How did people travel?

A Ford Model T A Ford Model T four-seat tourer motor car from 1916.

Related Stories

In 1895, there were only 14 or 15 cars in the whole of Britain. Seeing a motor car on the road was very unusual and very exciting.

The first cars were often beautifully made with leather seats and polished metalwork. They looked very smart but only people with a lot of money could own one.

Hailing a cab

An illustration of a car

People in London weren't allowed to whistle for a taxi in case it was mistaken for an air raid warning!

Many of these people had their own drivers who wore a uniform. These drivers were called chauffeurs and they also looked after the car.

By the start of the war in 1914, there were thousands of cars on Britain's roads but they were still very expensive. For many people, their first car journey was by taxi in the city.

'Behind the wheel'

The roads in a big town or city could be very busy but there were no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings.

The speed limit was 20 miles an hour and no one was required to take a driving test. Everyone had to be very careful and watch out for other vehicles or pedestrians.

Most of the cars were made by the Ford, Rover, Wolseley, Morris and Humber car companies.

During the war, these companies stopped producing cars and started making things for the war. Some turned private cars into ambulances, while others started making munitions or special vehicles like armoured cars, lorries and aeroplanes.

Ford Model T

A front view of a Ford Model T

The earliest cars were hand built and very expensive. They normally cost several times the annual salary of the workers who built them. For most people the only way to get behind the wheel was as a chauffeur, driving cars for other people.

However, in 1908 the Ford Model T was invented. These were the world's first mass produced car and they were cheap enough for many more people to buy. They were incredibly successful.

The Model T came to Britain in 1911 and after the war it became one of the country's best selling vehicles with over 150,000 cars made in Manchester in 1923.

As the war went on, fewer cars were seen on the roads because many drivers had gone to war.

The government also had the right to commandeer (take charge of) private cars for use in the war and many were taken away for use by the army.

Gas bag cars

Petrol shortages meant that some car engines were adapted to run on gas. These special vehicles were called gas bag cars and they had a huge inflated bag on their roof. Some buses and delivery vans were also converted to run on gas.

A car with a large gas bag on the roof A gas bag car belonging to the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith

A full gas bag of fuel was about the same as 2.5 litres of petrol. This would allow a car to drive around 30 miles. As a result the gas bag cars were not suitable for long journeys, but they were useful for driving in cities.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at transport 100 years ago.

More on This Story

Related Stories

School Radio: WW1

Around the BBC

Around the web

  • IWM logoImperial War Museums

    Find out more about the IWM's plans for the centenary

  • First World War Centenary logoFirst World War Centenary

    The latest news, events and projects surrounding the commemoration

  • TES logoTES

    Discover a range of World War One teaching resources

  • WW1C LogoWW1C

    An Open Educational Resource supporting new directions in teaching World War One

  • Football Remembers logoBritish Council

    WW1 resources produced in partnership with the FA, Premier League and Football League.

  • Never Such Innocence logoNever Such Innocence

    Commemorate and learn more about WW1 through poetry, art and music

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.