The joy of motorways
30 August 2007
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the birth of the British motorway. While the Germans had been racing round on Hitler-endorsed Autobahns since the 1930s, it wasn't until 1958 and the bright optimism of the post-war boom that the eight mile Preston bypass opened - and a bold new future of motoring dawned.
Or something like that. For while it's true that motorways have had a remarkable social impact during the last half-century, the British motorway infrastructure is rarely regarded with much but ambivalence.
Sure, the M62 means I can get from Hull to Liverpool in under three hours, but would I actually want to? The ability to complete the journey is facilitated by an engineering miracle but the pleasure of doing so has pretty much been stripped away. In fact, only a maniac would consider a drive between Manchester and Birmingham along the M6 as anything but a total pain in the arse.
It wasn't always like this. When the Preston bypass opened day-trippers flocked to it, keen to drive the route as fast as possible. The excellent BBC Four documentary The Secret Life of the Motorway featured a man who completed the journey from one end to the other in an Austin Healey, at an average speed of 83mph.
The majority of drivers at the time didn't have such speed at their fingertips, however. The folly of taking the tin pot cars of the 1950s and 60s for a high-speed spin on the motorway was made obvious when the first 74-mile southern section of the M1 opened in 1959.
Hillman Minxes were exploding along the entire route, while the popular Morris Oxford MO – which had a top speed of around 70mph – was getting a sound thrashing by over-zealous owners putting pedal to the metal. Stan Holland, an AA patrol man of the time, says there were 13,000 breakdowns in the M1's first year of opening, including a Rolls Royce, which "blew up like a tea kettle".
Back then, motorway driving was new, exciting and incredibly dangerous. Initially, there was no speed limit. There were also no barriers between the carriageways - meaning it was relatively common to see drivers performing a U-turn over the central reservation if they missed their junction. Others simply lost control and headed over the verge at full speed into oncoming traffic.
By the 1960s, plans were afoot for more than 1,000 miles of motorways in Britain, including one of the most remarkable and unsung engineering feats of the 20th century.
Before the completion of the M62, a journey from Manchester to West Yorkshire necessitated the use of the A62. Even in the early 1960s, the A62 was congested with lorries, while, for several months of the year, the risk of snowdrifts meant no journey could be planned with any certainty.
The aim of the M62 Pennine pass was to build a road that would never have to close but the seven-mile route lay across a peat-bog. It required the excavation of 11.75 million cubic yards of peat, a new dam and the construction of the widest single-span non-suspension bridge in the world, carrying a local road over the motorway.
The route split in two at one point - infamously allowing Joyce Wildhouse's farmhouse to remain between the two carriageways. The construction process, led by 28-year-old engineer Geoffrey Hunter, was beset by atrocious weather, leaving JCBs stranded in bogs. It became what Hunter called "a matter of survival".
The route of the M62 over the newly-built Scammonden Dam opened in 1971 and, by the following year, a further 1,000 miles of motorways was planned. At this time, the British were still in awe of the motorway but by the time Spaghetti Junction was completed in the early 70s, the first whispers of discontent were beginning to be heard.
A collective madness began to grip planners, who were building high-rise motorways such as Westway in London within feet of people's bedrooms. While the original section of the M1 led to the displacement of just eight households, thousands of homes were flattened to make way for new motorways in urban areas.
And as fast as new roads were being built, car owners were jamming them with traffic. As the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey notes: "If you build a new road, people use it."
By the 1990s, the environmental lobby had organised itself against motorways. Swampy and his ilk were climbing trees in order to halt construction and there was a general feeling that the madness must stop. In 1997, the Labour Party promised to stop building motorways and won that year's general election on a landslide.
The British, it seemed, had fallen out of love with motorways. But this isn't the fault of the motorways themselves. The sheer volume of cars on the road means the futuristic pleasure of the six-lane carriageway that was promised in the 1950s was dead.
Instead, the reality was an endless mass of wide tarmac arteries, clogged with the fat of the car. A victim of its own popularity, the motorway had become something of an embarrassment.
But it's still possible to enjoy a drive on the motorway, if you know where to look. Even in heavy traffic, a ride over the Pennines on the M62 never fails to impress, especially if you consider the work that went into it. Even the M6 can be a fun place to be, provided you are the far side of Blackpool - and heading north.
It's not the motorway that's the problem - it´s us. The simple joy of the motorway shouldn't be underestimated.