Britain’s First Motorway

The 1950s was the decade that saw the introduction of Britain’s first motorway. The first stretch of motorway in the UK was opened in December 1958 and it was originally known as the Preston Bypass. This 8 mile route cost £3m and was put in place to relieve the traffic on the A6 through Preston. Initially two lanes in each direction, it later had further lanes added and was incorporated into the M6.

The M1 was the first full-length motorway in the UK, spanning five counties when it opened in 1959. There were initially no speed limits or any lighting. Speed limits on motorways were introduced in 1965, resulting in a 20% reduction in fatal accidents.

As vehicles had not been accustomed to driving beyond 50mph, there were several instances of engine failure as cars overheated. AA vans had rubberised bumpers which enabled them to push broken-down cars to safety.

This first section of the M1 connected St Albans (North of London) to Rugby in Warwickshire. By 1968 it stretched all the way to Leeds, making a direct link between northern and southern England.

In 1958, there were only 4.5 million cars used in Britain. 50 years later the figure is 28 million. However, there were twice as many fatalities on Britain’s roads in the early days of motorways compared to today.

Britain’s first motorway service station was Watford Gap Services, which opened on the same day as the M1. Considered by many to be the dividing line between the North and South of England, the location became known as the place that touring musicians could get a break and a meal on the way to and from their gigs.

The longest motorway is the M6, which spans 232 miles and covers nine counties in England. It begins in the logistics region known as the Golden Triangle and ends at the Scottish border.  From its early days as a bypass in Lancashire, it has transformed into one of Europe’s busiest highways.

Britain's First Motorway