The growth in UK car registrations before WW1

Towards the end of the 19th century there was a very strong railway lobby in the British Parliament. A large number of MPs were associated with the railways in some way, either running them, investing in them or making good use of them, and they were determined to protect their interests. The canal companies, their previous main rivals, had already been sidelined; and they were not prepared to allow the horseless carriage to upset the apple cart. The first ammunition they deployed was the 1865 Locomotives Act. This stated that:

  • The maximum speed of any motorised, self-propelled vehicle on a public highway was to be four mph in the countryside, or just two mph in cities, towns and villages.
  • At least three people had to be involved in the movement of the vehicle. One to drive it; one to walk in front of the vehicle, at least 20 yards ahead of it, carrying a red flag to warn of it's approach (the noise a car made usually did that a hundred yards or so ahead but there is no cure for prejudice); and one to - well, one person for spare.
  • Every other form of traffic on the road, whether horse-drawn or human, had right of way over a self-propelled vehicle which had to give way when instructed to do so.
  • There was a licence fee of £10 (which was worth in excess of £1000 by the 2020s) to be paid for each county that the vehicle was to be used in. Bad luck for those situated near county lines, which could mean several different licences being necessary.
This meant of course that the demand for these vehicles nosedived and British engineering companies were strongly discouraged from even thinking about making cars. A very large proportion of the time that the early pioneers spent was not in designing and building better cars but in battling against the legislation that was strangling the industry. This was despite the fact that in Britain, and in particular England, a road network that was the envy of much of Europe and certainly America had been developed so there was plenty of room for both horse drawn and horseless carriages.

Progress was slow. By 1878 the red flag could be dispensed with but it was still necessary for someone to walk in front of the vehicle. This was only abolished in 1896 when the speed limit was raised first to 14 mph, and then rapidly reduced to 12 mph.
By The Motor Car Act of 1903 compulsory registration of every car was introduced, and an offence of driving without a visible registration number was introduced. Driving licences came out at the same time; to qualify motorist merely had to be over the age of 17 and possessed of the licence fee of five shillings. No driving test was required. The speed limit on a public highway was increased to 20 mph. It became obvious after 1903, when cars had to be registered, that they were here to stay. Official registration figures were:

1904 8465
1906 23,192
1907 32,451
1909 48,109
1910 53,169
1911 73,106
1912 88,265
1913 105,734
1914 132,015

Growth has been generally exponential ever since with more than 3 million cars registered at the peak in 2016, after which there was a slight decline.
The Road traffic act of 1930 abolished all speed limits of cars; the most likely reason for this is because existing speed limits were ignored so much, and were so difficult to enforce, that trying to do so was bringing the law into contempt. however for the first time was mandatory for every car to be fitted with a speedometer. Third party car insurance became compulsory; and driving tests were introduced, but only for disabled drivers.