The Secret History of the Motorway

The Preston Bypass

The Preston Bypass opened on 5 December 1958, making it the first motorway in Britain. This is its story...

Where do we start?

As I've mentioned, the first proposals for a north-south motorway through Lancashire were put forward in 1937, but World War II got in the way of anything concrete. The 1949 Road Plan for Lancashire then has the North-South Motorway as one of its primary "Group 1" projects, and indeed it was given Route No.1 within that report. It soon became clear that the chances of contructing the entire motorway in one go was extremely unlikely, given the post-war financial state, and so the decision was taken to construct bypasses of Preston and Lancaster first. These were the two towns where traffic congestion would be relieved most by construction of the routes.

Why Preston? It's not that large a place, after all.

I dunno - anywhere with a population of 185,000 or so is a reasonably large place!

Looking at the Road Plan, it's quite obvious why. Preston is the point where traffic from the Manchester, Liverpool, Blackburn and Cheshire (and beyond) directions all merge to head northwards into the Lake District or west towards Blackpool. Preston is the only place where any A-class road crosses the River Ribble that separates northern Lancashire from southern Lancashire, and thus all long-distance traffic on the western side of England must pass straight through the town.

I see.

Indeed. Well, in 1953, the Ministry announced that the Preston Bypass would commence in the 1956-57 financial year, and at the same time made reference to it being a "guinea-pig" for all the motorways that followed, both in standards and in construction. It was designed for a speed of 70mph, although there was no speed limit for the first few years of operation. There was, however, a disagreement between the Ministry and James Drake regarding the width of the road: the Ministry wanted two lanes in each direction, whilst Drake wanted three. Eventually, a compromise was worked out where there was two lanes provided, but the central reservation was wide enough to allow an extra lane to be provided easily. It must have looked pretty much like the section of A329(M) around the M4 junction today - with a wide central reservation and no barrier.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were only a few formal objections received against the motorway, and every single one of them was resolved - meaning that there was no need for a Public Inquiry.

As befitting its status as the first motorway, it was opened by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. A large plaque was unveiled (and still exists today) at the A59 junction - although its modern placement manages to be relatively unobtrusive! A map of the Preston Bypass in 1960 can be seen here.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. Freak wet weather conditions during construction were then followed by a strange "fast thaw" during the winter. In order to repair the damage, the entire motorway was closed temporarily, which as you can imagine, meant the press had rather a field day...

I can imagine.

The Ministry's insistence on two lanes in each direction backfired slightly when the third lane was added in the mid-1960s, though the compromise of the extra-wide central reservation meant that it was relatively painless to add - although there were no hard shoulders through bridges.

Meanwhile, the bypass was being joined to the rest of the M6, with the section to the Lancaster Bypass to the north opening in 1964, and the south coming first in 1963. Finally, the space set aside for an extension to the west and Blackpool opened as M55 in 1975 - at which point the most northern section of the original bypass was renumbered as M55 to match. A map of the Preston Bypass in 1970 can be seen here.

In the mid-1980s, the Bypass was again overloaded, and a study showed that the Bypass should be widened once again, this time to four lanes in each direction between the M61 and M55 junctions. As part of the work, the entire carrageway was reconstructed, and in some cases moved slightly off the original route. All the bridges over the motorway were removed, and so today's Preston Bypass is almost completely different to the original - with only some small areas being original to the road, and ironically enough, the most obvious is no longer on the M6, but on the M55 section...

M1, M10 and M45 >>

The Secret History of the Motorway



Early Struggles

Indifference to Acceptance

The Tide Turns

The Special Roads Act

The Preston Bypass

The M1, M10 and M45

The Motorway Age

Plans, Big Plans

Low Priority

Last Hurrah

Much Ado About Nothing Much

What of the Future?




Maps and Plans


Further Reading


See Also:

50 years of Motorways