11 February 2014

Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England

Motorways, bypasses, garages, petrol pumps, traffic lights and roundabouts - a new English Heritage exhibition at London's Wellington Arch explores the impact of the car on England's landscape and celebrates the buildings of motoring history that today are valued and "listed".

Construction of the elevated section of the M4 extension in west London in 1963

Construction of the elevated section of the M4 extension in west London in 1963
© National Motor Museum

Archive photographs and a selection of historic advertising, cartoons and motoring magazines testify to how the English countryside and streets radically changed between the 1890s and 2010s, at first to accommodate the arrival of the motor car and later to manage ever increasing traffic jams and congestion. Also on display are an early 1930s traffic light, a petrol pump and other motoring accessories and memorabilia.

'Carscapes' looks at the different building types associated with the motor car including those factories such as Austin, Longbridge, Birmingham where cars rolled off the assembly lines, the London car showrooms where they were sold, and the garages which serviced and stored them. Buildings featured include an old village forge in Hertfordshire which was converted into a garage, the Michelin Building in London, and the recently listed Preston bus station and car park.

Argyll's Showroom in central London, 1905

Argyll's Showroom in central London, 1905
© National Motor Museum

The exhibition also features striking historic aerial photographs which chronicle the spread of new arterial roads, bypasses and motorways to meet the needs of motor transport.  

A cartoon from 1928 presciently wondered whether it was possible that 'as we now admire objects like "Ye Old Water Mill", another generation will be finding beauty in "Ye Old Petrol Pump Station".' Fifty years ago, the idea of listing a multi-storey car park for its heritage value would have been laughable but in recent times we have begun to appreciate the landmarks of our motoring past.  'Carscapes' features a number of recently listed motoring structures including the Markham Moor Filling Station on the A1 and the Mobil Pegasus Filling Station on the A6 with its signature mushroom shaped canopies, from the 1960s and 70s.

Preston bus station and car-park, now listed Grade II

Preston bus station and car-park, now listed Grade II

Wellington Arch is a particularly appropriate venue to host an exhibition looking at the impact of traffic on buildings. The Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was radically altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway. Today it stands on a large roundabout surrounded by traffic (although pedestrians can easily access it via the underpass and at the traffic lights!). 

The exhibition coincides with the publication of 'England's Motoring Heritage from the Air' by John Minnis, published by English Heritage and featuring over 300 photographs. 

'Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England' is at Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014

Wellington Arch and Hyde Park Corner, about 1930

Wellington Arch and Hyde Park Corner, about 1930

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