July 24 2011: Halfords Catalogue for Motorists, Motor-Cyclists and Cyclists (1959)

There’s not much of interest beyond the covers of these catalogues for Halfords and its range of products, but in the case of the 1959 version, especially, that cover seemed like more than enough reason to feature the otherwise rather dull list of parts and accessories here. Yet there’s a change in emphasis between 1959 and 1964, not only in terms of increased use of colour printing and more lavish illustration, but in the vanishing of the cyclist from the picture. Perhaps this is a reflection of the early 1960s, a period when the growth of emphasis on road transport at the expense of other potential modes of transport (including cycling and trams for short journeys, rail networks and canals for inter-city and freight) were largely ignored by planning decisions slanted in favour of road transport.

One result was the large scale railway closures generally blamed on Dr Richard Beeching, but while Beeching was the civil servant at British Rail who wrote the report on a potential cuts programme,  it’s now clear that the Transport Minister in Harold MacMillan’s government, Ernest Marples, was not only behind setting the terms on which Beeching had to report, he was also in possession of a staggering conflict of interest, since it was his own road construction company – Marples-Ridgway – that stood to benefit (and did benefit) from the contracts to build new motorways that followed the decision to retire much of the rail network.

It’s worth bearing the example of Marples in mind today, as our own government presses ahead with its own intent to ‘involve private sector expertise’ in public services (notably the opening of the NHS to ‘competition’ in provision) at the behest of lobbyists, party donors and others in positions to sway policy towards sectional rather than wider public interest. After retiring from active politics in 1974, Marples, almost inevitably, ended up exiled at his chateau in Monaco, on the run from a variety of tax evasion and other charges related to his UK business activities.

Recent exposures in relation to Rupert Murdoch’s businesses and their own role in skewing key parliamentary decisions over the past 25 years are demonstrating that Marples was far from an exception: indeed, since ending up in flight from the UK between 1975 and his death on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, he might be said to have become a sort of role model for many successors in his own and other political parties. All of which has taken us a long way from the disappearance of cycling from Halfords’ catalogues between 1959 and 1964, but perhaps that background explains why, even today, integrated transport policies are far less commonly implemented in British cities than they ought to be.


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