image above: Mini owner needing roadside assistance, RAC telephone box (180), Hatfield New Town (date unknown)
The Royal Automobile Club is a British private club and is not to be confused with RAC, an automotive services company, which it formerly owned.
It has two club houses, one in London at 89-91 Pall Mall, and the other in the countryside at Woodcote Park, Surrey, next to the City of London Freemen’s School. Like many other "gentlemen’s clubs" in London today, the Royal Automobile Club now has women as well as men as members.
The RAC introduced uniformed mobile patrols around the roads of Britain during 1901 with the patrolmen wearing a uniform not unlike the military police of the day, including tailored jodhpur trousers. The patrolmen had an army-like rank structure with corporals, sergeants and officers. Mounted on Matchless motorbikes with sidecars containing a tool kit, fanbelts, engine hoses, and metal cans of spare petrol they were usually located on standby at laybys and major road junctions. Until around 1930 control could only contact the mobile patrolmen by telephone, so they waited by public telephone boxes for the callout. From 1957 onwards they were equipped with radio sets for two way contact with their local headquarters.
In 1912, following the lead of the competitor organisation The Automobile Association (AA), the RAC installed roadside telephones on laybys and junctions of the main trunk roads in the UK for members to summon help. Although they were never as numerous as AA boxes there was a measure of cooperation between the two motoring clubs—keys fitted both types of box and members’ messages were passed on. The telephones were installed in locked boxes painted in royal blue with the RAC logo badge mounted on the top of the box. Members were provided with a key to the boxes when they joined the club. Members’ cars were identified by a metal club badge usually affixed to the radiator grill and the patrolmen would come to attention and salute as a member drove past. The RAC ceased this practice in 1963.
The RAC issued an annual ‘Guide and Handbook’ that contained road maps of the UK with the location of all RAC telephones marked on it, together with lists of local RAC approved garages and hotels. To give members an indication of the quality of each establishment the RAC was one of the very first organisations to provide an easily recognisable grading system. Their inspectors assessed each hotel and garage and awarded between one and five stars in the case of hotels and one to three spanners to garages. The RAC disbanded its hotel inspection team in 2004.
Motorcycle patrols gave way to small vans during the 1960s and by 1970 the last motorcycle patrols had been phased out. RAC telephone boxes were withdrawn from service when they were eclipsed by wider telephone ownership and by the 1990s only a handful still operated on holiday routes in the West Country. The advent of mobile phones made the need for roadside telephones redundant and the last of the RAC telephones were removed from service. Roadside assistance is now provided by vans and recovery vehicles.
Until the early 1970s the RAC did not have a formal "onward to destination" service for members. If the patrolman was not able to complete the repair at the roadside, arrangements were made for an RAC approved garage to tow the vehicle and repair it at the owner’s cost, with the owners being responsible for making their own arrangements for travel by public transport or hired vehicle. This changed in the 1970s with the first of the low-loading vehicle transporter fleet and the introduction of a higher membership tier of the Recovery service. Similarly, until the early 1980s the roadside assistance service was limited to locations away from home, which only changed with the addition of an At Home level of service.
In 1978 the Associated section was split off to form RAC Motoring Services Ltd and subsequently sold in 1999 (now renamed RAC plc).
RAC Motoring Services Ltd was sold in 1999.
Tagged: , RAC , RAC Motoring Services , RAC telephone box , Hatfield , The-Royal-Automobile-Club , Hatfield-New-Town