Blog : Pathetic motorways?

M45 motorway

I revisited an old friend this morning, and it was like I was never away. If you’ve not heard of Pathetic Motorways, then I genuinely recommend paying a visit. I’ve been an irregular visitor since I stumbled across the website in 2006 – and, even after all this time, it holds my interest.

I remember reading a single comment about the site that went, ‘this site kept me up far too late the other night,’ and couldn’t agree more. The premise of the site? To celebrate the shorter, lesser known, abandoned and never-built motorways that cross our land. The thinking behind motorways such as the A308(M), M898 and A6144(M) are recalled with obvious relish.

Being into cars doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be into roads (and vice versa I guess), but I have to admit to having a fascination with the development of our transport network. The way that new routes are opened, thus making the existing byways redundant – and how once busy roads become almost abandoned, leaving remnants of a bygone age, almost untouched for years to come.

Lost hopes and dreams

Motorway building programmes also reflect the hopes and ambitions of planners from a previous era – and, sometimes, they reveal just how development doesn’t often go the way they were expecting. Look at the M18 and M180 in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to see what I mean… three-lane highways that serve areas which were ripe for expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, but which somehow never reached fruition.

Abandoned projects can also show just how the planners were correct in how road use would expand – motorways that stretched from Manchester to Sheffield, or Stoke-on-Trent to Nottingham would have alleviated years of frustration in these regions, but which never happened because of the financial morass in which our country found itself during the 1970s.

Enjoying the M45 motorway

My favourite ‘road to nowhere’ has to be the the M45. Peel off the M1 (northbound) near Watford Gap services for a wonderful time travel experience. It’s possible to drive up this eight-mile stretch of motorway and not see another car, thus experiencing first hand what it must have been like at the very dawn of the motorway era.

Okay, so if you were able to get out and about on the roads in April and May 2020, all motorways will have felt like that, thanks to the first lockdown, which pretty much swept all the traffic off the roads. But not many of us were able to experience that. A trip on the M45 will give you that experience at any time.

Built in 1959, this two-lane section of motorway leaves the M1, and basically stops at a large roundabout near Dunchurch on the outskirts of Coventry. It was built as a spur to Coventry, but soon fell out of favour when the M6 was built a few years later. Since then, it has remained almost untouched – a monument to a planning U-turn that saw the transport emphasis move to Northern Coventry.

A real trip into the past

Whatever the reasons for the abandonment of the M45, it really does allow us to experience what motorway travel was like in the 1960s – and that makes it an evocative diversion from the M1 for anyone – like me – who enjoys experiencing interesting roads.

The flyovers are the standard concrete design that fell out of favour shortly after this motorway was built (and many have since been removed from the M1), and there’s an almost complete lack of signposting (a blight on the modern landscape if you ask me). Okay, so most petrolheads might wonder why on earth this 15-minute trip can hold any fascination (it’s straight and almost deserted), but for those who hanker after a simpler era of motorway travel, this will be a magical mystery tour.

Just like the Pathetic Motorways website, I suspect…

Keith Adams

25 Comments

  1. You are so right about the M45. I use it once a year to get to the SMMT Test Day at Millbrook off of the M1 and it is always soooooo quiet. Eastbound at stupid o’clock it is eerily quiet until you join the maelstrom of southbound M1 and stop-start your way to the Bedfordshire exit. Return, in the afternoon is the same – packed M1 till you peel off and enjoy miles of almost deserted M45 till you reach the much busier A45. A rare return to the ‘good old days’. Bliss.

  2. Excellent! Thanks, will take a deep dive. Great to looks too incomplete dreams of the future that never came to be.

  3. Graeme – time to retell my only M45 experience:

    I recall around 1975 driving a hired Range Rover from London to near Warwick, early on a Friday evening. The MD of a company associated with the one I worked for was going up to Scotland for a touring holiday with his family, and he wanted a vehicle that would hold all the clutter they were taking with them. They must have thought Scotland was devoid of shops.

    I picked the car up about 5 pm from the car rental branch in the Marylebone Road area of London and made for the Edgware Road, Staples Corner and the M1. At that time of a Friday, it was bumper to bumper, with the M1 almost just as congested. But, with the elevated driving position and the close to light van size of the Range Rover (I’d been used to driving vans and lorries) and its power, I felt I was king of the road. From memory, it was an automatic.

    Traffic was heavy all the way up the M1, and then I turned off onto the M45. I found in front of me an almost empty motorway, and the desire to see what the Range Rover would do. The needle was over a 100 when I saw the “End of Motorway” notice, and then a roundabout sign. Yes, I did get round the roundabout, and deliver the vehicle to the MD at his country house, catching a train back to London.

    The Dunchurch roundabout was close to having me ‘dun’.

    As for today’s mendaciously named ‘smart’ motorways, the word is close to being a synonym for ‘lethal’.

    • I once met a chap (in a rather nice hotel in Amulree, which was off the beaten track – so only those in the know would stay there) who claimed to be Prince Philip’s chauffeur. I had my doubts, because he was driving an Austin 1300 with a roof rack, but he had a certain natural modesty which encouraged me to believe his tales. For example, that he came to a halt in a traffic jam on a snowy motorway; but could see traffic flowing freely on a parallel A road. As he was driving a Range Rover (and no doubt having confidence in his connections in the corridors of power), he drove off the motorway, across a field, and continued on the A road. Simples.

  4. The M45 was part of a project in the late 1950’s which imagined the west Midlands as the industrial hub of the UK and thus Europe, a bold vision (what/who happened?). It comprised the M45 from the M1 to Coventry (whose by-pass was built as part of this project) and would sweep past Sutton and on to a heavily widened A5 to become the M54 at the M6 junction. The project was abandoned allegedly due to lack of funds (does that seem familiar?) and the M6 became the single route. Possibly the Coventry project got canned as this motorway would have run very close to the politically influential Solihull and Sutton Coldfield. Malcolm comment?

    I have fond (?) memories of driving prototype Regal VI chassis from Southall to Dunchurch daily at speeds up to 100mph in a hastily carpentered Heath-Robinson plywood cab, driving the M45 even then was very sparsely populated and provided real relaxation after the M1. If I drew the short straw, I had to sit on a wooden seat facing backwards in the open air just in front of the radiator taking frequent system temperature readings. Not pleasant, even in full motorcycle kit in Summer. It wasn’t thrilling to see how much the chassis routinely twisted without a body screwed to it, and how often I could see fresh air under the rear tyres. Of course the vehicle was on drum brakes, management having decided disc brakes were no good! There was less traffic then……

    A few years later I was driving pilot production 2.5 Pi’s up and down from Dunchurch to Rugby Blue Boar in a desperate attempt to consistently secure more than 20mpg at Motorway speeds. You could just about do it if you tail-boarded coaches. You needed the whole length of the M45 to get up to top speed (much less than the brochures claimed) and the fuel consumption became dire. Our ‘final solution’ was to eventually to put a heavy external spring on the accelerator cable.

    I contrast those experiences with my current forecasts being made about interaction between the environment, people, politics, electricity generation, storage and distribution networks, EV’s and AV’s as they might be from 2030.

    Give me a juicy big V8 with lots of carbs, any day. Please.

  5. My favourite feature of the M45 is the Great Central Railway girder bridge, which still crosses the M45 51 years after the last trains crossed it. Sam Fay was ahead of his time in planning a trunk railway from Manchester to Paris.
    The London to Inverness trunk road didn’t get very far South of a nice new bridge over the Dee South of Crathes; I also remember a new road built across the South Wales Valleys which was so empty that a girl I knew thought it had been built purely to speed up her commute to work.
    Oh, and how about the M50?
    In contrast, most new or rebuilt railways rapidly beat their traffic targets.

  6. My family has often used the M50 driving to South Wales to see relatives living down there, it can be quite empty in places.

    One of my Uncles used to say the M45 was a motorway you can have to yourself, and was easy to find you were driving at 100mph without realising it.

  7. Mike, Coventry’s A45 bypass was completed pre-war; it was the Meriden bypass section that was constructed in 1958.

    In that brave new post-war period, many companies used the A45 as a test track, including BSA and Triumph motorcycles, as well as the various Coventry car companies.

    Back in the day, the lads hanging out at the Blue Boar Cafe would have a race. The moment the needle touched the record on the jukebox, it was out the door, jump on the bike, cross the carriageway, roar off down to the M45 roundabout, go around it and be back inside the cafe by the time the needle lifted off. Time was very tight!

    For a more sedate (less dangerous?) burn-up, we used to blast down the straight mile of the arrow-straight B4453, right alongside the Blue Boar, and crack the magic ‘Ton’ on bikes such as the Bonneville, Road Rocket, Super Rocket, Tiger 110, TR6 Trophy, etc.

    Sadly, all gone now, of course, as are all the industries of that era. Still, it was fun whilst it lasted!

    • Know exactly where you were. I had a TR6 Trophy (pre-unit) but never managed more than 80-odd even when the vibration was not obliterating my vision. It was always keen on starting a tank-slapper, looking back probably due to having 21″ front wheel. But as you say, great fun and I survived!

      • Most manufacturers’ claimed performance figures were somewhat optimistic, as were the speedos. Vibration was always inherent in a 360-degree crank parallel twin and NVH was not a consideration for British motorcycles, back in the day. My Honda CB77 (the 305 SS) had a 180-degree crank and was much smoother and every bit as fast as a BSA/Triumph/AMC 650.

        With your TR6 Trophy being a pre-unit model, it had the weaker head-stem; this was strengthened in 1964 to address this exact handling problem. Also, the TR6 Trophy had a 19″ front wheel as standard, so a 21″ would have exacerbated the handling issues, due to gyroscopic effect.

  8. Thanks for the link Keith never seen this site.

    I love stories like this. On abandoned engineering they have an episode that looks at part of a planned motorway in Cape Town, where the flyover was partially built and then left half built. Just fascinating.

    In my local vacinity, Southend planned an inner ring road. Part of it exist, Queensway which the A13 uses part of, but due to public uproar the rest wasn’t built but in the Clifftown area there is a railway bridge which is way to big. It was part of the planned ring road and looks weird in amongst the houses, and for its location.

    I also remember the A13 bypass of Grays Thurrock which ended at the M25 in the 80s but a flyover carried over the motorway to a dead end. They finally used it nearly 20 years later.

  9. Love all the Road sites mentioned here (Pathetic Motorways, Roads). SABRE is well worth a visit, some great historical maps and road histories
    https://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/

    The M45 is a great period piece. I imagine it was busier when the Rootes/Peugeot factory was still open as the A45 runs right past it

    • Yes, it does, but most of the Rootes traffic entered the plant off the Banbury Road (A423) and therefore had minimal impact, other than at rush hour when there was heavier flow between the Stonebridge roundabout and the plant. At that time, the A45 was reasonably busy but not overly so and it was possible to get along it at a decent pace, which is why it was used as an unofficial test track by the local bike and car makers.

      • Chris Weeks : your reference to the B4453 and the straight mile brought back memories of being taken by Mike Parkes ( who was the brother of a school friend of mine , and presumably a colleague of yours when he and Tim Fry were working on the Imp ) in Gawaine Bailey’s racing 3.4 Jaguar, and showing 135 mph on the clock !

        • Happy to take you driving down memory lane, Chris; 135 mph was quick for the day… The 3.4 was smoother than the the 3.8, albeit slightly slower in standard form; oil consumption was still as high, however! Mike Parkes had moved on by the time I worked at Rootes/Chrysler, in the old (and original) Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft plant in Whitley; Tim Fry was still there, though. Today, of course, that plant is the Jaguar headquarters.

        • What an incredible memory! Can we hear more – I’d love to run some of these recollections on the site. Will chime with the Imp update I’m working on now 🙂

  10. One has to wonder if some of these ‘roads to nowhere’ were due to local politics or even for military purposes. In the USA the creation of a number of major roads, Interstates (= to M Class Motorways) were political deals to provide jobs for election districts, trades by politicians for road and projects in other districts. Part of the reasoning for the USA’s Interstates was for military vehicle movements. There are stories that some stretches of USA interstates were designed with long straight, level segments for use as military aircraft runways (and occasionally used by general aviation pilots for emergency landing strips). I have driven as a tourist on 100’s of miles on the UK’s Motorways, maybe even the M45.

  11. One has to keep in mind that, at the time of the M45’s 1959 construction, the M1 (which was, somewhat surprisingly, proposed in 1923 as a Midlands-London link) only existed between Junction 5 (Watford) and Junction 18 (Rugby/Crick). It was known as ‘The Road to Nowhere’, as it started after it left and finished before it got there.The M45 enabled that Midlands traffic and also facilitated transit to the A5 – the old Roman Watling Street – for North Wales and Liverpool/Manchester. There was at that time a 50-mile gap between the M1 and the southern sections of the M6 (to Junction 12) and long-distance traffic had to transit via Erdington and Brownhills on the A452, which connects with the A45/M45.

    Re the US Interstate system and a military connection, theses are more than just stories. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate Highway System, is a network of controlled-access highways that forms part of the National Highway System in the United States. Construction of the system was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Highway_System for more comprehensive information.

    • I’ve have heard the M45 & M10 were designed to spread the load of the traffic leaving the M1 as the joining A roads at each end would be overloaded by 3 lanes of high speed traffic.

  12. Dare I mention the 5 mile M67 stub of the abandoned scheme for a Manchester to Sheffield Trans-Pennine motorway and the conspiracy theorists who claim the electrified Woodhead railway line was run down and closed as a political move to acquire the new 1950 Woodhead Railway Tunnel for re-use as a motorway tunnel?

      • The Woodhead Tunnel is a double track single bore for continental loading gauge, the Tunnel could provide one carriageway of the M67, for the other carriageway a flying viaduct was proposed, a truly hideous prospect for the landscape of the Longendale valley, thanks heavens the scheme died a death

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