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Tales from the A39

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: A pastoral scene in rural Somerset, a region that was once home to one of England's earliest car manufacturers (photo © Anthony Brown / dreamstime.com).


Forget the Maserati centenary celebrations this year. 2014 marks the centenary of the Mendip Motor. Chewton Mendip was never destined to become a Detroit. But one hundred years ago this month this small Somerset village saw the launch of the Mendip Motor. We travel down the A39 to uncover this story of car production in the Mendip Hills of England.

England has a feast of remarkable A roads — the highways which are second only to motorways in the national road network. Before the motorways were built, the more important of those A roads were the country’s major traffic arteries. Some have entered motoring mythology. The A303 is still, for an older generation of Londoners, a road that evokes memories of childhood holidays in Devon. The happy anticipation of sun, sea and sand were staples of the A303 — though traffic jams and holiday rain were perhaps the stark realities of those halfremembered excursions to counties in south-west England which seemed, in those days, so very far from London.

But there are other routes beyond the A303 to south-west England: the A35 which skirts the Dorset coast and the A39 which takes a scenic route south-west from the Roman city of Bath to Falmouth on the south coast of Cornwall — along the way crossing the Mendip Hills and passing Glastonbury Tor. Heading deeper into the peninsula, the A39 boldly traverses Exmoor, where the legendary gradients at Porlock and Countisbury once led to overheated engines and rattled nerves. “The A39 route to Devon should only be attempted by experienced motorists,” advised one guidebook in the 1960s. The A39 was reserved for those with pioneering spirit.