John Minnis is Senior Investigator at English Heritage and also co-author of Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England.
The news that the tower restaurant at Lancaster (originally Forton) Services on the M6 has been listed on the advice of English Heritage has turned a few heads. But the extraordinary structure that looks like an airport control tower is one of those landmarks that sticks in the mind and is one of the few tangible reminders of a more innocent age that saw motorways as something exciting and even glamorous – a time when it seemed technology could solve all our problems.
It was built in 1965 50 years ago – as far away from us now as Edwardian England was then. And that’s the thing with the heritage of the motor car – it all goes back so much further than we think. The first car arrived in England in 1895; that’s getting on for 120 years ago. And yet we don’t think about cars and the buildings that served them as Victorian. There are just a handful of Victorian buildings that were built for motorists left and not that many Edwardian ones either. Even much later ones are pretty thin on the ground. Have you noticed many 1960s filling stations on your travels? Buildings connected with motoring tend to get rebuilt at regular intervals because fashions and technology change and so, unlike buildings constructed for other forms of transport such as railways, they have a short shelf-life. They’re disappearing rapidly and that’s why we need to protect the best of them.
Seeking out the most significant surviving motoring buildings has been a big part of the work that Kathryn Morrison and I carried out as part of our investigation into the car’s impact on England. The results have just been published as Carscapes: the Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England (Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, in association with English Heritage).
In England, we’re a long way behind America in recognising the historical importance of these buildings that played such an important part in twentieth century life. I hope Carscapes will ensure that the most interesting examples will be better appreciated. The car arguably made more of an impact on most peoples’ lives than any other single invention of the last century, at least until the internet came along. Certainly, the favourable reaction to the listing of the two dramatic 1960s designed filling station canopies at Markham Moor and Leicester earlier this year suggests that these buildings do mean something to a lot of people.