It’s July 1988 and we’re standing on Platform 3 at Carlisle Railway Station. Alongside is the Kensington to Stirling InterCity service, which, as well as pulling the passenger carriages packed with happy holidaymakers heading for Scotland, is a Motorail service taking some of their cars up there too. In doing so, British Rail is letting the train take the strain for a number of lucky tourists…
The Motorail service was introduced to great fanfare in 1955, and was put in place to meet the growing demand for big family holidays. With car usage ballooning, Motorail provided the perfect opportunity to combine the two by allowing drivers to enjoy the freedoms that their cars brought while on holiday without the grind of the tough drive north on the A1 or A6 – depending on your route to Scotland.
In its early years, Motorail was infinitely preferable to driving up north, and remained successful until the mid-1970s. However, as Ian Nicholls spells out in his excellent Roads versus Rail, the arrival of the motorways from 1958/59 and improvements in vehicle technology blunted the advantage of Motorail rapidly. By the 1980s, end-to-end drives were a lot more comfortable thanks to the near-universal adoption of five-speed gearboxes and more refined drivetrains.
Throughout its life, it’s been said that Motorail was never particularly profitable, and proved a costly way to ship your car from one end of the country to the other. However, it still managed to operate between 1955 and 2005, with services mainly clustered around the West and East Coast mainlines – in the end, the motorways and five-speed gearboxes killed it. I’d love to go on one today, though.
So, tell us about the cars
Pausing in Carlisle is a nice breather for weary travellers – not from any discomfort on the train, but through craning their necks enjoying the stunning Lake District scenery as the service wends its way through Cumbria. But it’s going to get better once it gets going again, as the train travels through the Borders on its way towards Glasgow and the mountains beyond.
It’s a shame we can’t see more of the cars on this service, but there are enough on view to get a good handle on what the family man of 1988 drove. Nearest the camera is a Ford Escort Mk3 with some once-fashionable stick-on chrome on a roll embellishing its wheelarch. Ahead of that is an Austin Maxi 2, which is wearing a mis-matched pair of plastic door protectors (again, they were once a popular accessory) to protect its beige flanks.
Other cars include an almost-new Toyota Carina, a Daihatsu Charade, a Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 hatchback, a Rover SD1 Series 2 and an Austin Maestro HLE, with its highly-recognisable aerodynamic strakes plunging down its tailgate. It’s a less-than interesting collection of cars in absolute terms but, equally, it’s great to get a snapshot of what we were all driving back in the late-1980s – it was a very different landscape to what we have today.
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