There were a million cars on the road in the UK in 1950, and today there are 30 million; I heard this recently on the radio and I have no reason to doubt it. This period neatly encompasses my lifetime. I was fortunate to belong to one of those families that possessed a car in 1950. I was very much in the minority then. It was four years after the war and new cars were almost unobtainable; if you were lucky enough to get one they were incredibly expensive. Our car wasn’t a new one therefor; it was a pre-war Morris Minor illustrated to the right.
In 1950 most people did not travel so far as they do today, and when they did it was by public transport. The draughty old double-decker buses had a platform at the back that was open to the elements. There was no heating in the winter, although in the summer you could open a narrow pane at the top of the window and let the breeze waft in.
For those who were fortunate enough to have a railway station nearby there was always the train. The railway network was almost at its maximum extent in 1950, although a very few branch lines (like that to Hadleigh in Suffolk) had already lost their passenger service before the war. Remote settlements like Hindolveston and North Elmham had passenger trains; however these trains although regular were not frequent.
By contrast with the buses all passenger trains were provided with heating by 1950. The heat came from copious amounts of steam; the engine could easily spare a little from its boiler to pass along the train. It made railway travel much more commodious than most other forms of transport; air liners were still in their infancy. Ocean liners.were well appointed but the sea could be rough which made travel uncomfortable. Even cars were not fitted with heating 70 years ago, although the hot engine was only inches away from the passenger cabin. About 1955 we had bought a small heater which did hardly anything to melt the ice on the inside of the windows; it was powered by the 12 volt car battery, so it couldn’t do much without running it down.
As you can tell, there wasn’t much traffic on the roads in 1950. Even ten years later they were nearly deserted. As you walked the country lanes the occasional car would pass by, but when it did it could be doing a high speed. Although 65 mph was about the maximum you could get out of a normal 1960 car, there was no national speed limit. If you could wind your motor up to 80 mph you could legally drive at that speed. Only where a 30 mph limit existed was this not allowed, and these limits were only applied in built-up areas. Otherwise it was only the relative feebleness of the engine which prevented more accidents.
The road network was all covered with tarmacadam by 1950, but its narrow twists and turns were still as they had been when the horse and cart was the fastest mode of transport. Country road junctions had no right of way; there was little need to give way as you swung round the corner as there was seldom another car in vicinity. The junctions were not protected by white lines. In the city the narrow streets seemed to be full of traffic, but this was because there were few parking restrictions and no pedestrianised roads; traffic lights were few but Belisha beacons were relatively common. Such developments as dual carriageways and roundabouts were almost unknown. About the only stretch of dual carriageway I can remember in Norfolk was Prince of Wales Road in Norwich. This arrangement was not to separate the lines of traffic but to allow a fine avenue of pleached lime trees to grow down the middle of the street; of course these have long been felled, victims of the motor car.
Road widening and the straightening of dangerous bends did not get underway until the 1960s. It was the 1970s before any towns were bypassed. There were no Motorways in Great Britain until 1959, and there are still none in Norfolk. Kings Lynn was one of first to have a new road to relieve traffic in the town centre. It was single carriageway but had three lanes. This deadly arrangement allowed cars travelling in opposite directions to pull out simultaneously with fatal results. Even now much could be done to make the road network fit for purpose in the 21st century. Far too many of the roads are still much as they were in the 18th or even in the 16th century.
I am rather dubious about the self driving cars they blithely say are soon coming to our streets. They might be fine for the modern highways of North America, or even for the car parks of Milton Keynes; but the roads of rural England are another matter. When you meet a car coming the other way on a narrow lane in North Norfolk one of you has got to drive up the muddy bank for you to pass. Choosing just where to go requires a fine sense of the car’s adhesion and the depth of the mud on the verge. I don’t think Google are anywhere near that yet.