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Britain's bike friendly cars of the 1950s

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. 


Reader Comments (16)

I grew up with old cars in the family, my first car when I passed my test in 1992 was an ancient Triumph Dolomite, but gradually I kept getting faster cars that were more frustrating to drive and when I racked up 6 points in 3 months I decided to buy a slow old diesel 106 and drive at reasonable speeds, only to get beeped at, sworn at and a few hand signals not in the highway code. So after 20 years I gave up the car and went back to cycling full time. I couldn't drive now, the traffic always puts me in a lousy mood, the bike has the exact opposite effect, even in the rain.

May 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

In the 50s and early 60s, American cars were large but at least you could see over their roofs, through the windows and usually only one car/family. Now 2.6 cars/family and most are too high to see over SUVs with tinted windows driven like sports cars with drivers on their phones texting.

STR with these oversized entitlements is a risky way to travel - the Golden Years of Cycling are long gone.

May 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Ernest Marples, owner of the motorway-building company Marples Ridgway, was made minister of transport, and promptly commissioned Dr Beeching to shut down the railways.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/apr/04/right-rivers-richard-benyon-interests coincidence surely?
It has been getting progressively worse, I used to ride my Raleigh Chopper from Sheldon to Halesowen to visit a friend (his dad would give me a lift back in their car) that was in the 70's, I would want my son to do such a thing today. Graham Cafe says the 80's was the point when it all changed. I went to Woburn Safari Park on a bank holiday and it was like the M25 all the way round, solid. Apparently a car is a luxury good and does not work well econimically when it is popularised. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxury_good but many have come to regard it as a necessity, even where it is not. The car in the UK is like the rabbit in Australia. In a top news story over here people have concentrated on the person being hacked to bits and almost ignored the fact that he was deliberately run down first. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22703063 here they only say "hit by". Power corrupts, people driving ever more powerful cars are getting worse in direct proportion while the quantity makes the situation far worse. What will the future hold?

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

It isn't all bad news. UK traffic levels seem to have peaked. From 2002 - 2012 they went from 300-302 billion vehicle miles, more or less static. In the 1992 - 2002 period they went up around 20% 256 - 302 billion vehicle miles. Before that from 1982 - 1992 they increased by around 50% from 176 - 256 billion vehicle miles.

Most people that want cars have them. Many people are choosing not to run cars.


As for road deaths - they peaked at nearly 8000 in 1966 and have been declining ever since to current levels around 2000.


Yes, there is plenty room for improvement, there are too many bad drivers not being dealt with by the law, but other than fast dual carriageways I feel comfortable cycling just about anywhere. There are many roads which carry low traffic levels when a parallel motorway takes all the through traffic away.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTed

I think with youth unemployment where it is this generation will be "car-less". My two 20 something sons cannot even dream of owning and running cars, yet I got my first at 17 (1966 Ford Anglia). Go figure.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJW

My father's first car, bought as a young immigrant to Canada from Germany, was a used Morris Minor, purchased for probably too much money and which went down in our family lore as possibly the worst car ever built.

May 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSprocketboy

As a cyclist I think eye contact with car drivers is essential. Tinted windows make this impossible and the cyclist's situation more dangerous.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

I cannot imagine that getting hit by a Morris Minor doing 50mph would be a whole lot more pleasant than getting hit by a "modern" car.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve A

My 23 year old son is of that generation in the US that now sees a car as an appliance rather than an extension of his persona or manliness -- he has lived and studied in Seoul, Amsterdam, and now he's studying is northern Germany for the summer. He's either, walked, taken the bus, or ridden an old hand-me-down mtn bike I gave him while he's been at university here.. He is not interested in the debt or expense of owning a car -- eventually he'll need one, but he'd be happy with the little Hyundi 5 speed we've got that he borrows now and then.

When I was growing up in Tulsa, OK in the 70s and 80s, I never saw my parents out running, going to the gym, or out riding a bike -- for errands or for fitness. Guys my age either had to have a truck or a loud muscle type car, usually a bit beat up but always loud and fast! My sister's best friend next door got a Camaro when she was 16 from her Dad -- so it wasn't just the guys with fast cars, the girls had them too.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBruce's Bike Blog

Dave Dad always had Rovers! By the way 7th June I will be 80yrs YOUNG in honour of this I am riding to morrow 89miles in the Colorado Elephant Rock ride with my daughter. will be on my 2005 Mercian Vincitore full Campag 27 speed

June 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

In the mid-50s, the Chrysler 300 model car with over 300 hp hit the market and the race to build the fastest muscle cars was kicked into high gear. The 60s saw the beginning of the Mustang, Dart, Barracuda, GTO, Camaro and others.

After WWII, USA motoring deaths/year were in the range of 31-37 thousand up to 1961. From '61 to '73, the range jumped and was mainly between 45-54 thousand/year.

Faster cars took over our streets in the 60s and are now larger (especially in height) SUVs are dominant and will remain so as long as gas prices continue to be subsidized in the USA. The motoring public feels safer in these larger vehicles and many prefer the privacy of tinted windows.

Add in personal electronic devices that interfere with drivers attention and you have even higher risks for those who travel on foot or on two wheels.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Think cars are dangerous? Citi Bike (NY bike share program) means "Death by Bicycle":

Dorothy Rabinowitz says the "most important danger in the city is not the yellow cabs but it is the bicyclists... empowered by the city administration with the idea that they are privileged..."

June 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Anthony C., I agree. So-called 'privacy-glass' in vehicles is yet another marketing ploy in automotive sales pitches. You're already cocooned in a car; why do you need to be invisible as well? Intuitively, I feel mobile/cell phone users in cars pose a new and random danger for anyone trying to commute on shared roads.
Now such drivers can hide their inattentiveness as well. They've just upped restrictions and penalties here in Australia, yet people just can't seem to not play with the things as they're driving. How many people do you see gazing down/texting while they sit at a turned-green traffic light!
Who would have foreseen this new driving danger 15 years ago?

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Steve A. is right. Being hit by a slow moving small car hurts. I found this out the hard way in 1976, a long time before tinted windows and cell phones. By the time the driver noticed me in my bright red jersey both she and I realised it was too late. Anthony C.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

PETER, SHELDON to HALESOWEN on a Raleigh chopper? Quite a ride old chap. Was born and raised in Yardley. Birmingham History Forum has quite a lot about Sheldon. You can Email me if you wish crumpy6204@aol.com John Crump

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Ancient cars are the most efficient and best cars invented till yet. The features of the ancient cars showed the royalty in them. Earlier only rich people used to owe cars, as the cars showed their richness. Ancient cars now can be seen in museums and rarely in any one's house. Nowadays thieves are behind these ancient cars as they have much precious, they sell them to different museums and export them to different which gives them large amount of money.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSameaon
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