Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[104] You can Drive My Car

I have been a bit slow here because I am working on another blog and planning a third one. But I hope I will finish this one! The original idea was to continue with some odds and ends from [103] One for the Pot but I’ve decided to take a trip elsewhere and look at transport.


You will, of course remember [18] and [19] where I looked at roads but I will give a brief reminder here. As always, there may be some sweeping generalizations which are not 100% accurate. Much of what I say will be a list of things we didn’t have.

There were no Motorways, very few dual carriageways and no systems of slip roads and exits. Roundabouts and traffic lights were quite rare. (Mini-roundabouts did not exist.) Roads did not have lane markings – or ‘No Parking’ yellow lines. Many junctions in quiet areas didn’t even have a ‘Give Way’ to indicate which road had priority. Parking – well, you could more or less park where you wanted. (There were no traffic wardens.)

Some other things we didn’t have – breathalyzers (or blood alcohol limits,) sleeping policemen (humps to slow down traffic,) radar or camera traps.

Apart from the 30 mph limit in towns, most roads had no speed limits.


It was much easier to be a pedestrian because traffic was so low. We walked to school from the age of five (unaccompanied) down streets where we could walk safely down the middle of the road. If a car did come it was so unusual we heard it from a long way away.

The only pedestrian crossings were simple Zebra crossings with flashing Belisha beacons. We did have lollipop ladies just by schools but traffic was very light even there. [Wikipedia calls them School Crossing Patrol Officers but the term lollipop lady will be more familiar. For US and Canada Wikipedia suggests Crossing Guards] There were no pedestrian lights, certainly no cycle lights. [Curiously the Eastern Avenue at Ilford had its own cycle track. It was the only cycle path I knew about. I never saw anyone riding a bicycle on it!]


A Diversion – Traffic Lights

There have been so many changes to traffic lights, most of which people may not have noticed, all presumably designed to make crossings safer for pedestrians. You will have to bear with me because I can’t find good pictures of old lights or new lights to illustrate what I want.

[US readers should note that our lights are red, amber and green. It’s one of life’s mysteries why they are amber and not orange but we were always told at school that they were amber – and that means orange, not yellow.]

Traffic light junctions used to be just simple four-way intersections with no filter lights, no slip roads and no lanes. As you approached the junction you could see the lights at the corner before the junction and also the other side of the junction. So as a pedestrian you just looked round and could see the state of the lights – and cross when you knew you were crossing traffic barred by red lights.

Of course modern Health and Safety standards don’t trust pedestrians to make such decisions and they have done several things to make this difficult.

  • Lights on the far side of the junction have been removed – occasionally causing problems for the poor driver who stops just past the stop line and can no longer see what’s happening.
  • We have surrounding tubes, fairly similar to those in the picture above to make it more difficult to see the light from the side.
  • There are sometimes strips across the light (like open Venetian blinds) further restricting the views.
  • Generally there are pedestrian lights. You used to see these across the road but now you can only see just in front of you.


It’s probably worth starting by saying that my first experiences of actually driving a car came from my first lessons in the mid-seventies. So they were probably even more primitive in the fifties. I did pick up some information from a temporary summer job in the early sixties with a firm that did contract car hire.

Cars were less powerful and less reliable; needed more maintenance and attention; were more complex and difficult to drive; and were much more noisy and uncomfortable. When you buy a car now there are lots of options and choices. Back in the early sixties there were more or less just two optional extras.

A heater was common but it was just a way of diverting hot air from the engine. No fan, no choice of air vents, no temperature control – it was on or off – and certainly no cooling or air conditioning. Most cars had one.

The luxury extra was a car radio and you may want to consider what Radio used to be. It would have been just radio. No CD or any other recording devices. Not much channel choice.

You can of course also forget Satnav, seat belts, airbags, power steering, hazard lights, heated demisters, variable speed windscreen wipers (or rear wipers), any wind-screen washers and any form of automatic locking. A car key looked like a modern Yale door key and you had to open each door one by one with the key.


Instead of the flashing lights we now have, car indicators [US: turn signals] were little yellow/orange arms that flipped out. (I suppose they were amber.)

But let’s look at some more technical details.


The only mirror for the driver was the one inside. You might occasionally see a single outside wing mirror, which was much further forward than what we have now – almost over the headlight. Of course it was not adjustable. [The picture above is much too modern but does show the position.]

Starting was a delicate process. The start switch was separate from the ignition key and it might need several attempts to get it right. You had a manual choke switch that needed careful use – only when the engine was cold. If you overdid it, the engine flooded and you had to wait before retrying. [Modern cars have an automatic choke that drivers may not even notice. You may just detect slightly faster running when starting from cold.]

Controls were on the dashboard, not the complex multi-function sticks we now have on the steering wheel. The switch for dipped headlights may have been a button on the floor operated with one foot.

MOT Tests started in the UK 1960 – testing old cars for roadworthiness. They test many aspects of safety such as lights, tyres etc. but in the early days a common cause of failure was – rust. In those days cars were made almost entirely from steel but even steel will rust when subject to the spray from roads spread with salt in winter. Cars inevitably rusted after just a few years.

You could have your car under-sealed for a cost of about £1000, a very significant addition to its basic cost, and this would reduce the effects of road salt. Wikipedia calls it a thick resilient coat preventing small stones from damaging the paint. [US may know this as undercoating.] Anyway gradually undersealing became better and it became a standard part of car technology that car owners probably don’t even know is there. Cars now easily last for decades without the problem of rust.


We now generally have automatic windows but some cars still have the manually winding handles for rear passenger windows. All windows used to have these controls apart from the quarter-lights, small triangular windows at the side. [The picture above shows where we had quarter-lights but the rest of the picture is far too modern. As explained above we didn’t have the mirror shown.] These little windows were used to provide ventilation.


Talking of ventilation there was sometimes the problem of cars getting too hot in summer sunlight. (No, we certainly didn’t have air-conditioning.) Apart from the quarter-light your only option was to wind the main side window down a bit. This was difficult to manage at any speed because of the wind problem. One option was a sun-roof, which allowed for some ventilation without the problem of noticeable wind. [As for the others, the picture above is far too modern but it does illustrate the idea of a sun-roof.] I don’t think they were common until the late sixties but at some stage much later sun rooves became almost standard for new cars. They disappeared when air-conditioning took over.

Of course people smoked a lot more and so ventilation may have been more useful. I think ash trays were fairly standard and a cigarette lighter was one of the earlier options. The lighter has gradually changed into the port we now use to plug in free-standing satnav devices and MP3 players.

The other main change you would have noticed while driving was that all cars had four gears. Now five has become standard and some cars have six. [US readers. We have always had stick-shift gears. Automatic gears, standard in the US, may be slightly more common now for us but they are still relatively rare.]

Of course plastic anywhere was unusual. Seats, if not leather, were proper woven fabric.

Garages and Petrol

You have to remember that petrol came from garages that also performed the service functions now done separately. As well as serving you with petrol – they were not self-service! – they would do regular services, oil-checks and anything else that needed attention. And cars needed a lot more care!

(Now service stations are manned by someone who probably knows nothing about cars and doesn’t have to. They act as a shop assistant for the general supermarket that shares the premises. In the fifties and sixties all you could buy was petrol and probably oil. You probably couldn’t even get car spare parts because any car maintenance was a professional job.)

Now most cars need a service once a year and generally need nothing else in between. Back then services were every three months and you had to know enough to check the oil in between.


You had to search under the bonnet [US: hood] for a dipstick, pull it out and you could see the oil level. (Yes, the picture is far too modern but it does show the principle.) You were advised to check oil at least every week.

(You may not even notice that petrol is now lead-free. It used to contain lead, which made it poisonous. The transition in the seventies to lead-free petrol was gradual. All cars now have a catalytic converter to cope with the new petrol mixture. These converters are complex and expensive and run at very high temperatures.)

Car Mechanics

I have to say a little about reliability. Now cars are so efficient and easily manageable that we forget that they used to need care and attention and maintenance. From somewhere around 1960 I remember sometimes being taken out in the car just for a ride in the country. I can remember times when the performance was not good and Dad just drove to a garage. They would do things like checking, cleaning and adjusting spark plugs. Yes, I know, you may be thinking: what’s a spark plug? You don’t need to know now.

I have mentioned starting the car, which was not always easy and one problem was the battery. It was a big heavy thing, handled with care because it contained acid and not the most reliable part of the car. Power from the car creates electricity which is stored in the battery and was used to power lights and the starter motor. If electrical connections were not good, the battery gradually drained and the immediate symptom was a failure to start. I can remember taking the thing out, carefully, and charging it up overnight from the mains supply. And of course there were jump-leads which enabled you connect two cars together. Your battery could jump start another car.

(I won’t go into all the joys of car starting. You could push start it to get it going and start getting power into the battery again. Now batteries power lots more – windows, radio, heating fan, satnav and lots more. But they are so reliable you may never see one.)




The pictures above are fairly typical of cars in the fifties. They show the typical shape, less aerodynamic than modern cars. They were generally black but were available in grey and some blue and green colours that looked fairly greyish. They were mass produced in England and foreign cars were rarely seen. So you only had a few different models to choose between.

Note the wing mirrors, quarter lights, flat hub-caps, (not the decorative modern ones,) and the chrome bumpers and fittings. External running boards had only just disappeared and the top picture has an external door handle!

Cars had two or four doors and a boot, [US: trunk,] a small compartment for luggage. There were no hatchbacks with the large rear doors and folding rear seats.



Here are the two models that emerged in the early sixties, the Ford Anglia and Triumph Herald. Both were revolutionary in their more square shapes and both were very popular. Then we had the Mini.


OK, I haven’t finished Transport yet. I have just done cars! Plenty more to come …






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[19] The Long and Winding Road

As I was saying, before I was interrupted, let’s take a trip on the A40 out westwards. We will pick up our journey where the North Circular Road meets the A40. This may include a bit of a Geography lesson.


The A40

The A40 dates from 1923 and it goes from the City of London to Fishguard (Abergwaun) on the Welsh coast. I will try to describe it as it was in the early fifties, noting all the subsequent changes as we go. I drove both ways along much of the A40 and around the North Circular in the late sixties – and it has changed since then! The roads would have been the same but traffic may have been a bit lighter in the fifties.

We can leave out the start of the A40, as we have used the North Circular. We move on through Greenford, Northolt and Uxbridge to Denham (marking what is now the M25). These towns were already within Greater London. (Then London was a county, much smaller, with the London County Council. The Council of Greater London was not created until 1965.) This first part was already dual carriageway. Even then, it was very busy and we have to stop at several points at traffic light controlled crossroads and roundabouts for significant junctions with other main roads.

Beaconsfield and Beyond

We continue outwards, now mostly on two lane roads. The Romans built their main roads in straight lines. Ours just grew up naturally, linking towns and villages, winding round hills and valleys. The A40 just goes roughly West all the time, sometimes Southwest, sometimes Northwest.

Beaconsfield is a pretty, little town, with a long straight High Road, full of shops and shoppers. The A40 takes this route, slowly, dodging the parked cars and pedestrians, stopping at traffic lights for crossroads.

We come soon to High Wycombe, much larger that Beaconsfield, another town full of shops, which we have to drive straight through. There are roundabouts and traffic lights.

The village of West Wycombe comes just after High Wycombe and then we come to a long stretch of fairly quiet, narrow, country road, with the villages of Stokenchurch, Tetsworth and Wheatley. (When we did this route by coach in the seventies, the coach would stop for refreshments at a little restaurant at Stokenchurch.)


[Now we have the M40, taking us from the M25 almost to Oxford at about 70 miles per hour. It started in 1967 as the High Wycombe bypass. By 1974, the section to Oxford was complete, making the journey much quicker.]

Oxford to Cheltenham

Back in the fifties, we were lucky with Oxford. Part of the northern Oxford Ring Road had already been built in the 30s, so we go North of the city at Headington through Wolvercote and rejoin the older A40 route at Eynsham. Our journey to Wolvercote round Oxford would be on dual carriageways with a few roundabouts. This made the journey easier than going through the city but it was still slowed down by the volume of traffic. Even then, Oxford was a busy city.

From Wolvercote to Eynsham we come to a few miles of three-lane road. The third lane does not contribute much to the volume of traffic. Certainly, for the 70s and 80s, you could guarantee a hold up of up to an hour if you approached Oxford on this road from the West.

From there to Cheltenham is a stretch of forty to fifty miles of low class road. Even today, most of this part of the A40 is still just two lanes, unlit at night. We go through the small towns of Witney, Burford and Northleach. Two of these have narrow streets like the towns we have met already. Burford is a little better as the main street of the town goes from North to South – our route skirts its southern edge.

At Andoversford we take two sharp turns to go under a railway bridge, then along the long central street of the village, continuing to Cheltenham.

[Now West of Oxford, this road has not changed all that much since then, because it is no longer a major trunk road to the West. If you want to get to Wales, the M4 takes you there much more quickly. If you want Cheltenham or Gloucester, the A419 and A417 act as an almost motorway grade link from Swindon on the M4. The A40 remains for more local traffic only. Nevertheless, Witney and Northleach now each have dual carriageway bypasses, but the rest is still mostly single carriageway, only two lanes. The road bypasses Andoversford and the old railway bridge has gone.]

Cheltenham and Beyond

Now it gets worse. Cheltenham is a big town. Going through it is not easy. It uses one-way routes to split the A40 traffic in both directions. The way from Cheltenham to Gloucester is through the large village of Churchdown, narrow and winding.

[Cheltenham is no better now. It still has no bypass or Ring Road. At the wrong time of day, allow half an hour to get through it. The day I started work, back in 1969, marked two other memorable events. It was the date of the first man on the Moon and the opening of the Golden Valley Bypass. We now at least have a fast, straight, dual carriageway road from Cheltenham to Gloucester. That was just a few miles of the A40.]

Gloucester is similar to Cheltenham, about the same size, with the A40 negotiating its way through main streets in and out of the centre. (I can’t say it’s a similar town. For historical reasons Gloucester is a city. Cheltenham is not. I don’t mind. I have lived most of my life in Cheltenham. Most of it is better than Gloucester.)

After Gloucester, you can no longer think of the A40 as a major road. It was and still is a narrow, and in parts hilly, road to the next big town of Ross-on-Wye, winding its way through Huntley, Lea and Weston-under-Penyard. (Remember that even without traffic, all these towns and villages are built-up areas with the implied 30 mph speed limit.) Ross has a difficult centre to get through, with its mediaeval market building and narrow streets. At Ross, the road turns by 90 degrees from just North of West to just West of South.

[Gloucester and Ross both now have Ring Roads. Cheltenham is the only significant town to have been forgotten!]

The road meanders through Monmouth (Trefynwy), Raglan (Rhaglan), Abergavenny (Y Fenni) and Crickhowell (Crug Hywel, Crughywel, or Crucywel) to Brecon (Aberhonddu) in the Welsh Mountains, through several minor towns and villages. I can’t say much about the road beyond Ross but it does have to go through some mountains. In the fifties, traffic going that way would have been very low so it hardly justified calling itself an A road.

I have shown the Welsh names for places in Wales. Road signs now are bilingual but in the fifties road signs (and maps) would have stuck to English.

After Brecon we have Llandovery (It may look Welsh but the Welsh call it: Llanymddyfri), Llandeilo and Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin), and onwards to Haverfordwest (Hwylffordd) in what was then Pembrokeshire. Roads have never been logical and at Haverfordwest the road makes a right turn and heads northwards to Fishguard, ending at Goodwick (Wdig), the port of Fishguard. The end was presumably chosen because of ferry links to Ireland which are still available from Fishguard.

(Scholars of Welsh will note that even when the English try to make Welsh sounding names, they use letters not in the Welsh language and non-Welsh spellings.)


The A40 was a sample, in many ways typical of fairly major roads in the fifties. As a very young child, I remember being driven the short distance to Margate for summer holidays. Heading towards the coast on a summer Saturday, traffic ground to a halt as we went through every town on the way, driving down High Roads with busy shoppers.

My title for this blog is, of course, taken from the song by Paul McCartney, as sung on the LP, ‘Let it Be,’ possibly inspired by the B842 in Scotland, even more long and windy than the A40!

I need to set my randomizer in motion to pick the next topic …


[18] ‘Go West, Young Man’

The trouble with doing a random blog is that I have to decide, randomly, what to do next, without being too logical. So – I am going to look next at roads. Before we start, you can make things easy by forgetting everything you know about Motorways.


I suppose the actual roads were much the same then but not so grand. Almost all roads were just two carriageways, one each way. There were some three-lane roads (with the middle one just for overtaking). These must have been dangerous and I have not seen one for many years. There were some dual carriageways with two lanes each way, but these were quite rare, generally quite short. Trunk roads between major cities could be just two lanes for most of their length.

At important junctions, we had simple traffic lights or roundabouts. (Nothing fancy like mini-roundabouts.) There were no light-controlled pedestrian crossings (only a few simple zebra crossings with Belisha beacons, not lights.) There was nothing like Motorways and none of the slip roads and exit roads that make Motorway access easy.

[It was easy for pedestrians to cross at traffic lights because there were virtually no filter lights, and lights were put at both sides of the crossing. Now the lights for vehicles are specifically designed so that pedestrians find them hard to see and use. With pedestrian crossings at many traffic lights, this encourages us to wait for the green man. Of course, we did not have the green man then!]

The universal 30 miles per hour speed limit in built-up areas had been introduced in 1935. A built-up area was defined in law by the presence of street lights every 200 yards. Elsewhere there was no speed limit until 1965. Because of this definition, there was no need for speed limit signs, although there were some for the 30 mph limit. You knew that on a long journey the limit came into effect whenever you came to a town. (Outside towns, you probably didn’t go much faster. There was either too much traffic or narrow, windy roads. The opportunity for excessive speeding did not often arise.)

Road signs were peculiarly British.


It was not until 1964 that we adopted signs, more or less as used today, similar to the rest of Europe.


There were no automated ticket systems, certainly no automatic barriers or pay-and display ticket systems. There had been some parking meters in the USA but they had not yet appeared in England. I can’t be certain but I believe that car parks in general were very rare in towns – they were not needed. Those few people well off enough to be able to drive to the shops just parked outside the shops on both sides of the roads. Main/High Streets in town and cities would have had cars parked along both sides of the road. In general, these roads were also the only way to drive through the town.

[For many towns and villages everything happens along one road – shops, pubs, cafes, sometimes even residential houses. In the US, they are Main Streets. In the UK, they are High Streets, often called the High Road.]

Traffic Police

There were no traffic wardens. The only people involved in parking and road traffic enforcement were the Police. They could deal with traffic accidents and speeding, which was not a large part of their work. There were no specific traffic Police.

The Road System

Although many roads have changed now, the system of numbering roads remains the same as in the 50s, as it was originally set up around 1920 (with the addition of Motorways!) Going clockwise, the A1 (to Edinburgh), A2 (to Dover), A3 (to Portsmouth), A4 (to Bristol), A5 (to Holyhead) and A6 (to Carlisle) radiated from London. Similarly, the A7, A8 and A9 radiated from Edinburgh. Two digit numbers were used for the next most important roads like A10, A11, A12, A40 etc., with three and four digit numbers for less significant roads. Generally, the first number denotes the sector, so the A40 is in the western sector that includes the A4. B roads are less important routes.

There has never been any connection between these road numbers and road quality. Back in the 1950s, the main A roads were at best dual carriageways, two lanes each way, but many important roads for most of their length were just two lanes. In the countryside, outside town limits, they were generally far from straight and unlit.

I am going to take you on a journey on the A40, from London out to the Welsh coast, to see how it compares today with the 50s. Cars were nothing like what we have now but they will come in a later blog, so for now you can imagine the journey in your modern car. It’s more about traffic than cars.

North Circular

Before we take the A40, let’s look at the North Circular Road.


The modern map, above, shows the M25. Look closely at where the three radial motorways end. (You may have to click on the map to enlarge it.) You should see a roughly circular road, much deeper within London than the M25 (which is mostly outside Greater London). This is formed by the North Circular Road and The South Circular Road, which in the fifties were the only ring roads around London.

Let’s start our journey at Gant’s Hill, Ilford (now near the start of the M11 in the northeast section), and first travel anti-clockwise to where the North Circular meets the A40. (On the map above, the A40 continues inwards where the M40 now ends, a little North of the M4, which extends much further inwards.)

This is a journey of about ten miles, maybe twelve. It was the preferred route for all London traffic. Only the brave ventured into central London, with its maze of tiny streets and numerous on-way systems. Back in the fifties and early sixties, we did have the rush hour as people went to their offices to work. Rush hour traffic in the North Circular Road was pretty solid. Our journey, with traffic lights and roundabouts every few hundred yards, went through the thickest parts of the many little towns and villages that had merged to become Greater London. As it was the major route, houses and shops had developed along its length to add to the congestion.

As we drive, we are unlikely ever to get up to the 30 mph speed limit and we could take an hour to an hour and a half, maybe more, for these few miles. That was just getting to the start of our journey out towards Wales.

I have done a bit of rambling and only just reached the A40. We will be going down the A40 to the West, but not just yet …


Here’s a better map of the North and South Circulars: