The lane changers The M1 motorway revolutionised British motoring and the likes of Austin-Healey, Jaguar and Ford were quick to capitalize. Words Andrew Roberts. Photography James Mann.
When the first stretch of the M1 motorway was opened on 2 November 1959, the British government proclaimed that: ‘The size of the road itself so far transcends the accustomed scale as to dwarf nature itself.’ To a motorist previously hemmed in by various 30mph zones, the idea of a road from Watford to Crick devoid of a speed limit appeared little short of miraculous. Two new cars of 1959, the Austin-Healey 3000 and the Jaguar Mk2 3.8, were perfectly suited to the realm of the M1, even if this duo has been gonged by the oldest-surviving motorway patrol car in Britain. As to their offence, it is probably simply driving in a caddish manner – or frightening Hillman Husky owners.
The Healey was associated with the earliest days of the M1 because a chap from The Daily Herald employed one for his report and supposedly clocked 130mph. BMC had launched the 3000 in July of that year, available as either the two-seater BN7 or the 2+2 BT7. A mere 2825 examples of the former were built before the introduction of the MkII in early 1961. Steve Everest’s immaculate Steel Blue over Old English White example here is one of 157 homemarket, right-hand-drive BN7s. “I’ve owned it for 17 years,” he says. “The bodywork had been done when I bought it, but I worked on the engine and transmission with specialists.”
‘The patrol fleet captured the imagination of the public to the extent that Corgi issued a diecast model of the Farnham Estate’
The 3000 furthered a seven-year tradition of Austin-Healey since the 100’s 1952 launch, and Everest believes that, compared to the outgoing 100/6: “The 3000 offered a little bit more power and driveability and those front disc brakes.” The 2912cc powerplant was a major talking point, and Everest’s car gained a performance cam when the engine was rebuilt. “In its day the Healey would have been on crossply tyres,” he continues, “but on the recommendation of various specialists I now use radials. One detail of the right-hand-drive models is the slightly odd position of the gearlever, which is a result of its Austin A90 Atlantic gearbox.”
Standard fittings did not extend to such frivolities as winding windows; the average owner would have been unlikely to have been interested in creature comforts.
As Everest points out: “The hood is basically ‘here is some canvas, here is a frame’. But at least the 3000 has exterior doorhandles, and my car was specified with a heater. The 3000 can feel very heavy around town because of the Cooper cam-and-peg steering, but on the open road the Austin-Healey is magnificent. The optional Laycock de Normanville overdrive is almost essential for motorways because it drops the revs and makes it far more comfortable.”
The ‘Big Healey’ carved its own niche in the British sports car market, and part of its appeal is that it is a car in which a flying jacket is almost required wearing. Sixty years ago, there can have been few more thrilling experiences than achieving 0-100mph in 31 secs with the roof down.
Meanwhile, for those in need of a saloon that was as suited to the directors’ car park as it was to a 125mph dash to Towcester Racecourse, there could be only one choice of new car: the Jaguar Mk2 3.8. The Mk2 has been a cornerstone of the classic car world for so many years that it is a pleasure to revel in its sheer presence. “It’s a 360º car,” says Trevor Aitken, owner of ‘our’ 1964 Opalescent Dark Green example. “You can look at it from any angle and it is always beautiful. One of the aspects of the Mk2 that most appeals to me is the shape and that purity of line.”
The history of ‘Project Utah’ is almost as well-known as the car itself. Browns Lane commenced work on a successor to its 2.4 and 3.4 saloons in 1958, modernising the cabin, vastly increasing the glass area and widening the track. To compensate for the revised car’s extra weight, the Mk2 was offered with a 3781cc version of the famous XK straight-six engine. It made its debut on 2 October 1959 and, in the words of Motor Sport: ‘Such a car is virtually sans rivals.’ Certainly there was no equivalent Rover; BMC never developed a Riley or MG-badged competitor; and the Rootes Group offered no real heir to the Sunbeam MkIII.
Aitken had craved a Mk2 since he was 16, and finally acquired his 3.8 in 1989. Jaguar’s Malcolm Williams undertook intensive chassis repairs and John Wilding rebuilt the engine. The car went into storage in 1994 and in 2015 was taken to Dovedale Garage for refurbishment. After two years’ work, the Jaguar looked fit to grace any West End showroom: “It was everything I had dreamed of and more.”
Aitken’s car lacks the optional power-assisted steering and, although urban driving can be challenging, that does have its benefits. “It feels more solid when you are travelling at M1 speeds,” he says. “The manual steering feels tighter and allows you to more effectively hold your line. Once on the move, the handling is absolutely fantastic – and that small badge on the rear bumper told everyone that all-round discs meant it would stop rapidly, too!”
The 3.8 came with a limited-slip differential, and Aitken’s Mk2 is one of the last examples fitted from new with a Moss gearbox. “It had a full-synchro ’box when I bought it,” he explains. “But when I entered the car into a concours I was told that I had to return to the original set-up. It is not as easy to use but it is authentic.”
The manual ’box enhances the 3.8’s ability to rapidly depart from the lights or – as clichés dictate – a bank somewhere in Ladbroke Grove, and like the Healey the Jaguar is equipped with overdrive. All the while is the musical accompaniment of the XK motor and that transmission whine. “I was told that if it isn’t making that noise, it isn’t working properly,” laughs Aitken.
And finally, to the M1 itself and the cars tasked with maintaining law and order. The Preston Bypass, opened on 5 December 1958, was the country’s first motorway, and the next development was to create a network of speed-limit-free highways that would radiate from the capital.
By the early part of the following year Laing Construction was obliged to issue a warning of the perils of using the works as a racing circuit. Once the new 72-mile high-speed route was opened, police officers were kept busy dealing with vehicles that were simply too venerable for even a rural lane – the first MoT test would not take place until 1960. On one occasion, Bedfordshire Constabulary was confronted with a car that had shed its entire engine on to the Tarmac.
People would reverse or even walk along the M1, ignoring the advice of the series of inadvertently hilarious safety films narrated by Jack Warner. A bounder in a Ford Zodiac attempting a U-turn highlighted the lack of a central barrier, as well as displaying some excellent B-feature melodramatics. However, as Joe Moran notes in his indispensable On Roads: A Hidden History, the police were the worst offenders – civilians were often simply copying their example.
The police forces of counties traversed by the M1 employed fleets of Ford Zephyr MkII Farnham Estates, among other cars, and Ford counts this 1961 Hertfordshire Constabulary car among its heritage fleet. The ‘Three Graces’ – MkII Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac – took a bow in 1956 and the Zephyr was a popular choice of police vehicle by the end of the decade. The estate-car conversion, undertaken by ED Abbott of Farnham, provided enough space for any amount of equipment, such as a puncture-repair kit, 12 cones, a tow chain, red-domed battery lamps, a first-aid kit, orange waistcoats, a broom, shovel, fire extinguisher, warning signs and a spare tin of petrol. The last-named was for the many who did not appreciate the effect of continuous high speeds on fuel consumption.
The Zephyrs were in continuous use on the M1, and errant motorists would sometimes be startled to receive a booming rebuke from the loudhailer. The two-way radio frequently encountered blank spots, and a fully laden boot made exceeding 70mph difficult. The Farnham’s rear end was prone to breaking away on wet surfaces, due to the combination of the extra weight over the axle and the crossply tyres, while the inefficient vacuum wipers were anachronistic.
To most Britons, however, the Farnhams were an exciting, almost quasi-American presence. A white-liveried police car was unusual for the period, and the colour scheme was chosen to increase the Zephyr’s role as a highly visible deterrent. The patrol fleet captured the imagination of the public to the extent that Corgi issued a diecast model of the Zephyr Farnham, while one newspaper report compared them to the cars in the American television series Highway Patrol. To see the blue lamp flashing in the rear-view mirror would be to imagine that you were travelling along the Interstate 5.
This particular example also illustrates the dangers faced by police crews because it suffered major accident damage while in service. In 2005 the Zephyr was donated to Ford Heritage by the Hertfordshire Historical Society and its restoration was undertaken in collaboration with the apprentices from a local college. It serves as a testament to the officers who served in the M1’s early days, dealing with RTAs, misguided hitchhikers, no overhead lighting or fog warnings, and a hard shoulder so narrow that a stricken lorry would protrude into the carriageway.
The Ministry of Transport established a temporary speed limit of 70mph on 22 December 1965, which became permanent in 1967 – the year that both the Mk2 and Healey ceased production. Bringing them together at Ford’s Dunton Technical Centre recaptures the excitement of the early days of the M1, from the sounds of six-cylinder engines at full chat to the expanses of roadway that would have seemed utterly alien 60 years ago. As The Observer’s Tony Brooks wrote: ‘This broad six-lane throughway, divorced from the countryside, divorced from the towns and villages, kills the image of a tight little island full of hamlets and pubs.’
Today, the idea of London Transport arranging buses to the M1 for tourists seems faintly bizarre, but in 1959 even those Calvert and Kinneir blue road signs appeared to anticipate another country. ‘The arrival of the motorways transformed the roads into a place of pure mobility,’ wrote Moran, while others gloomily regarded them as further examples of how the quaint and the eccentric were slowly giving way to the planned and the rational. In reality, the Britain of steam engines and James Robertson Justice films would co-exist with shopping precincts and concrete office blocks for years. The Austin-Healey and the Jaguar reflect this sense of transition; their designs harked back to the early 1950s and certain aspects of their details, such as the starter buttons, appeared almost vintage by the late 1960s.
Yet these were cars that belonged on the M1, for the 3000 and the Mk2 are not just cars of utter magnificence, they are examples of how automotive tradition could seamlessly adapt to the challenges of a new age. The approach of a police Zephyr Farnham in your mirror, meanwhile, reinforced the impression that you were piloting your secondhand E-series Vauxhall Wyvern into the future.
Thanks to Trevor Aitken; Steve Everest; Dan Alcock at Ford Heritage; the Austin Healey Club (www.austinhealeyclub.com); The Mk1 & 2 Register of the Jaguar Drivers’ Club (www.jaguardriver.co.uk)
FORD ZEPHYR MkII ESTATE
Sold/no built 1956-’1962/5643
Construction steel monocoque
Engine all-iron, ohv 2553cc ‘six’, single Zenith carb;
Max power 85bhp @ 4440rpm
Max torque 133lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission three-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
Steering recirculating ball
Brakes hydraulic drums (optional discs/drums with servo from 1960)
Length 15ft ½ in (4585mm)
Width 5ft 7in (1702mm)
Height 5ft 1 7/8 in (1572mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2641mm)
Weight 2838lb (1287kg)
0-60mph 18.7 secs
Top speed 88mph
Price new £1010
Clockwise from top: Zephyr proved a popular traffic car; Minister of Transport Ernest Marples orders the opening of the M1 via a Zephyr’s radio telephone; 85bhp ‘six’; American-inspired interior
JAGUAR Mk 2 3.8
Sold/no built 1959-’1967/30,141
Construction steel monococque
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3781cc ‘six’, twin SU HD6 carbs;
Max power 220bhp @ 5500rpm;
Max torque 162lb ft @ 2700rpm
Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD Suspension: front independent by semi-trailing wishbones, coils rear live axle, trailing links, quarter-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms; telescopic dampers f/r
Steering Burman recirculating ball
Brakes discs, with servo
Length 15ft ¾ in (4591mm)
Width 5ft 6 ¾ in (1695mm)
Height 4ft 8 ½ in (1432mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 11 3/8 in (2717mm)
Weight 3192lb (1448kg)
0-60mph 8.5 secs
Top speed 125mph
Price new £1779 (‘1959)
Clockwise from main: Mk2 is pretty from every angle, reckons owner Aitken; the 3.8 was for ‘those who require the utmost in performance’; engine was bored out to 87mm; green leather matches exterior
‘The manual ’box enhances the 3.8’s ability to rapidly depart from the lights or, as clichés dictate, a bank somewhere in Ladbroke Grove’
AUSTIN-HEALEY 3000 MkI
Sold/no built 1959-’1961/2825 (BN7)
Construction steel box-section chassis, steel and aluminium body
Engine all-iron, ohv 2912cc ‘six’, twin SU HD8 carbs;
Max power 124bhp @ 4600rpm
Max torque 162lb ft @ 2700rpm
Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD
Suspension: front independent by wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar rear live axle, radius arms, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod; lever-arm dampers f/r
Steering cam and peg
Length 13ft 1 ½ in (4001mm)
Width 5ft ½ in (1537mm)
Height 4ft 1in (1245mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 8in (2337mm)
Weight 2520lb (1143kg)
0-60mph 11.4 secs
Top speed 114mph
Price new £1168
Clockwise from top: the archetypal Austin- Healey colour scheme; 100/6’s standard ‘crinkle’ front grille was carried over; 29D engine replaced the 26D; signature piping of simple interior