In the summer of 1956, a junior transport minister activated a green traffic light in the middle of a field in Lancashire. That was the signal for a bulldozer to flatten a hedge and start shifting soil. In a suitably Monty Pythonesque twist, the bulldozer ran out of petrol a few seconds later.
Such were the first inauspicious moments of the Preston Bypass, now part of the M6 motorway—the first 8.25 miles of a 1,440-mile network that has radically changed the personality of Britain and is simultaneously patronized and reviled by millions every day.
The motorway concept was welcomed by many Britons—one newspaper going so far as to say that the bypass’s opening by Harold Macmillan in December 1958 was “a day of national rejoicing.” The opening of the M1 50 years ago this year was greeted even more hyperbolically, according to one newspaper, with “sentiments too deep for words.” In 1966, Labour transport minister Barbara Castle orated revealingly that motorway interchanges were “the cathedrals of the modern world.”
As Joe Moran of Liverpool’s John Moores University says in this subtle and penetrating book, the Preston Bypass “carried the nervous hopes of a nation”—symbolizing not only an end to war-era austerity but admittance to modernity. The exotic new roadways, with their unprecedented speeds and beautifully engineered surfaces,...