These characteristic black and yellow buildings were once “the lighthouses of the road.” (1) In times past, motoring enthusiasts relied upon them for directions, breakdown help, and support throughout their travels.
Individually numbered, each AA call box had its own sentry and well-documented location.
At first, these buildings were intended as shelters for road patrols. Over time, they came to be used by AA members. A stranded motorist had nothing more to do than call and give the number of the kiosk, and help was on the way. The easily recognized logo meant that a traveler could find light, maps, fire extinguishers, and many other items whenever they were needed.
As technology progressed, telephones and other communication devices were added. Ironically, however, it was the further development of technology that eventually caused the AA sentry box to become obsolete. Shortly after the turn of the century, the number of AA call boxes had shrunk from over 1,000 to a mere 21. By 2010, there were even fewer.
Not even one of them had been in use for years. Many were in dire need of repair or relocation.
AA Call Boxes Offered Assistance for Early Motorists
- 1911 First call box installed: Ashtead, Surrey (RAC).
- 1912 First AA call box manufactured.
- 1912-1919 AA call boxes used by sentries. Well-connected network and communication.
- 1920 AA members receive keys to call boxes for independent use.
- 1921 Design Standard: Cross-gable roof.
In the early 1900s, AA sentry boxes were an innovative way to make motoring about the countryside safer for everyone.
Up through the year 1919, AA watchmen (who were called sentries) manned the booths. They stood at the ready to serve any traveling member of the Automobile Association. They provided roadside assistance, communication, directions, and even sometimes medical help or transport.
Their uniforms and bright yellow vehicles were welcome sights for virtually everyone on the road. By the 1920s, AA members were given their own personal keys to open the buildings (3). The term “call box” began to replace “sentry box” in common parlance.
Their unique cross-gable roof design made AA’s boxes easily identifiable. Boxes were fitted with oil lamps to provide light for travelers who might be taking shelter within.
The Prime of AA Call Boxes
- 1930 Design standard: AA plaques, box numbers, ridge louvres, gables.
- 1930-40 individual numbering of AA call boxes complete.
- 1942-49 Box 472 built. Includes oil lamp and pulley.
- 1956 Manufacturer contracted: Enham Industries, Alamein, Hampshire. Enham Mk IV model introduced. Designer unknown.
- 1956-67 Design standard: Black and yellow, winged livery logo, door with glass window. Interiors include 1- button telephones, chipboard flooring, and cupboards. Box 472 modified to suit new design.
In their prime, AA call boxes were rectangular black kiosks with bright yellow detailing. Each was numbered individually for easy location and identification. A stranded motorist had only to use the key, open the box, and pick up the one-button telephone inside.
A simple “I am at box 472” would be all that was needed to dispatch help immediately. All kiosks were equipped with fire extinguishers, pulley lamps, maps, and sometimes other supplies. They were large enough for adequate shelter from the weather.
There were over 1000 call boxes throughout the UK. All were used frequently. Around the middle 50s, Enham Industries was contracted to design and manufacture the boxes. The company employed many ex-servicemen. One of them may well have designed the popular Mk IV style that soon became standard (4).
Up to 1967, AA call boxes were all fitted with identical yellow”winged livery” logos, number plaques, and telephones (5).
Popularity of AA Call Boxes Began To Fade
- 1967 AA call boxes re-badged with new square logo
- Post 1967 AA sentry boxes no longer produced
- 1970 AA call boxes phased out in favour of more economical designs
- 1970-80 Small cabinets and free-standing phones replace manned booths
- 1980-1989 Final phones installed on posts. Box 472 obsolete
- 1990-99 All remaining call boxes re-branded: Square logos returned to original winged logo
No new call boxes were produced after 1967. However, in that same year, all the boxes were re-fitted with the company’s new square logo. This began the decline of the AA call boxes. There was a gradual phasing out of the boxes during the 1970s.
Newer, smaller, and cheaper cabinets took the place of the full-sized constructions. Later, these were reduced further to simple free-standing pedestal phones. By the mid-1980s, the final phones on posts were installed.
The remaining call boxes, few of which were ever even visited, did receive a bit more attention in the 1990s. The square logo badges were re-branded- back to the original winged design. (5) Nothing was done to the box numbers. The AA call box was slowly becoming a piece of the past.
Soon, the new technology would make them even less important.
New Technology Made AA Call Boxes Obsolete
- 2001-02 Many AA call boxes become government property. Boxes relabelled. Connected to local telephone services.
- 2002 AA shuts down network, plans for disposal and transport of buildings. Only 21 AA call boxes remain standing.
- Sept 2002 Box 472 restoration project idea begins.
- 2003 AA call boxes listed as historic landmarks.
- Aug 2009 Restoration of AA Box 472 completed.
- 2009 Public appeal for restoration or re-siting of other AA call boxes.
- April 2010 Box 472 survives first winter. Becomes mini-museum with regular visitors.
By 2001, over half of the AA call boxes had been taken over by government agencies. Those that were taken were relabelled and connected to local telephone networks (2). A phone call would now summon not the AA patrolman, but a uniformed official.
Fewer and fewer people ever needed these phones. Mobile technology and cellular devices made them unnecessary. By 2002, the Automobile Association shut down its network and began to provide for disposal and transport of the buildings.
They were soon listed as historic landmarks, rather than functioning roadway items. A small group of gentlemen took interest in one particular sentry box, carefully restoring it to its former condition (1). Box 472, as it was called, survived its first winter, and became a mini-museum of AA call box history.
Public appeals were made for others to join the respiration effort in other communities (4). At present, some boxes have been re-sited, others transported to museums, and some remain in need of attention.
AA Box Locations
Here are the locations of the last remaining AA call boxes, if you happen to know of any we’ve missed or would like to share some photos or clearer directions for the boxes, then please contact us.
Box 753 – B974, the Cairn o’ Mount road south of Banchory, Glen Dye.
Box 746 – Looking south towards Grantown-on-Spey. At the junction of the A939 and A940 at Dava.
Box 723 – A708 Cappercleuch St Marys Loch.
Box 714 – A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road at Threapland near Lhanbryde.
Box 573 – Garrowby Hill.
Box 530 – A149 near Brancaster.
Box 504 – Sutherland on the old A9 between Tain and Ardgay.
Box 487 – A591 North of Grasmere, Lakes, Cumbria LA22 9RS.
Box 472 – Cambus O’May, A93, Aberdeenshire AB35 5SE.
Box 456 – A3052 towards the junction with the B3180 road. Its postcode is EX5 2JP.
Box 442 – A684 south, just over a mile east of the turn to Aysgarth Falls.
Box 372 – A556/A50, Mere.
Box 189 – Bakewell, Derbyshire.
Box 175 – Glasgow’s Museum of Transport.
Box 161 – Junction of A479 with A40.
Box 44 – Amberley Working Museum.
Box 45 – National Phone Museum, Avoncroft.
Box 162 – NPM, Avoncroft.
Box 645 – Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
AA Call Boxes Have Become a Part of History
The AA call box is a uniquely UK phenomenon, a long-standing piece of history. It calls to mind the days when a young woman out motoring could count on assistance for a sprained ankle. She fell while driving, and so summoned a passing AA patrolman.
He relayed the message to every single AA sentry box on the road to Southampton. The girl’s parents were flagged down and informed of their child’s injury (2). This kind of personal connection with strangers seems nearly impossible today.
Perhaps it is not only the AA call box that has become a part of history. Perhaps something that is less tangible has also faded into the past.