On the Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend David Williams compares life on the roads in 1952 with today.
It’s June 1952 and – being an average kind of chap – you’re bursting with pride as you drive your shiny black Austin A40 complete with column gearshift, independent front suspension and a bench front seat.
Everyone else is talking about the sudden death of George VI and the accession to the throne of his daughter, 25-year-old Elizabeth. They say she seems too young for such a burden; how are they to know that she will, 60 years on – a grandmother and Britain’s second-longest reigning monarch – again be the topic of conversation as her Diamond Jubilee is celebrated across Britain?
But as you drive to newly opened Palace House in Beaulieu, Hampshire, where Lord Montagu has just wheeled a collection of five veteran cars into the entrance hall (making it the forerunner to the National Motor Museum), you’re more interested in the whirr of the four-speed gearbox (with synchromesh on second, third and fourth) and the thrum of the 1,200cc four-cylinder engine powering your upmarket Somerset version of the A40. You considered the Morris Minor but the A40 is the top-selling car of 1952 and popular opinion can’t be wrong, can it?
The A40 cost you £727 (about £16,500 at 2012 values) compared with £631 for the four-door Morris Minor. It’s a vast amount considering that the average national wage is still just £8,415 a year (2012 values) for an average working week of 38.8 hours, (compared with the average £24,000 you could be earning six decades on for an average working week of 31.8 hours).
You’re convinced the cost was worth it, despite the AA’s 1952 Schedule of Running Costs showing that the Austin costs about 98 pence a mile to run, compared with the 45.8ppm you’ll pay for a similar car six decades on. Anyway, the top speed is a heady 70mph and she races to 60mph in a startling 31.6sec. So hold on tight and be thankful for those sturdy drum brakes all round.
Although Britain’s road network has expanded to about 185,000 miles (compared with 246,000 in 2012) there are still no motorways (the first, the Preston Bypass, won’t appear until 1958), so the Austin’s turn of speed is entirely adequate.
If she is still running in 60 years, there will be more than 2,200 miles of motorway to contend with and she’ll feel a little slow compared with the top-selling car in the Diamond Jubilee year; the Ford Fiesta, capable of 104mph and priced from £9,795. That’s inflation for you.
Congestion, however, hasn’t yet reached the levels that make Diamond Jubilee revellers wince.
With only five million vehicles on the road in 1952 compared with 34.2 million in 2012, traffic jams won’t bother you. Neither will speed cameras; they won’t be introduced until 1992 and you won’t see a roadside breathalyser for another 16 years, or the birth of the annual MoT roadworthiness test for another eight.
Petrol is hardly a concern at just 51p a gallon compared with the shocking £6.29 a gallon and more motorists will be paying in 60 years’ time. There’s certainly no trouble finding a forecourt. The golden motoring age of 1967 – when there will be 39,958 filling stations – is some way off but there are already 34,000, making 141 cars for each garage. When hunting for fuel in 2012 you’ll find there are about 8,500 forecourts, with 3,952 vehicles competing for each one.
But it’s not all rosy back in June ’52, as the court of Queen Elizabeth begins the mammoth job of planning her coronation, which will take place in a year’s time, after a suitable period of mourning for the late King.
You only have skinny cross-ply tyres keeping you on the road as you head down to Hampshire and if you do skid off, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your A40 to keep you out of trouble. It has few safety features, no seat belts and the very notion of ABS sounds like science fiction.
By contrast, the Fiesta in 2012 will have grippy tyres, anti-lock and emergency-assist braking, a traction control system, crumple zones and airbags. No wonder the number of road deaths falls, although total casualty rates remain at a remarkably similar level.