This week in 1959: Opening of the M1

It takes a few seconds to realise why early photos of the M1 — the UK’s first motorway — look so odd. And then it hits you. There are hardly any cars on it.

Reporting on the opening of the 55-mile long London to Birmingham stretch of the motorway, The Engineer heralds the dawn of a new era in UK travel and the arrival of ‘the first road in the country designed to suit contemporary vehicles and speeds.’

Detailing the findings of the enormous survey carried out prior to its construction, the article reported that the motorway was expected to reduce traffic on existing surrounding roads by an estimated 700,000 vehicle miles a day as well as save around 1,600,000 vehicle hours a year.

The magazine continued that the 13,000 vehicles a day anticipated in the first few months of operation was expected to rise to around 20,000 a day by 1960. Today that figure has more than quadrupled to around 90,000. Some things never change though, with the section near Luton expected to cope with around 15,000 vehicles a day by 1960 making it the busiest stretch of this £24m artery.

The Engineer added that while ‘the road lacks feats of major engineering difficulty, the principal problems arose from dealing with the many interests and authorities bordering on, or cutting across, the route and in organising the construction to be completed within only 19 months.’

These conditions, continued the article, brought with them a series of engineering challenges. ‘for instance, on the main 55-mile length of road the degree of mechanisation was very high and the value of the plant was nearly a third of the contract sum… the design also, was evolved with fast progress in mind.’

Jon Excell