Almost as soon as motor cars first hit Britain's dusty and badly-maintained roads, there were calls from more excitable drivers to have roads built exclusively for their use. Similar stories emerged across Europe and North America: plans for new roads, usually described in railway terminology for want of any specialised terms for controlled-access highways. In Britain there were calls in 1906 for a new road from London to Brighton, which was to have multiple "tracks" for vehicles to pass each other. The same idea came back in 1927 (a model of which is shown left; click to enlarge), along with the Northern and Western Motor-way in 1923. All were rejected out of hand by the Government despite gathering interest from professionals.
The first real interest from those in power came in 1937, when the Ministry of Transport authorised a number of its officials, and representatives from various local authorities, to join members of the AA, RAC and British Road Federation on an eight-day tour of Germany. It was the first indication that the Ministry was warming to the idea of fast roads exclusively for motor traffic. Having already begun to plan a trip as a joint effort between the three groups, Dr. Todt, the General Inspector of German Highways, extended an official invitation for a party of 200 people to inspect the sparkling new Autobahn network. His invitation was gratefully accepted.
Between September 25th and October 3rd 1937, the visitors took in 545 miles of Autobahn, plus substantial lengths of National Highway, railway rides, lake crossings by steamer and many banquets with officials of the Third Reich. Among those taking in the sights was the Surveyor to Blackpool Borough Council, a man called James Drake.
At the time, the idea of the motorway had been developed by Germany, Italy and the US, each taking it in their own direction. In Italy, the roads were strictly limited to motor traffic, but physically were often of a very crude design. In America, the new freeways were progressing highway design rapidly but had an unsophisticated legal framework behind them. The German Autobahn was the closest match to Britain's first motorway, but even then, it was recognised that some things would have to change.
The Committee's first report explained the Autobahn concept:
"The new motorways are available to all motor vehicles without payment of tolls, but unlike existing arterial roads in Great Britain no other traffic is allowed upon them. The exclusion of pedestrians, pedal cyclists, and animals, is a distinctive feature of the system...
"In the course of our tour we travelled over numerous bridges and viaducts exceeding 1,000 feet in length and 130 feet in height, and we saw many embankments 25 feet high. In this respect the motorways resemble in their plan the highest class of main line railway engineering, differing only in having a steeper gradient well within the capacity of the modern motor vehicle."
There was no doubt that the Autobahn was a bold and impressive way of solving traffic and unemployment problems. In Britain, the committee noted, the traffic situation was even more acute: here there were 15.5 vehicles for every mile of public road, while in Germany there were only 9.3 vehicles per mile. The financial case was equally clear. On the other hand, they warned that "Great Britain is already much better provided with ordinary roads than Germany, and this in itself makes our problem vastly different... and in many respects much more difficult".
All the same, their minds were set. The various members of the group went away and began making the advantages of the motorway known. It's no coincidence, for example, that in the following year the County Surveyors' Society published a proposal for a thousand-mile motorway network across Britain. The Ministry of Transport started thinking seriously, for the first time, about the benefits of a network of faster roads between towns and cities. And James Drake went back to Blackpool Borough Council and made plans for a new ring road that he hoped would be the very first British motorway.
The German visit was enough to finally convince the Ministry of Transport to take some action, and in 1938 Leslie Hore-Belisha, Minister of Transport, attempted to answer the pro-road lobby's protests by approving the construction of a north-south motorway through Lancashire, from Warrington in the south to Carnforth in the north.
With that, the pace was gathering - and even the Second World War could only delay it temporarily.