Motorways didn’t always exist, you know. Or intersections/freeways or whatever the fuck you refer to them as in the States. We simply call them motorways because we invented the Queen and her proper English. And your country too, let’s not forget. Yet 60 years ago this very day (the 5th of December 1958, as God is my witness), some 2,300 drivers experienced the thrill of motorway driving for the first time ever here in the U of K. And in doing so they found themselves driving straight into the history books. Yet not, alas, a traditional motorway services; as neither they, nor arcades and overpriced food, would be invented for another 12 months. And only then would they have been any use if motorists were some 200 plus miles south by south east, and just so happened upon Watford Gap services in 1959. Which was basically a promptly-erected Portakabin installed at the side of Motorway Number 1 in Hertfordshite.
Back to the grim north though, and the area of land which gave itself freely to be converted into an 8-mile section of motorway which quickly became known as the ‘Preston Bypass’, formed the foundations of what later went on to became known as the EmineM 6. What were previously just fields and rural views and shit was transformed into a mecca for drivers of really fast cars of the day. Such as Austin Healey Sprites, Jaguar XK 150’s and souped-up Minis. The fruits of two whole years of labour-intensive labour which saw burly men lay tarmac from the summer of 1956 to shortly before this day in 1958. Which was all completed in black and white, because colour was still only available in Kansas City.
Preston Bypass. Not Fly Past
According to the boasts of the planners of the Preston Bypass, Britain’s first strip of motorway was built specifically for speed. And as such, subsequently attracted the boy racers of their day; who saw the stretch of flat, corner-free carriageway as something akin to a proving ground for their vehicles. All of which unnecessary haste prompted local newspapers to urge other concerned motorists (who didn’t have fast cars and didn’t have a desire to drive faster than speeded up Pathe news reels would allow them) to “not be frightened”. And reassured them by adding; “It’s an easy drive with common sense.” Wise words indeed.
That said, and courtesy of no speed limits, crash barriers or warning signs being put in place, it’s fair to note that drivers did take their lives into their own hands to a certain extent. Especially those who fancied themselves as Mike Hawthorn or Stirling Moss at the time. As motoring experts concured, the only two limits to the speeds you could achieve on the Preston Bypass were dictated by both the driver’s wheelmanship and the circumference of their testes. Oh, and the manufacturer’s official bhp figures relating to their car understandably played a significant role.
Echoing this theory, a motorway archivist recently told a paper that (acknowledging the fact there was no speed limit whatsoever for the first few years) the “only limit was the car you were driving”; and mused that “a few probably wrecked their engines in the process,” as they strove for glory and bragging rights amongst other petrolheads.
No Signs of the Nanny State
Shockingly, particularly when you think of the safety provisions in place on today’s motorways, the nanny state hadn’t arrived as of 1958 though. Which meant that barriers didn’t exist on the central reservation at any point along this 8-mile stretch of the pre-M6, M6. Merely a landscaped strip of grass defining the directional pull of the opposing 2 x 2 carriageways. Similar to a none-conventional Kit-Kat bar, the Preston Bypass consisted of 4 bars/lanes; comprising of 2 facing in each direction.Although the powers that be did at least envisage what might look pretty to fill these glaring gaps, much of which failed to make an impact.
Which in the event amounted to planting trees and hedgerows on the central area. The twin objective being to minimise the dazzle from oncoming traffic and actively encourage Bill Oddie. Unfortunately all the flora and fauna perished, so later some bright spark dreamed up the concept of central reservation barriers.
What was the Big Dealio?
It’s perhaps difficult to get your Millennial head around this (given how we all pretty much assume motorways, like Sir Tom Jones, have always been there), but 60 years ago the Preston Bypass represented something revolutionary in terms of road structures and design. Something altogether new and daring. And remember, we hadn’t even put a man on the moon at this juncture. However unlike the moon landings, the Preston Bypass didn’t almost bankrupt a nation. It cost in the region of £3 million to piece together, which is equivalent to around 1 Cristiano Ronaldo in today’s currency. Or £65 million if you wish to crudely discuss money.
Looking at the geographical logistics, and the Preston Bypass cut its unforgiving and relentless swathe through lush Lancashire greenery (much to the derision of Swampy’s grandad, who camped out for 4 nights running in protest). On the actual map, this took in an area lying to the south of Bamber Bridge, continuing over the River Ribble at Samlesbury and up to Broughton. But critically, the bypass bypassed Preston, because Preston was seen as unsightly and depressing and needed to be avoided. But more than that, the bypass would ease congestion and radically improve traffic flow for those hundreds of thousands of motorists heading for the tourist hotspots located on the Fylde coast. Yup, Blackpool and Eric Morecambe mainly.
Traffic, As Well as Cars, Were Said to Be Awful in the 1950s and 60s
Apparently traffic was awful in the 1950s and 60s prior to the advent of the motorway 6. People alive in this era tell of cars beeping their horns at 1am in various parts of Preston, on bank holidays and/or day trippers returned from the world-famous Blackpool Illuminations; as traffic jams were widespread.
Naturally though, a game-changer like the Preston Bypass resulted in many drivers being initially puzzled at just what you were supposed to do with/on the Preston Bypass, as they hadn’t read the instruction manual. Therefore it wasn’t surprising to witness families parked up on the hard shoulder, enjoying a picnic. But once they’d got used to it, there was no stopping them, as they flocked to it in their droves to see what all the fuss was about. Only didn't endanger their lives and others by stopping to consume their egg and cress sandwiches under a tree in the central reservations with Bill Oddie.
“Aye, I remember it like it were yesterday, lad. It was a grand day out for all t’family.” Said Jim Numbnuts, between taking sips of Lancashire Tea. Another, Bert Twaddle (the former Vice President of The Entwistle Automobile Society of Entwistle) recalled how as a 7-year old he was a passenger in his elder brother’s car, and sat goggle-eyed at the awe of it all.
“The excitement was palpable,” said Bert reminiscing about the Riley 1.5, going on to add; “my brother managed a top speed of 100mph downhill towards Samlesbury!” Not to be outdone by such claims – yet actually being outdone by a good 20mph – a newspaper reporter also fondly remembers giving his car some welly on that first day the Preston Bypass was opened to the public. “I drove the stretch from Bamber Bridge to Broughton,” he exclaimed, before going on to gasp; “and I did so at an average speed of 83mph!”
Here in the US of Kingdom today there is a whole Motorway 6 for drivers to enjoy/get gridlocked on; not just the Preston Bypass. Yet the Preston Bypass has since swelled to include loads more lanes and afford seasoned drivers uninterupted views of other road users hurtling past.