I got my first lightweight bike in 1950; it was only five years after the end of WWII and the economic turnaround in Britain and the rest of Europe was only in its early stages. Petrol was in short supply throughout WWII for obvious reasons. It was needed for the war effort, plus off shore oil had yet to be discovered in the UK. Oil had to be imported, and petrol was strictly rationed.
Rationing did not end at the end of WWII, in fact in 1948, (Three years after the war ended.) The Motor Spirit Regulation Act was passed by the British Government, and red dye was added to some petrol. The red petrol was for agriculture and commercial use only. A private motorist caught with red petrol in his tank, could lose his driver’s license for a year, and a petrol station selling red gas to private motorists could be shut down.
The scarcity of petrol throughout the war and the five years that followed, meant there was very little motorized traffic on the roads, and even when petrol rationing ended in 1950, the average working man did not rush out to buy a car, many had never owned, or even driven a car. Traffic was light even into the mid to late 1950s.
In the late 1940s, my pre-teen years, I would ride my bike after school, in the dark using battery lights, with no fear for my safety from my parents. This era is now referred to as the “Golden Age of Cycling.” On the Continent of Europe, cycle racing was the number one sport.
Looking back, it was a great time to ride a bike. Many of the cars on the road were pre-war from the 1920s and 1930s. New cars produced were like the Morris Minor (Above.) and the Ford Anglia, (Below.) had a tiny engines around one liter. (1,000cc.) About the size of many motorcycles today.
You could forget about zero to sixty in a few seconds; for most vehicles, even the new ones, *60mph was the top speed, and that was probably downhill with the wind behind you. Throughout the 1950s, on city streets, there were still as many bicycles as cars, there were even a few horse drawn carts still in use.
A car driver did not sit fuming at a traffic light because there was a cyclist on a horse and cart ahead of him. The driver was lucky if he could get above 20mph between lights, and a fit cyclist on a lightweight bike could get away from a light faster than he could.
The first Motorway (Freeway.) the M1, did not open until 1959. It was approximately 70 miles long from London to Birmingham. I remember within the first few weeks it was littered with broken down cars, as people took their old clunkers out and took them up to speeds they were never built to maintain. The Golden Age of Cycling ended from that point on, as throughout the 1960s and 1970s, more motorways were built and other main roads were widened and straightened.
During the 1950s, most of the people driving cars had grown up riding bicycles, their parents probably still rode a bicycle as their personal transport. They didn’t get upset with cyclists on the road, and they were content to cruise along at 30mph, occasionally reaching 50 or 60 on a straight road that ran downhill. At least they were in they were protected from the rain and cold.
Gradually all that changed, and now you have a generation who never rode a bike as a kid. Owning and driving a car becomes ever increasingly expensive, and with the spending of all that money comes an attitude of entitlement.
However, Britain is still the same size as it was in the 1950s, but with a far greater population. Improved highways mean that you can drive from one city to another in a very short time. But what do you do when you get to the big city, where there is nowhere to park, and streets where built for horse drawn vehicles?
The cars of the 1950s and before may have been underpowered by today’s standards, but they still got people from A to B. They were cheap to buy, used less petrol, and they were simple to work on. A person could do their own maintenance. Most of all because of their lack of power and speed they were less of a danger to pedestrians and cyclists.
*Footnote: I am sure someone far more knowledgeable about the Morris Minor will tell me it had a top speed was in excess of 60mph. But just as many of today’s cars have a maximum speed well over 100mph. few are ever driven to that limit.