The UK Automobile Association (AA) has a long history as a motoring association. Begun as a small group of motoring enthusiasts, the AA has assisted drivers for more than 100 years.
Today, the AA is a private limited company continuing to provide over 15 million members motoring assistance as well as car insurance, driving lessons, travel advice and financial services.
Beginnings: Bicycle Patrolmen
On June 29, 1905, a group of motoring enthusiasts met in the Trocadero restaurant in the West End of London. On that day, the UK Automobile Association was born. It began with a mere 100 members. The original purpose of the organisation was to provide moral support to motorists.
Faster, noisier cars were appearing rapidly on roads, sometimes upsetting other drivers and road users. The Motor Car Act 1903, which came into effect one year later in 1904, had introduced speeding fines to UK motorists. Driving offences were be displayed as ‘Endorsements’ on a motorists’ driving licence. Thus, one of the primary goals of the newborn organization was helping motorists avoid police speed traps and offences on their driving records.
In 1906, the members of the AA began erecting thousands of roadside warnings and danger signs. These were the first effective roadside safety signs in the UK. The AA continued to take responsibility for all roadside signs until the early 1930s when local authorities took over.
In 1907, AA members took to bicycles as the association’s first patrolmen. These early patrolmen were known as cycle scouts. They patrolled local streets, often cycling back to warn motorists of police speed traps ahead. They also assisted broken-down motorists by performing on-the-spot repairs or cycling off to retrieve further assistance. By 1909 nearly 1000 cycle scouts patrolled the streets, all wearing standard AA uniforms.
The AA Members’ Special Handbook was published for the first time in 1908. Travelling by car was becoming increasingly popular. To cope with the growing need, the AA appointed local motorist assistance agents and vehicle repairers for the benefit of members travelling throughout the UK.
In 1909 AA’s free legal system was introduced, supporting drivers summoned by magistrates courts. From the very beginning, the AA advocated on behalf of drivers. In the historic 1910 legal test case ‘Betts -v- Stevens’, the chief justice ruled that a patrolman signalling a driver to reduce speed in order to avoid a police speed trap was obstructing an officer. Afterwards, the AA used a coded warning system that lasted until the 1960s. A patrolman would salute the driver of a car displaying an AA Badge, except in the presence of an approaching speed trap. This warned the driver to reduce their speed in a way that could never be prosecuted by a court.
AA patrolmen were often asked to provide route guidance to motorists. In 1910, the AA produce its first route maps, which were initially handwritten. Routes and places of interest were constantly added, and as many as 7000 maps were circulating by the late 1920s. Overseas maps were also added. In 1912, the AA began inspecting hotels and restaurants, assigning an AA Star Classification to quality establishments. Quality hotels and restaurants were then included in later editions of the Members’ Handbook.
Bigger, Faster, and Safer through Technology
By 1914, the AA had 83,000 members. Motorbike patrols had begun to complement bicycle patrolmen. Motorbike sidecars also allowed patrolmen to carry more repair tools and equipment and better assist motorists in need. These motorbike sidecar teams became known as Road Service Outfits.
By 1938 motorbikes with sidecars had largely replaced bicycles for patrolmen, with up to 1500 sidecar teams on patrol at any given time. Uniformed patrolmen would begin the day’s work at the main base, then set out on a planned route looking for any vehicle in need of assistance. AA Roadside telephone boxes were introduced in 1920, enabling members to call for assistance from remote locations.
The AA had proven quite successful in protecting members from speed traps as well as defending members caught in them. The Road Traffic Act 1930 finally eliminated the 20 mph speed limit which had been in effect since 1896. However, the Road Traffic Act 1934 re-introduced a speed limit of 30 mph in urban areas, although speedometers were not required in vehicles until 1937. The AA has continued to protect its motorists from speed traps to this day.
By 1939 the AA had 725,000 members. This was equal to 35% of the 2 million total cars on the road in the United Kingdom. When wartime petrol rationing continued after the end of World War II, the AA continued its role as motorists’ advocates and led protests. The protest campaign succeeded and rationing was lifted in 1950.
The end of World War II also brought more motorists onto the road and more members to the organisation. In 1949, the AA began to move toward four-wheel patrols. It purchased a fleet of the new Series 1 Land Rovers to this end.
The Land Rovers were considered ideal for AA patrolmen as they could hold more equipment and reach motorists in need in the furthest parts of the country and in all weathers. Over the next twenty years, the motorbike sidecars were slowly replaced by cars and vans of the time, enhanced to provide better roadside assistance. However, solo motorbikes returned in 1972 to provide assistance through congested traffic in urban areas.
Two-way radio was introduced after World War II. Making use of this new technology, the AA launched its night-time breakdown and recovery service in London and the surrounding areas in 1949. The service was eventually expanded to most of Britain.
With the beginning of commercial radio in the UK, AA Roadwatch came into being in 1973. It is now Europe’s biggest broadcaster on traffic conditions. 1973 also saw the launch of AA relay, a service that guaranteed to transport a broken-down vehicle and driver as well as any passengers, luggage, and trailer, anywhere in Britain.
Expansion: Insurance and Innovations
The AA’s insurance brokerage service, established in 1967, was very popular from the outset. The AA also sells home, travel and other specialist covers. It is now the UK’s largest motor and home insurance company. The AA also offers loans, instalment payment facilities and savings accounts to members and outside customers through its Financial Services.
In 1973 the AA relocated from its historic premises in London’s Leicester Square, where it had been based since 1908, to Fanum House in Basingstoke, Hampshire. The AA continued to expand its role as an advocate for motorist safety by campaigning publicly for the compulsory wearing of safety belts, which became law in 1983. The organisation also campaigned for lead-free petrol. In 1992 the AA began its Driving School franchise, and currently has more than 1,800 instructors.
The AA expanded its publication activities in the 90s, producing a vast number of maps and travel guides to destinations both in the UK and around the world. The AA is now the largest travel publisher in the UK and one of the top 10 in the world, with titles in 29 languages.
By 1994, AA membership was at 8 million. In 1999, with great support by membership vote, the AA demutualised and was bought by Centrica for £1.1 billion. After the purchase by Centrica, the AA relocated its headquarters to Farnborough, Hampshire, in 2001. The company was then sold again to the leading European private equity firms, CVC and Permira, in 2005 for £1.75 billion. Following this sale, the AA moved its headquarters back to Basingstoke.
In 2002, the AA Motoring Trust was created to continue the organisation’s non-commercial motoring and road safety work. 2003 also saw the introduction of the AA mobility service, which won the innovation of the year award from the ‘Insurance Times’. All customers with comprehensive coverage now receive a courtesy car after any breakdown that cannot be repaired at the roadside, regardless of the circumstances of their claim.
Further innovations include the online Route Planner, introduced in 2004, which provides street-level detail on all British routes. That year also saw the launch of the AA Car Buyer’s Guide, which provides information and services related to purchasing a new or used car. In addition, a new series of travel books called Key Guides was released.
In July 2004 the new AA Telephone Savings Account was also introduced. In 2006, the AA continued to protect its members from speeding fines by including the location of thousands of speed cameras on its road map. This was the first time such information was available in the form of a map.
In 2007 CVC Permira merged with Charterhouse’s Saga. The AA was valued at £3.35 billion during the deal. The annual JD Power survey ranked the AA number one among UK roadside assistance providers in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004. Current membership is estimated at over 15 million. In 2008, the AA received 5.6 million calls, of which 3.6 million required assistance.