Preston Bypass

Britain's first motorway, the Preston Bypass, turned 50 years old on 5 December 2008. Today, it's part of the M6 and M55, just another link in the motorway system joining England to Scotland and connecting the various parts of Lancashire.

The story of how it came to be built, how we ended up with the concept of motorways as we know them, and why Preston was the first, is a fascinating one. Equally interesting is the immediate change that it, and the other very early motorways, had on the country in the years that followed. Nobody knew how drivers would behave on this new road specially designed for speed and ease of movement, and nobody could have predicted its incredible popularity.

So, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the first motorway, here is the story of the Preston Bypass.

Celebrating 50 years of motorways


The Preston Bypass today
The Preston Bypass today

On a bright and clear morning in December 1958, a crowd of dignitaries, civil servants, engineers, workmen and journalists gathered at a small podium in a muddy field. After the usual speeches, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan set off at the head of a motorcade to inspect Britain's first motorway.

Today, Mr Macmillan would struggle to recognise the road he opened. Its paved width has more than doubled, with eight thundering lanes of traffic moving at speeds and in numbers that were unimaginable in the fifties. The Bypass itself is no longer an isolated section of road, and instead forms just another part of the long blue-sign slog through Lancashire.

The road bed itself and virtually all the structures over and under it have been reconstructed - in fact, apart from its location, there is little of the original Bypass left to see, and even there, parts of the current route are off the line of the original.

But then it was always meant to be the "guinea-pig motorway", and nobody at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation thought that they would get it right the first time. It wasn't for lack of trying.

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  • Delegation to visit German Autobahn network, 1937: National Archives file MT 39/96.
  • Plans for a national motorway network produced in 1942; suggestions for motorways to be included in initial programme: National Archives file MT 39/657.
  • Special Roads Act 1949; legislative and political processes leading up to it: National Archives file T 228/219.
  • Drake's 1950s campaign for the Preston Bypass to be built; colour engineering drawings of proposed road: National Archives file MT 117/21.
  • Proposals for tolling M6 through Lancashire and number of entry points: National Archives file MT 117/35.
  • Inauguration and opening ceremonies; Motorway Code: National Archives file MT 121/22.
  • Widening and reconstruction of hard shoulders during the 1960s: National Archives file MT 121/40.
  • Construction progress and controversy: various articles in The Times from 1956 to 1959.
  • Opening ceremony and description of the road as built: Manchester Guardian 5 December 1958.
  • Overview of the whole subject and serious historical and engineering detail: the Motorway Archive Trust; G Charlesworth's A History of British Motorways; and Drake, Yeadon & Evans' Motorways.

Picture credits


Special thanks must go to Peter Hewitt for his invaluable assistance and suggestions.

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Published6 December 2008

Last updated25 August 2018