There was a time when we loved our cars with a passion. On Saturdays we would wash them and on Sundays take them out for a spin. We would titivate them with fluffy dice and padded steering wheels. On the back seat – already trimmed in polyester tigerskin – we would throw a tartan travel blanket and a couple of lacy cushions. We even wore special clothes to drive too. Boxy ‘car coats’, leather fronted ‘driving gloves’ and special non-slip driving shoes to help with those tricky double declutching gear changes were de rigeur. And when we were done with all that we would stick our names on them – usually under the plastic sun shield. Such was the love of the car that some people would take picnics to busy lay-bys just to sit and watch them go streaming by.
Road building proposals were met with genuine excitement. When work started on the M1 from London to Birmingham on March 24th 1958 the locals along the route brought deckchairs and packed lunches to sit and watch the diggers in action. When Fortes inaugurated their Newport Pagnell motorway service station on 15th August 1960 they had to open the site two hours early to allow in the huge crowd of cheering sightseers that had gathered outside. One feature they all wanted to see was the restaurant on the bridge. Not only could you eat but you could also watch the cars go by at the same time. Oh bliss!
Some motorway facilities took on almost legendary status. When Jimi Hendrix first came to Britain in 1966 he heard so much talk of the ‘Blue Boar’ from touring rock bands he assumed it was a concert venue, not the name for the M1 service station at Watford Gap.
While our cars indicated our status in the world, motorways, flyovers, and service stations were seen as heroic constructions, worthy of respect and admiration – and so it was with the Chiswick Flyover.
In August 1959, exactly fifty years ago, the builders were putting the final touches to the Chiswick Flyover – the first major two-level highway scheme to be constructed since World War 2. The works extended for about half a mile linking London’s western approach, the Cromwell Road Extension, to the Great West Road soaring over the 40,000 cars a day that used the new 400ft diameter roundabout that lay beneath it. It was an engineering triumph and deserved a proper opening ceremony…well, that’s what Mr. J. E Dayton, the joint Managing Director of Alderton’s Construction Co., the principal contractors for the project, resolutely believed. His opinion was not shared.
H.C Adams, the chief engineer on the project, a high minded individual of the old school thought that the flyover should enjoy a ‘modest’ unveiling. He was supported in this view by the Minister of Transport, Mr. Harold Watkinson, who had already disagreed with Mr J.E Dayton over other construction issues like budget, scheduling and delays. Neither of these two gentlemen was in any mood for Mr. J. E Dayton’s show-biz ambitions. We can only guess at their reaction when on the morning of September 30th 1959 a limo turned up on Chiswick flyover bearing the voluptuous Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield clutching a pair of gold plated scissors. Wearing a skintight crimson dress this ‘blond temptress’ had driven down from MGM Studios in Boreham Wood where she making “Too Hot to Handle” with Christopher Lee and Leo Genn. To a chorus of wolf whistles from the gathered workmen Miss Mansfield cut the official red ribbon, patted ‘Humble’, Mr J. E Dayton’s 7 year old bulldog on the head -“Sweet!” she said – and then clambered into a car described in one report as a ‘beat up old crock’ for a brief tour of the concrete megalith. The Chiswick Flyover was officially open!
Letters to the Brentford and Chiswick Times published on October 2nd criticized the use of an American film star. “Surely a suitable British one would have been more appropriate for the opening of this wonderful piece of British engineering” was the general drift of complaint. Mr. J. E Dayton replied in the same edition that his company had approached both Donald Campbell and Stirling Moss, celebrities as stiff upper lipped and ‘appropriate’ as they come, but they were unavailable.
“We felt… that 30 months work and the completion of Britain’s first flyover deserved a little celebration”, he explained. “We could see no reason why any politician or fuddy-duddy should be invited. We feel that Miss Mansfield did a first-class job in a very charming manner”…which was one in the eye for politicians and fuddy duddies like Messrs Adams and Watkinson. David Webster , the MP for Weston Super Mere agreed with him. In Parliament on 3rd Nov. 1959 he said…
“I welcome … all that is being done in the development of transport and the building of roads…It is, I consider, altogether a good thing that Miss Jayne Mansfield opened the Chiswick flyover. It gave the occasion a bit of publicity and introduced a controversial note.”
On September 30th 2009, the 50th anniversary of the flyover’s glamorous opening, Councillor Paul Lynch, the mayor of Hounslow, hopes that Mariska Hargitay, the star of ‘Law & Order’ and Jayne Mansfield’s youngest daughter will agree to come to the borough to commemorate the event. “Whether we love the flyover or hate it, we can’t let this moment go by without doing something,” Councillor Lynch said. “I suppose it wouldn’t occur to anyone to get someone like Miss Mansfield to open a stretch of motorway these days, but in the fifties we still associated motoring with fun and we need to re-capture some of that spirit as we mark the half century.” It is hoped that Miss Hargitay will attend a “small drinks party” immediately beneath the flyover so that it won’t interfere with the flow of traffic.
Jayne Mansfield, her career on a downward slide, died in a car crash in the early hours of June 29th 1967 when her Buick Electra 225 smashed into the rear of a tractor-trailer. She was just 34 years old. After her death a change in the law required all tractor-trailers to be fitted with a metal under-ride guard. This guard is still known to this day as a Mansfield bar. The Chiswick Flyover still remains the Chiswick Flyover.
Despite the “blonde bimbo” image which she fostered in many films and stage shows, Jayne Mansfield said her I.Q. was 163. She also spoke five languages and was a classically trained pianist and violinist. Such intellectual pretensions were inconsequential. Mansfield admitted her public didn’t care about her brains. “They’re more interested in 40-21-35,” she said.
— from Martyn Day
This article was written with the generous assistance of James Marshall, Local Studies Librarian at Hounslow Library, The Treaty Centre, Hounslow TW3 1ES