’s completion. In a wonderfully heady moment, the writer refers to the M1 as “our first real Motorway”.
One of the main reasons the M1 was groundbreaking was because of its scale. Italy had had motorways since the 1920s, but Britain had to wait until nearly 40 years later for its first such road, a motorway which bypassed Preston (and which would eventually be incorporated into the M6). This road, however, was significantly shorter than the M1. To build the longer motorway, roughly 13,000,000 cubic yards of earth had to be shifted, 150 bridges were made, 148 emergency telephones were constructed and over 4500 people were involved to create the iconic road. All these facts were dwelled on in Autocar’s original coverage - far from the everyday road that it’s seen as today, the M1 was a triumph of modern engineering and human resolve.
While Autocar was excited about the M1, however, we also highlighted the importance of caution. There had, we noted, been “too much glamour and talk of ‘throwing open the motorways of Britain.’ We must be rational, and consider the road as what it is - an important start to the provision of a network of modern roads in Britain.”