Roadworthy: more on driving in the 1930s

These days we put a destination into our satnav, drive to the garage, fill up with diesel/unleaded petrol, stock up on in-journey catering (M & S vegan Percy Pigs, HIGHLY recommended, or failing that, a couple of rolls of those chewy mints, plus a bottle of water), find Heart fm or Absolute Radio and off we go, singing happily along from one traffic jam to another until we reach our goal.

If we break down, we can, variously, call our mate Steve who has a truck, call our Mum who has a credit card, or if we are very organised, we call our breakdown service of choice, usually one of three in the UK, the first two being, the AA and the RAC, the third being Green Flag. There are no doubt others, but I think these are the most common ones.

And what else do we do? We call everyone we know – or rather text them. ‘OMG can’t believe I blew a tyre and now I’m stuck at the side of the road, LOL, face plant emoji, yawning emoji, emoji of a little car with smoke coming out of the front.’ (I made that last one up, though there may well be one of these. If there isn’t, there should be.)

It’s not a big deal. These days the majority of breakdowns and delays are relatively minor.

In the 1930s, even though people had been driving engine-propelled vehicles for pleasure and work for thirty or forty years, there was, I imagine, still an element of the unknown, of setting out a great voyage of discovery and possibly great personal risk.

So you definitely had to let people know where you were going, what time (or day!) you would be arriving, and the approximate route you were taking.

In the ’30s, there were no motorway services every five miles. Nor in fact, motorways. There was no breakdown – oh wait, what’s this? RAC and AA? In the ’30s? Wow!

I think I thought everything started in the 60s, when I myself ‘started’. So I was quite surprised when I discovered that there was already a very strong AA and RAC presence in this country in the 1930s. If I asked you who came first, which way would you jump? RAC? Or AA? I had vaguely thought it was the AA. No idea why. But I was wrong. It was the RAC. And they began an incredibly long time ago, or so it seemed to me, having been founded in 1897, with the AA not appearing until 1905. (more about that)

As for comfort breaks, well I suppose if you were caught between posh hotels or at a pinch a country pub, you’d have to wait until you were in a secluded area then nip behind an obliging bush or tree. There were campaigns for more public toilets, but these tended to be part of wider issues than merely a place to relieve yourself on a journey.

So I think as my main character Dottie pops out in the car, she will need:

a warm rug,

a map, or book of maps, because even in this day of equality, I think we all know women can’t fold maps.

a flask of tea/coffee (she likes both), maybe a bar of chocolate just in case she breaks down and has a long wait for help to arrive.

The tommy is the plain bar – who knew????

She will want a snuggly car coat, specially cut to reach to the hips, so you don’t strangle yourself when you sit on the ends of your coat…we’ve all done it.

There will no doubt be a can of spare petrol in the back of the car, if not two. And, according to the owner’s manual of the morris minor car (stating that their cars are ‘the very acme of economical motoring’.) come with a tool box under the near-side passenger seat which contains the following: a jack with folding handle, tyre pump and wheel brace, three tubular box spanners and tommy (what on earth is a tommy?), three double-ended spanners, a cold chisel (a shout-out here to the Australian band!), a half-round file with handle, 9 inch adjusting spanner, 6 inch steel punch (why????), a screwdriver, an ignition spanner, a high-pressure lubricating pump for chassis oiling system, a pair of pliers, a hammer (because if something isn’t working, you whack it with a hammer, right?), a carburetter spanner, a sparking plug box spanner, a cylinder head box spanner, a tappet spanner with feeler gauge, (thank goodness, we wouldn’t want to be without our feeler gauge), a tyre lever, and last but by no means least, an oil can.

the feeler gauge is that fan-shaped thingy

Dottie might also want a nice hat, because you need a proper travelling hat, don’t you? I notice that the early hats resembled those leather helmets World War I flying bods used to have. The main reason I want her to have a hat is to restore my own equilibrium after that bewildering range of tools in the tool box. If I had been driving in the ’30s, probably the most worrying thing for me if I broke down would be which spanner did what.

On the whole, it’s probably a good thing that driving and cars have moved on a good deal since then. I know we complain about our satnavs taking us the wrong way or leaving us in the middle of nowhere with a triumphant ‘You have reached your destination’. But it really does sound quite tricky, doesn’t it, getting from A to B with only a tommy and a feeler gauge to help you if things went wrong.

The Aussie Band, Cold Chisel


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.