22 December 1965: 70mph speed limit introduced
On this day in 1965, a “temporary” 70mph speed limit was introduced on all unregulated roads in Britain by the Minister of Transport. The limit was soon made permanent.
When motoring was in its infancy, Britain's speed limits were, to say the least, overly cautious. In 1865 we had the notorious “Red Flag Act”, which limited motor vehicles to 4mph (2mph in town) and insisted on having a chap walk ahead warning the general populace of their approach. The limit was raised to 20mph in 1903, and in 1931 it was abolished all together. In 1935, a 30mph limit was introduced in built-up areas by that beacon of road safety, Leslie Hore-Belisha, Minister of Transport.
But out of town, you could pretty much do what you want – there was no maximum speed limit. You could tear up the M1 (built in 1959) as fast as you like. And people did. This was mostly fine – after all, the cars of the 1960s weren't especially fast. But along with families pootling sedately up to Northampton to see granny, there were a few who took liberties. Take the Thames Ditton-based maker of sports cars (and, at the time, sky-blue “invalid carriages”) AC Cars. In 1964, it was caught testing the performance of its 4.2 litre V8-engined Cobra up the motorway at 183 miles an hour.
According to the Daily Mirror, Charles Hurlock, joint managing director of AC Cars, said: “I am unhappy about having to use a public road like this for such tests, but British racetracks can't cope with sustained runs over 160mph. We had only one run and we checked to see that the motorway was clear.”
There was something of an outcry, and demands for a limit. Adding to the pressure was the very foggy weather that autumn, which led to a spate of crashes in poor visibility. And so on this day in 1965, the minister of Transport, Tom Fraser, announced a 70mph limit on all unrestricted roads for a trial period of four months. The limit was extended by Barbara Castle in 1966, and made permanent in 1967. In 1977, the limit on single-carriageway roads was reduced to 60mph.