When Cars Broke Down – A Lot!

I was driving back from Manchester Airport with a friend recently and we were remembering how breaking down was just an accepted part of motoring in the 1950s and 60s. And nobody had mobile phones then. So how did we manage?

Sometimes the car just needed a rest and to let off steam – literally! At the top of any long uphill route – and we have plenty of those in Wales! – there would always be two or three cars with the bonnet up and steam billowing out from the radiator.

If it wasn’t a simple case of overheating or a puncture then you needed your trusty breakdown organisation. It is still a good idea to be in one and there is plenty of choice now. But back in my childhood there were two. The AA and the RAC – in full The Automobile Association and The Royal Automobile Club.

The AA was launched in 1905 specifically to help motorists avoid police speed traps after new penalties were introduced in 1903. From 1906 until the early 1930s they also managed all road signage until the responsibility was passed to the local authorities.

An early AA man putting up a road sign.

A very early AA patrolman saluting a car with an AA badge. An RAC or AA patrolman driving or riding about always saluted a car displaying a member’s badge. What I hadn’t realised until researching for this post was that if a patrolman from your organisation didn’t salute you as he passed, that was a sign that there was a policeman around, possibly with a speed trap.

Moving on from a bicycle to a motorbike . .

. . . to four wheels.

A 1960s RAC patrolman helping a female motorist.



The badges which were displayed on the front of the cars of members.

Both organisations produced a members’ handbook which was updated regularly and eventually annually. The first AA handbook was a list of nationwide agents and repairers. When I was a child the AA and RAC handbooks also contained maps, route information, a list of the car registrations from all the towns and counties of Britain and a summary of useful information about all the British towns above a certain size. The latter was extremely useful when you were on a long journey and needed a pit stop.

Modern AA and RAC patrolmen.

The call boxes to which members had keys.


6 thoughts on “When Cars Broke Down – A Lot!

  1. Very interesting post! The two organizations would be the equivalent of the AAA in the US. I don’t recall the family car breaking down a lot when I was growing up, just my dad running out of gas on the Massachusetts Turnpike in a really bad rain storm. My brother and I felt so bad watching him set off on foot down the highway in search of a gas station or a passing car to take pity on him and stop, whichever came first.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. oh my..THAT is a wonderful trip down..memory lane! We actually had to drive off the side of the road..in the 1950s..when our ford..overheated. That meant I could grab a roll of..toilet tissue..and wander ..off the road, into the trees..for a toileting..of my own. I also..collected the latge pine cones..from such trips..over the Cascades..to use in later..art and Christmas projects. The AA history..is esp. interesting..as I try to..’sync’ up..our auto club..in America. Thank you. ina

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I hadn’t realised that the AA had originally managed all the road signs. I don’t drive but I remember my dad always fretting about having to call the one he used (I can’t remember which of the two it was, possible RAC) when we’d occasionally get stuck on a road in the middle of nowhere!

    Liked by 2 people

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