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Great national institutions: the AA and RAC

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, Institutions on Thursday, 6 October 2011

This edited article about cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 834 published on 7 January 1978.

The AA, picture, image, illustration

Thye AA Knights of the Road by James E McConnell

Once the hard-line resistance to the motor car had been overcome, the AA and RAC set about developing an unrivalled array of advice and services for the motorist

The formation of Britain’s two premier motoring organisations, the Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), came as a direct result of the genuine need for an efficient source of assistance for the United Kingdom’s rapidly-growing brigade of pioneer motorists.

The motor car was then regarded by the public as a menace to safety. If a child caught some new illness or malady, as yet undiagnosed, the blame was immediately placed firmly on the shoulders of “those fearsome metal monsters” which plied the roads at little more than running-pace.

To add strength to the ranks of opposition, there were also the hardened supporters of the horse as the prime means of road transport. Despite the fact that the car was so obviously superior to anything the animal kingdom could muster, these old-fashioned bigots resolved to use every method at their disposal to keep the four-wheelers off their esteemed four-legs-only road systems. One local magistrate was even known to have set upon an “offending” motorist in court with a horse whip!

Once these initial pockets of resistance were overcome, both the AA and the RAC set about improving and extending the range of services they could offer to their members.

Between 1908 and 1912, the AA began its listing of hotels, which developed into the now universally-recognised “star” classification system – the better the hotel, the more stars it received in the official AA member’s handbook. The appointment of AA-listed repair garages also began at around this time. From this stage, expansion was astronomical, for, by 1920, the AA’s membership had reached 100,000.

In the early days of motoring, the only way for a driver to buy petrol on the open road was in two-gallon cans. The Automobile Association broke new ground in the early nineteen-twenties by opening the first eight roadside filling stations. At about this time, too, the AA introduced the first of their mobile patrols, each equipped with motor-cycle combinations carrying a full tool kit.

This stalwart organisation was not content with centring all their services around roadside breakdowns. At a very early stage, the AA decided that their range of facilities should involve every conceivable type of aid for motorists.

Thus it came about that the late Twenties saw the start of the special touring service, when the Association began to issue mapped-out routes to members who requested them.

The Overseas Touring Department was begun in 1908 and had continued to expand. A newly-instigated Aviation Section was introduced in 1929, with the aim of promoting and assisting private flying throughout the U.K.

World War Two brought the unfortunate end of these activities but, as we shall see later, the AA were certainly not destined to abandon their aerial operations altogether.

As we all know, a great deal of the private motorist’s lot is decided by Parliament. In order to further the aims of everyday car-owners up and down the country, both the AA and the RAC began to play an active part in campaigning in Westminster for better all-round motoring conditions.

The early post-war years brought a period of severe restriction for motorists, and both organisations made firm approaches to the Government to ease the crushing burdens. In fact, the AA went so far as to gather over two million signatures in a nationwide petition against the withdrawal of the basic petrol ration.

There was a slight fall in membership numbers immediately after the Second World War, but by 1947 the AA’s total figure had risen to 741,000, and by 1950 it had reached the one million mark for the first time.

In 1949 the radio-controlled night-breakdown service had been initiated, and the AA now became the first of the true 24-hour roadside services. In fact, it has never been “off guard” for even a moment since that time – a skeleton service is even maintained on Christmas Day and the other important public holidays, as well as right through every night.

The Automobile Association has tended to branch out in several new directions in recent years. For instance, in 1970 the largest emergency breakdown centre was opened at Stanmore in Middlesex, and although – as we saw earlier – the war had brought an end to the Aviation Section, in 1951 the AA became airborne again with the first of a succession of light and general-purpose aircraft.

It was decided to re-form the new “aviation division” with only one small single-engined Auster J-5R Alpine, for use as a traffic reconnaissance aircraft and a platform for aerial photography of complex road systems. Today, the AA have an impressive new twin-engined Cessna Golden Eagle executive prop-jet, built in the United States, but its task much the same as that of previous – though slightly less glamorous – aerial trouble-shooters.

While the AA were forging ahead with their ambitious plans, the RAC were no less active in improving the range of services they were able to promote.

Although many of the services and activities of the two organisations coincide, there are still some basic differences between the aims of the AA and the RAC.

All motor sport in the United Kingdom is licensed and authorised by the RAC, and any individual motorist competing in a motor sport event needs a competition licence, which is only available from the RAC’s specially-formed Competitions Department. The Club also provides a register, which was begun back in 1934, of 5,000 approved driving instructors.

With both the AA and RAC now providing comprehensive overseas travel facilities, insurance and legal advice, it seems that there can be no facet of motoring with which Britain’s motoring organisations are not wholly familiar. To hundreds of thousands of everyday motorists, that is indeed a very welcome reassurance.

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