There were only 8,000 cars in the whole of Britain at the start of the 20th century. By the end of the century the car population had soared to 21 million.
Motoring was a luxury hobby in 1900. The number of cars on the roads began to rise during the 1920s as manufacturers started to make small, lightweight and cheaper vehicles for a wider market. Driving licences issued to London addresses rose from 100,000 in 1920 to 261,000 in 1930. As the number of cars on London’s streets steadily increased, so did the number of road accidents. By the 1920s, an average of three people a day died in London as a result of traffic accidents. The 1920s saw the first traffic-control measures appearing in central London in the form of manually operated traffic lights and white line road markings.
Cars at this time were still relatively expensive. The Austin 7 was introduced in 1922. Its sports version, The Nippy, was at the top of the Austin 7 range and cost £152 (£8,500 in 2006). It had a maximum speed of 65 miles an hour, took 27 seconds to cover a quarter mile from standing, and averaged 40–45 miles to the gallon. Austin, the makers of the Nippy, was a Birmingham-based car manufacturer with large London showrooms in Oxford Street and Holland Park. The Nippy was a British alternative to the cheap two-seater car that was developed by the American firm Ford and unveiled in 1927 at the competitive price of £145. Just as the Nippy appeared, Ford opened a huge new factory at Dagenham in East London, producing cars specifically for the London market.
The boom in car ownership occurred in the 1950s and 60s. Car ownership in London quadrupled between 1950 and 1970 as standards of living rose and car prices fell. By the mid-1960s, there were 1.5 million cars registered in London and the numbers continued to rise until the end of the century when 2.2 million were registered at London addresses. By this time, the figures included second cars; 3% of London households in 1997 had the use of three or more cars, though 39% had no car. Overall, this was no different from trends in the rest of the country.
Increasing car ownership meant increasing traffic congestion. By the 1960s, London’s traffic problem was considered to affect only the evening and morning rush hours in central London. It was not until the 1980s that congestion came to be a problem across London at more or less all hours of the day.