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This week marks 57 years since the M1 – the backbone of the UK motor network – was first built. In the same year that Mattel’s Barbie Doll hit toy shelves and Fidel Castro became prime minister of Cuba, the greatest single road project ever attempted in Britain began.
Today, the 193 mile road allows drivers to travel from London to Leeds in just over 3 and half hours. A trip that, back in 1945, would have taken more than 7 hours and cost three times as much, as you can see from the Co-operative Insurance’s ‘Maps Time Travel’ tool.
Who thought of building the M1?
While the M1 was not, in fact, the first section of motorway to be built in the UK – the Preston bypass (1958) holds that mantle – Lord Montague planned to build something very similar in 1923. He pre-empted that a longer road connecting the north to the south would be required to support future vehicles that had more than four wheels. This would also allow cars, he thought, to carry more than the legal limit of three trailers – a revolution for the construction sector.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 26 years later, when the Special Roads Act 1949 was introduced, that the country’s first motorways were permitted. The parlous state of the UK economy was also partly to blame for this delay.
How long did the first phase take?
In the same year that Harold Macmillan won a general election – with the road adding to his cause – construction began on the M1’s initial phase. In 1959, the first piece of the motorway was built between junction 5 (near Watford) and 18 (near Crick), and was initially recognised as a London-to-Birmingham motorway.
The first part of the M1 was opened on 2nd November 1959 by the minister of transport, Ernest Marples, and was met with jubilation from the British public. Many were thrilled at the chance to drive at unrestricted speeds and reach destinations in record time: it was a real revolution in travel. However, with no central reservation, crash barriers, lighting or speed limits, it’s likely that the early M1 heavily contributed to the 6,520 fatalities that were recorded that year.
How did the M1 progress?
Six years after the M1 connected Berrygrove (junction 5) to Crick (junction 18), construction workers spent three more years (1965-1968) extending the road to Leeds in the north and London in the south.
From 1977 to 1999, further changes took place. A connection between Brent Cross and Page Street was created, while the M1 section north of the M62 underwent major reconstruction, linking Leeds to Hook Moor.
In 2013, work to update Catthorpe Interchange at junction 19 began, while there are proposed plans to widen the M1 to a dual 4-lane or dual 5-lane motorway between junctions 21 and 21a in 2017/2018.