A traffic altercation in Nottingham results in this fascinating snapshot of the 1950s
This fascinating glimpse of Macmillan-era England gives you a clue as to just how uneasily much of Britain’s post-war affluence sat with its older traditions.
That modern Brutalist office building fails to blend with the Victorian architecture alongside it and on the roads there is not just an absence of double yellow lines – these would not appear for another two years – but a dearth of any form of road markings. Automotive historians often regard the later 1950s as bringing a new dimension to the term ‘mass-motoring’ in the UK, but this particular shot seems to represent the calm before the storm.
What first catches the eye is what appears to be a minor traffic accident. Apparently unscathed is the small Standard that is facing immediately towards the camera. It looks like a Super Ten model, of which dealers would boast how it came complete with hubcaps, an opening boot lid and wind-down windows. However, the crowd appear less than concerned with ‘the outright winner of the 1955 RAC rally’, to quote Standard-Triumph’s advertisements, and more with the other two cars.
We’re willing to bet that at least one of these gentlemen is posing the question ‘Oi! What’s your game then?’ or words to that effect and there is certainly a bit of leaning on the Austin A40 Somerset in a faintly menacing fashion going on. Could that sit-up-and-beg Ford Thames E494C van have run into the back of this handsome Longbridge car?
It’s hard to turn away from this fascinating scene and even more challenging to select a favourite among the parked vehicles but what is notable is how pre-war style machinery would still have been commonplace on British roads until the end of the 1950s. In 1958, the MoT test lay two years in the future, and it was initially an examination of lights, steering and brakes on vehicles of at least 10 years of age. However, this was more than enough to take vast numbers of elderly cars off of the road, a process that continued throughout the 1960s.
Could that Austin 16 in the back of the shot or the Hillman Minx by the telephone box be cherished and longstanding family cars or perhaps they were acquired for 30 guineas from a bombsite dealer? Incidentally, one period detail is that anyone making a long distance call from that kiosk would still have to dial ‘0’ for the operator before pressing ‘Button A’.
Parked on the left of the shot, and enjoying an enviable freedom from parking meters (these were only just starting to materialise in London) and wardens (their first appearance would not be until 1960) is a Hillman Husky. This was a (very) lowbudget alternative to a Minx estate, a Commer Cob van fitted with rear side windows and a back seat. The cabin boasted virtually zero in the way of standard fittings with no luxuries at all. Nor was there much in the way of performance, as the 1265cc sidevalve engine struggled to make the 65mph top speed. But for grocers needing a delivery van that doubled as a small estate car on their days off the Hillman was ideal and only cost £564.
As for the dark saloon adjacent to that beautiful wrought iron lampstand, it is an example of a now rare Austin A50 Cambridge. The Cambridge introduced unitary construction on a mid-sized Austin for the first time and the A50 also utilised the 1.5-litre version of BMC’s then-new B-series engine.
On the other side of the road is one of BMC’s finest efforts – the Z-series MG Magnette. This pale-coloured example would have set its owner back a considerable sum when new, as £1040 was more than the price of a Ford Zephyr Zodiac – but he or she would have considered it well worth the cost. Compared with much of the traffic on Britain’s roads, the MG would not just have been brisk but one of the best handling saloons of its time, with road manners our Husky drivers would have considered extravagant. And then there is Gerald Palmerpenned exquisite coachwork, even if most of the chaps in this picture appear to be more concerned with that Austin/Ford interface.
Looking up the street is an E-series Vauxhall Cresta bearing the full-width radiator grille of the 1956/57 versions. By that time Griffin-badged products were fitted with two-speed electric windscreen wipers instead of the archaic camshaft driven system and the Cresta’s agreeable 1949 Chevrolet looks and high level of equipment instantly appealed to motorists who saw no need to hide their income under a bushel.
Both the Abingdon and the Luton cars offered standards of comfort that were totally lacking in that Ford 103E Popular to the Cresta’s rear. Sidevalve Dagenham products were ubiquitous in the late 1950s and well into the following decade. In fact, I have clear memories of sighting several of them during the 1970s. For a Nottingham driver on a limited income who still aspired to a new fourwheeled and four-seater car, the Ford was ideal. Its appearance may have been archaic when compared with a MkII Consul and there was an almost total dearth of accessories – note the single windscreen wiper – but this would have mattered less than its straightforward mechanics and sub-£500 price.
But the most incongruous sight of all is what looks like the most recent vehicle in shot – the MercedesBenz 220 resting outside of the new office block. In its homeland, this was desirable upper-middle class transport but in 1958 Britain, a six-cylinder Ponton would have been more exclusive transport than a Daimler or Lagonda.
The Home Ales delivery vehicle is a fond reminder of 115 years brewing in the area that came to a close under Scottish & Newcastle’s ownership in 1996. Fortunately the name and the Robin Hood logo has been revived by a new generation of brewers.
Nottingham’s High Street has long since been pedestrianised but wander through the rest of the city centre and you’ll find it packed with Mercedes, Audi and BMW offerings (plus modern trams) – making our Ponton a bit of a pioneer. We’d still prefer it if a few more of the British family favourites had been preserved though.