History : Trains and Cars – Part One

This is the first in an occasional series featuring two rival forms of transport co-existing with each other.

Ian Nicholls is your guide.

We begin with an image of 46137 The Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs) hauling an up express, which is railway parlance for south bound to London, alongside the M1 near Weedon in Northamptonshire in 1960. The West Coast Mainline from a place called Sunny Meadow farm to the Watford Gap services travels alongside the M1, or should that be the other way round?

Although this series is entitled ‘Trains and Cars’, in this case there are precious few cars to be seen, and none of them are identifiable. Quite simply, many cars in 1960 were not fit for long distance travel.

Many cars were equipped with side valve engines, with resulting low compression ratio and an inability attain the high revs for a sustained cruising speed. The side valve 918cc engine used in the original 1948-53 Morris Minor achieved its maximum output of 27bhp at 4400rpm.

Not built for the motorway

Cooling on cars was often marginal. Radiators that coped with local travel were often poorly maintained and not up to the job of being pushed to the max. And even those with the new-fangled overhead valve engine were hardly highway stars. The Austin A30 had a top speed of around 62mph, while the later A35 could manage 72mph.

The first A-Series engined Morris Minor was good for 62mph while the later 948cc variant could attain 73mph. Even the original Mini 850 of 1959 vintage was only capable of reaching 72mph.

Move forward a couple of years and the introduction of the Morris 1100 brought more power to the ordinary man or woman, but this car could only reach 78mph. The rival Ford Cortina 1200 was only good for 75mph. Unless one was affluent enough to afford a larger engined car that had the grunt to pull higher gearing, the ordinary motorist was left with a buzz box screaming away at high revs, pushing the envelope of reliability of the automotive technology of the day.

When the 70mph limit’s more than enough

When Transport Minister Tom Fraser introduced the 70mph speed limit in 1965, many cars were simply not capable of exceeding such a speed for a sustained period anyway. This was an era when cars were more often or not bought for personal mobility in a small locality, not for cross-country expeditions to far off places.

Simply put, fast cars were for the affluent, and in 1960 they were few and far between. If the mainstream cars of 1960 were underwhelming, the same cannot be said for the locomotive.

The 46137 The Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs) was a member of the London Midland and Scottish Railways Royal Scot class, and in its rebuilt form seen here in 1960, was as perhaps as good as a steam locomotive got. The Royal Scot class, named after the first in the batch, was a series of 50 express passenger locomotives built for the LMS by the North British Locomotive Company of Glasgow.

The decline of a railway engine builder

North British was at one stage the largest locomotive manufacturing company in Europe and the British Empire. Sadly, North British failed to make the transition to diesel power successfully and the company went into liquidation in 1962.

The 6137 Vesta was built by North British in October 1927, being renamed as The Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs) in May 1936. By this time the LMS had head hunted William Stanier from the Great Western Railway to be its new Chief Mechanical Engineer, and he brought with him some new ideas, including the use of more efficient tapered boilers.

From 1943 the Royal Scot class were progressively rebuilt with new tapered boilers, transforming their performance. Nationalisation in 1948 saw the LMS become the London Midland Region of British Railways, while The Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs was renumbered 46137.

Sometimes older is better…

During 1948 British Railways conducted inter-regional locomotive exchanges to evaluate its fleet, and the rebuilt Royal Scots embarrassed larger and supposedly more powerful locomotives.

The 46137 The Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs) was the last of its class to be rebuilt in March 1955 and was withdrawn in October 1962 and sadly scrapped.

To complement the 1960 image, we have one from 2005, taken near Daventry, although the bridge over the M1 looks similar to that in 1960. The M1 now looks distinctly busier, crowded with 16-valve cars. If you had 16 valves on your car back in 1960, four of them were probably in the radio!

Ian Nicholls
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)


  1. Thank you for this.

    I think an article looking at the opening of the M1 and its relationship with the West Coast Main Line could be made regarding the Midland Red Express Coach Service that was introduced with the opening of the M1.

    Good for 80 mph on the flat these supercharged coaches, with Dunlop rubber suspension and disc brakes were timetabled only marginally slower than the Diesel Class 44 express service from Birmingham and Coventry to London (when the M5 opened the Midland Red express service was significantly quicker than the BR’s Birmingham Worcester express service) and left the remaining steam services for dead. M1 folklore has it that with an favorable wind and gradient the Midland Red drivers would raise a cheer from their passengers by easing away from an express train and or topping 100mph.

  2. Yet the end of steam on passenger services was nigh in 1960 and electrification was to start shortly on the WCML. By 1966, steam had gone and the new 100 mph expresses that replaced steam and the early diesels slashed journey times. Also while cars were becoming faster all the time, the numbers were rising rapidly and roads were becoming congested. Given the choice between a 2.5 hour train journey from Manchester to London in 1966, or a car journey that still included A roads in places, the train would win.

  3. When the first motorway opened, the police reported that motorists tootled along it at 40 MPH, which I think is interesting – it wasn’t seen as a fast road, particularly.

    I also recall seeing a letter in a motoring magazine from around the time that the Mini was launched; the author questioned why anyone would want a car which could tear along at 70 MPH and thought that BMC would be better off keeping the A35 in production and developing it.

    • One of the reasons put forth why British cars developed a poor reputation in the USA was that they were not well adapted to sustained high speed cruising. The roads and distances really were different and an under square small displacement engine would definitely take a lot of punishment in such situations.

  4. @ Charles, there were even cases in the early days of the M1 of families pulling up on the hard shoulder and having a picnic on the grass verge. However, the police soon put a stop to this very dangerous pastime, as well as urging people driving like they were on a country lane to speed up. Problem was, in 1960, there were still some pre war cars around where anything faster than 50 mph could destroy the engine.
    I think the rise of the motorways and improvements to car technology in the sixties saw new cars develop that were more suited to the motorway age, even if the 70 mph limit stopped a lot of testing of sports cars and racing on motorways. By 1969 you could buy a Cortina 1600E, whose top speed was 100 mph, compared with 76 mph for the 1962 Cortina, and most family cars could reach at least 90 mph, making motorway journeys far less stressful and kinder to car engines.

    • I think if you cruised at anything like 100mph in a MK2 Cortina of any type on a longish journey you’d be fit for nothing by the time you got there!

  5. In the West Midlands he WCML runs almost parallel with both the M6 & the Trent & Mersey canal for a distance, which I always thought was fitting.

    I’ve heard of older cars struggling to cope with higher speeds, often overheating or even failing totally.

    According to my Dad lorry drivers preferred the A5 for many years as most lorries around at the time were better suited to the driving conditions, & the established transport cafes were more frequent than the early motorway services.

    As well as being useful for taking breaks, many transport cafes allowed drivers to easily swap lorries with other drivers working for the same company to allow a quick return working.

  6. From Roman times the Trent Valley through the Watford gap has been the obvious North/South route – The Grand Union Canal in the 18th Century, the London and North Western Railway now forming part of the WCML in the 19th Century and the M1 in the mid 20th Century. Why in the name of all that’s holy then did HS2 go through Ancient woodlands and prime residential land in rural Buckinghamshire? I’m sure the project would have been better received and not ended up in severe financial distress if it had mirrored these existing and well established transport corridors.

  7. The WCML mostly follows the course of the A74(M)/ M74 in southern Scotland as the terrain was too severe to build the road and the railway anywhere else. It’s interesting to see the lorries more or less in convoy on the rise to Beattock summit, while the train is speeding past at double the speed. Even in summer, with the motorway and railway line above 1000 feet, the weather can be nasty with frequent downpours and thunderstorms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.