On The Road in the 1930s

In the most recent book in my cozy mystery series set in the 1930s, The Thief of St Martins, I gave Dottie Manderson a car. I thought as she was almost 21, it was time she had her own car. She’s a busy girl with a life to get on with, and a career. So she needed a car. I ‘gave’ her a 1931 Morris Minor in a stunning blue. She loves it!

Some of the scenes I wrote made me need to carry out research. I needed to know, did cars in the 1930s have a rear view mirror? I needed it for the many sneaky glances Dottie and William sent in each other’s direction at the end of the book, and I’m sad to say that even though William is a police inspector, his mind really wasn’t on the road:

(BTW in case you didn’t know, Dottie is sitting in the back of the car, and in the front William is in the driving seat with Dottie’s mother beside him.)

His eyes flicked up to the mirror again and met hers. He slowly winked at her. Such a small thing, but it made her heart sing. They were still friends! She beamed at him.

If her mother had not been in the car, Dottie would have liked to touch the back of his neck. Unless she looked in the mirror, that was all she could see of him. There was a gap of perhaps two inches between the top of his collar and the start of his hair, very short and very fair at the nape. She wanted to put her fingers there, stroke the skin, feel the bristles of the short hairs against her fingertips. Perhaps push her hand up a bit so that her fingers could really tangle in his hair, draw him in closer to her, close enough to…

There was a muffled curse as the car suddenly veered wide and he had to bring it back to the right side of the road. He mumbled an apology, just as her mother said sharply, ‘Really, William, dear!’

So you can see how important rear view mirrors are! I also needed to discover if the doors of cars in those days locked with a key like they do now (ish) and as far as I could tell, they didn’t. But I did quite a lot of research about cars and driving in general for that era.

A few ‘firsts’ to do with roads, driving and traffic.

First driving test:

Driving tests were first introduced in Britain in June 1935. I imagine a lot of people tried to quickly learn to drive before that! We used to have a family friend who had a license even though he had never taken or passed a driving test. He was granted a license for driving a motorised cart on a farm, and when it was renewed at the post office ‘back in’t day’ the clerk missed off the T from ‘cart’ and – hey presto! Shh – don’t tell anyone! (It’s okay he’s been dead for years so they can’t touch him for it…)

First traffic lights:

There were a few attempts at creating a traffic light system in Britain. You can judge for yourself how successful this one was:

This was London, 1868 – far earlier than I’d imagined. You can read a bit more about it here: 

I can’t help wondering if this was inspiration for H G Wells, as a newspaper at the time carried this caricature of the new technology, and naming it ‘the terrific apparition’.


As you can probably guess, these were created by a Nottingham railway engineer by the name of J P Knight. The problem with these, apart from the war-of-the-worlds look, was that they had to be operated by hand, and were a bit unreliable. This one exploded due to a leaking gas pipe and the policeman operating it was injured.

But the modern traffic light as we know it today was not available until the early 1900s. A red and green traffic light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, and we never looked back. In Britain, it was Piccadillly Circus in London and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands who got the first all-singing, all-dancing red and green automatic traffic light in 1926-27.

First zebra crossing:

I was a bit surprised by this. Although pedestrian crossings had been marked by iron studs in the road and later, flashing Belisha beacons at the sides of the road, it wasn’t until 1949 that the government began to introduce ‘Zebra’ crossings, first trying out blue and white, then red and white stripes before finally in 1951 sticking with the black and white stripes we know and love today. The first one was in Slough. And to help people learn how to use these odd inventions, there was a public service film which you can view here, to make sure your zebra-crossing-usage is fully up to date. Who knows, maybe you’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

First traffic wardens:

The first traffic wardens hit Britain’s streets in 1960. Did you know there’s a dedicated website to British Parking? Me either. But here you can read a bit about the introduction of traffic wardens, and see some great pics.

First speed limit:

Our flirtation with speed has been a chequered affair (pun fully intended). To begin with, in the 1860s, any road vehicles were only allowed to travel at the whopping speed of 4 mph in the countryside, and 2 mph in urban areas. And, like the first trains, a man had to walk in front with a flag, to let everyone for miles around know that a beast of engineering was approaching and that they should clear the way.

I’m guessing that a) people very quickly got hooked on the thrill of speed, and b) it took a while for people to understand the stopping distances and braking speeds of road vehicles, just as it did when trains first came along. legislation quickly began to move with the times and the demand for road vehicles.

First the flag was done away with (clearly due to a national flag shortage???), then the man walking in front was dispensed with (or run over???), then speeds gradually increased across the nation, always faster in the countryside than in the city, due to the denser populations. Loads of inquiries were instigated to find out why so many people died each year, and reports were issued, with the resultant changes in the law. By 1934, the normal limit in urban areas was 30 mph. Speedometers were not compulsory until 1937.

First speeding offence:

The first speeding conviction was that of Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, in 1896. Walter was the owner and driver of a horseless carriage, and was caught travelling at a speed of 8 mph in a 2 mph area! It just had to be a guy from my native Kent, didn’t it?

First drink/driving conviction:

From the Licensing Act of 1872 onwards, drivers of any kind of vehicle on the road were always expected to be sober and in full control of the vehicle. But legal limits on alcohol intake were not established in Britain until 1967.

Actual news report concerning one of my ancestors, Alfred Mercer. It sounds as though he was lucky to get away with such light injuries. This report appeared in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay herald, Sat 8th Nov 1873.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little step back into the early days of motoring. Next week, I plan to share a few more ‘gems’ about one of our favourite pastimes.