Travellers Tales from the 1950s


The current global lockdown has probably made us all think about where we want to go when things return to normal but also perhaps changing the way we think about travel. Maybe we will all stay closer to home and do things differently; less round the world trips ticking places off the bucket list and more exploring our own backyard. They say that traffic on the roads in the UK has gone back to the level it was back in 1955. My newly married parents were returning from life in New York where my mum had emigrated in 1952 only to meet her future husband on the Queen Mary on the voyage from Southampton. My dad was an officer with Cunard so he commuted to New York for 2 years before they returned to England and my mother’s emigration plans were quashed.

For my friend Gordon it was an even more circuitous trip as his dad had been posted to run the company office in Singapore in the mid 50s to cover for the local expat office manager who was on long service leave for a year. Many expats working in overseas postings back then were given a year off every 6 or 7 years to allow them to make the long trip home (and back) by boat. Returning to England after a year in Singapore Gordon’s dad found that most of his family had emigrated to the USA so decided to join them and set sail for New York and then the west coast. Things didn’t quite work out for them and their new son Gordon in the USA so they decided to head back to Essex. First they had to get from California to New York

OK, many people have done the US coast to coast since then. Jane Fonda did it on her own to audition for her part in the film Klute in 1970 but perhaps not many have done the trip in a Morris Minor convertible! And a left hand drive one at that. There weren’t many British cars being exported to the USA, home of the automobile, back then. They found the Morris Minor in a car dealership in California and couldn’t afford the asking price in cash but the dealer said, no problem, I trust you, you’re British and you’ll send me a cheque every month. By the time they had paid the car off it was towards the end of Gordon seniors time in the USA and they were due to head back to England. So they decided to take the car with them and this involved driving all the way to New York and putting the car on a boat and back to its rightful home!

The diary that Mrs Brown kept is a thing of detailed beauty starting on the the 13th August 1960 in San Francisco and finishing 16 days and 3322 miles later in New York. Each motel stop is accounted for and each fuel stop. From California into Nevada then Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, Delaware, Philadelphia, New Jersey then finally New York.

The first overnight stop was The Motherlode Motel, Placerville followed by Wood Motel in Nevada (still there and now called Holiday Motel) then  Grantsville Utah the third night 830 miles into the journey. These are big mileage days even by todays standards but maybe testament to how good the roads were back in the USA in 1960 with the intrepid Brown family doing between 200 and 300 miles every day. On to the Little America Hotel (in the town of Little America) which is still there and is a classic touring stop catering to road trippers and families with a shop, garage and accommodation. 

All was going well and to plan until day 4 when the Morris Minor hit some oil on the road and span off – luckily not turning over as being a convertible this would not have ended well. They were rescued and put back on the road by Shortys Garage and a repair bill for USD11. Would you believe that Shorty was not quite the good samaritan; turns out it was Shorty who put the oil on the road and then waited for the distress call from the motorist before helping them out, doing the repair work and sending them on their way! What a scam!!

Next stop the Lucky Way Motel in Laramie Wyoming then the Sioux Trading Post Nebraska with its own grizzly history (Read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown) and then Kens Motel in Aurora – still there! On into Iowa and the Moonlite Hotel on Day 7 but it doesn’t look like this survived the last 60 years. Then Mrs Brown thought it would be a good idea to attempt a shortcut after the Aurora Shorty experience. They were heading to Louisville Kentucky and turned off the Interstate at Lincoln heading north east only to find the road wasn’t finished yet and it was too late to turn back so they bumped along on the gravel for a hundred miles before arriving shell shocked into Louisville.

Then across the Fort Madison Toll Bridge over the Mississippi River built in 1927. It is a swinging truss bridge that still opens around 5 times a day for barges and other river traffic – an amazing feat of engineering now almost 100 years old. This pretty much marked the 2000 mile mark on the journey so now well over half way and apart from Shorty and his oil slick, no engine problems for the reliable old Morris Minor! ON to East Peoria and The Wayland Motel, Cincinnati then the GreenAcres Motel in Parkersburg. Then on 3000 miles almost exactly, Washington DC and a tour of the nations capital in the Morris Minor. ON to Baltimore, Philadelphia and through the Holland Tunnel in to New York and the Hotel Wentworth in Times Squre where you could probably park outside in those days. 3322 miles from San Francisco.

More to come on this story but I should add at this stage that when I spoke to Gordon the other day he told me he just discovered that his mums brother – Gordon’s uncle – and wife were so impressed by the journey that they decided to do it in the other direction in 1960. On a Vespa scooter!!!!!


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