River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Motoring in the 1930s

August 2008

Ron takes a nostalgic look at motoring in the 1930's.

Roads and Traffic

I was not old enough to drive in the thirties but I was old enough and fortunate enough to take a great interest in and to experience motors and motoring in those days. My memories of those times are very clear, it was all very different to motoring today. Road users were a very mixed bunch, bicycles were very popular and cycling clubs often went out together in quite large numbers completely filling their side of the road. Motor cycles were widely used, often fitted with a sidecar. Because motorcars were too expensive for most people to buy and run, motorcycles were popular as a means of transport more so than as a recreational vehicle and were regularly used for commuting. Riders generally wore raincoats or other normal outdoor clothes, helmets were not worn. Horse drawn carts remained popular with many tradesmen, horse troughs to provide drinking water for the horses were a common sight by the urban roadside. Commercial vehicles and buses with treadless solid tyres were still in use, although most had pneumatic tyres by the thirties. Nearly all vehicles used petrol engines, but diesels were beginning to appear on heavy vehicles, steam lorries and electric vans were also seen. Harrods in particular were keen users of electric vans that were quite large, a little bigger than your average Ford Transit of today. Trams were widely used in the larger towns, their rails were a menace to cyclists and to some cars, tyres were much narrower than they are now. Tram passengers usually had to board and alight in the middle of the road a potential accident situation. Trolley buses were becoming more popular, I never understood why they lost favour.

Most of these road users were relatively slow. In the early thirties the 30mph blanket speed limit had been introduced for light vehicles in 'built up areas' (usually defined by the presence of street lighting). Elsewhere there were no speed limits for cars. Heavier vehicles, I think of 5 tons and above, were limited to 20mph everywhere by law, but that law was eased at some time during the thirties. Speedometers were not very accurate and nearly always gave an optimistic value, the error tending to increase with increasing speed. Owners liked to boast about how fast their car had gone but often they were deceived by their speedometer. Speed limits were enforced by officers working in pairs using stop watches, offenders were caught by a third policeman who would stand in the road on receiving a signal from the others. There were 'speed cops' also. They rode motorcycles - in the later thirties many rode Triumph 'Speed Twins', usually finished in a deep maroon, these machines could easily outpace nearly all the cars. Speed cops wore a normal uniform with peak caps, held on with a strap, white gauntlets and two piece goggles. Most popular cars could not reach 60mph but some of the more expensive cars could go considerably faster, often there was a spirit of competition between drivers to see whose car could go the fastest. Overall speeds were very much lower than today, however.

In 1930 there were fewer than two million cars on the roads, by 1939 the number was around three million, a lot less than the nearly thirty million of today. Despite this relatively small number there were problems with traffic congestion. Roads and road junctions had not been designed for motorised traffic, although some new 'arterial roads' were beginning to be built. Most roads were narrow with numerous bends, making safe overtaking difficult, so that the speed of the traffic was often equal to the speed of the slowest and, when it came to hills, that could be very slow. No matter what car you drove it would be unlikely that your average speed on a long journey would be much above 25mph. Main roads went through the middle of villages and towns where streets were usually very narrow and partly blocked by parked vehicles. There were practically no restrictions on parking although it was an offence to cause an obstruction. Signposts were largely in the form of pointing arms, similar to those that still exist on minor country roads. I do not remember any of the flat board type of signposts that are used today. There were many junctions and cross roads without traffic lights, or even road markings, roundabouts were a new concept and were extremely rare. Busy uncontrolled cross roads could result in traffic jams, less busy ones could result in spectacular and injurious crashes. Busy junctions in towns were often controlled by a policeman on 'point duty'. He would stand in the middle of the junction, a dominant figure wearing white gauntlets that commanded total respect and obedience.

Some garages were appearing with multiple pumps and a forecourt, few, if any, of those had a canopy. You were always served by an attendant, none were self serving. This type of garage was relatively rare. Most garages were small establishments, rather like Mr Scripps garage in Aidensfield, often with just one pump. In rural areas petrol was often sold from a pump outside a general store or ironmongers. Many pumps were hand operated, the operator wound a handle to the top of its travel to deliver one gallon, he then had to wind the handle down again before delivering the next gallon.

'Road Safety' was a phrase yet to be talked about. Despite the relatively few cars, accident rates in 1930 were higher than today with over seven thousand fatalities. Apart from the shortcomings of the vehicles, poor road design and poor road surfaces were partly responsible. There were no MoTs, of course, with the result that there were some vehicles on the road with very defective brakes, steering, lights and tyres. Nevertheless, as today, bad driving under the circumstances along with careless pedestrians were the major causes. Road surfaces were varied. In towns there was often a mixture of wood blocks, with a coating of tar and grit, and cobble stones. The combination of wood blocks, steep cambers, liberal amounts of horse droppings, oil drips, rain and solid or bald tyres was a recipe for serious skidding, especially in the towns (legal limits on tyre tread depths are relatively new). Skidding was a regular feature of pre-war driving. Minor roads usually had a tar and gravel surface but the gravel was unlike that which is used today, it tended to be smaller in size, more rounded in form and often yellow in colour. A newly re-surfaced road could look quite attractive for a short time. The gravel was laid by primitive means where men threw shovels full across the wet tar, much of it remained loose on the surface and was a nightmare to cyclists. New roads were often concrete with a plain concrete surface as are some today (the A11 approaching Barton Mills for example) some roads did have a tarmacadam surface.

Street lighting was very mixed, and generally very poor, much was gas lighting, the 'old gas lighter' could still be seen on his rounds. If they were lit at all, main roads in towns and villages were mostly lit by filament electric lamps. There were a few mercury lamps in the late thirties and sodium lamps, sometimes hung over the centre of the road, did appear in 1938/39 but they gave a much more orange light than the modern high pressure sodium lamps. Although less bright these orange lights gave softer shadows and provided a good light for driving providing that there was not too much dazzle from oncoming traffic. Headlights were not good, on many of the older cars the reflectors had turned yellow due to the loss of the reflective coating and the bulbs themselves gave a more yellow light than in modern cars. Dipping was achieved by switching off the nearside lamp and by mechanically re-directing the offside lamp. Rear lights were generally little more than a glimmer. Only one rear light was not unusual and that was often mounted near the centre of the vehicle. The combination of poor street lighting and poor vehicle lighting contributed to a high accident rate after dark.

People were slow to learn the lessons of the dangers associated with motor vehicles. Most people had no experience of driving and little experience of riding in private cars, they did not understand the difficulties facing the driver, especially at night. A host of safety measures were introduced during the thirties. There was the introduction of the first pedestrian crossings, these were marked with metal studs and Belisha beacons, named after the government minister that had proposed them, much the same beacons, a post with an orange globe on top, that we see today. Other measures included; more traffic lights, often with sensor pads in the form of rubber strips across the road, to detect vehicles approaching - pedestrian barriers at urban road junctions to deter pedestrians from crossing in dangerous places - pedestrian subways - better road signs, especially HALT signs - better road surfaces - improved vehicle brakes etc. The accident rate fell so that by 1939 the number of fatalities had dropped to six and a half thousand a year although the number of cars had increased to over three million. Sadly we still have approximately five thousand fatalities each year on our roads. That is very much lower than it was in relation to the number of vehicles. Nevertheless most of these tragic deaths are avoidable if road users would take more care.

Ron Watts

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