The History of RAC

RAC is a longstanding breakdown service in the UK and has served the nation for over one hundred years. In that time, RAC has built up an interesting and layered history as it grew and transformed into the breakdown cover provider it is today. 

The RAC that patrols the roadways today is very different from the RAC that first started back in the day. Here’s a look at the history of RAC and the steps the organisation took to get to where it is now.

In this guide

What is the RAC?


The RAC is a breakdown cover provider that motorists can sign up to join. When a member of the RAC, you’ll be able to call for roadside assistance to help you if your car breakdown. 

As well as this, RAC offers at-home servicing, meaning that they can fix your vehicle if it’s unable to start while on your driveway.

The RAC offers multiple levels of cover, allowing motorists to build the right kind of breakdown cover for them. You can also add optional extras to your breakdown policy to have the comprehensive coverage you need. 

Although being one of the most recognised breakdown cover providers in the UK, the RAC has changed a lot throughout its history.

When did RAC first start?

The RAC is the oldest motoring company in the UK that’s currently active. Getting its start in 1897 as motoring swept the nation for the first time, the RAC has always been there to assist and develop motoring services. 

Much like the AA did a few years later in 1907, the RAC introduced uniformed patrols to roads as early as 1901. The original RAC members would alert motorists of police speed traps with these patrols and provide other aid and support. 

The RAC also introduced roadside emergency telephone boxes in 1912, giving members safe areas to stop, call for assistance, and communicate with each other on the roads. 

What does RAC stand for?

The RAC originally stood for the Royal Automobile Club; however, this isn’t the case now. 

The Royal Automobile Club is a private social and athletic club that engages in motor racing and other activities. When the RAC first formed, the Royal Automobile Club owned it and managed the service. 

Today, the RAC and the Royal Automobile Club are two separate entities, with the LEX Service PLC buying the company in 1999. Since this date, there has been no formal connection between the two organisations, although they both do acknowledge their shared history.

This means that currently, RAC doesn’t officially stand for anything.

What is the Royal Automobile Club?

Today, the Royal Automobile Club is very different from the RAC and no longers serve its original purpose of providing aid and assistance to the motorists of the time. Now, it’s an exclusive club, with two luxurious clubhouses in London and Epsom, offering fancy restaurants, amazing golf courses, and a large array of events, sports and more. 

Becoming a member of this club can be expensive, with an annual subscription costing as much as £1,958 a year for each individual. As well as this, there is also a one-off entrance fee which can be £4,500 depending on your age. 

With these prices, the Royal Automobile Club remains an exclusive organisation that’s far removed from the values and practices of the RAC breakdown cover provider.

Who formed the RAC?

The original iteration of the RAC, the Royal Automobile Club, was formed by a gentleman called Frederick Richard Simms under the name of the Automobile Club of Great Britain. Simms was a mechanical engineer and is considered to be a pioneer in the motor industry. 

He’s credited for creating the RAC and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and is said to have coined the phrases’ petrol’ and ‘motorcar’. He was also a valuable member of the war effort, contributing to creating the first armoured car. 

The RAC as we know it now, being the separate entity that focuses on providing breakdown cover, got its official start in 1999 when the LEX Service PLC bought it. This cost around £437m, resulting in a huge payout for all the current staff and members of the Royal Automobile Club. 

In 2011, the RAC was sold again to the American private equity firm Carlyle for around £1bn. That price demonstrates how much the company has grown and developed over the years and shows how quickly it has become an important and profitable company in the UK. 

The Timeline of the RAC

The RAC has an interesting and checkered timeline, going through many changes and sales while pioneering many innovations in motoring and breakdown services. This brief timeline can give you a glimpse into the history of this company. 

  • 1897 – Frederick Simms first founded it as the Automobile Club of Great Britain.
  • 1901 – The club introduced uniformed patrols on the roads to help and aid motorists. The original iteration of the AA started to do this in 1905, meaning that the RAC beat them to it for at least four years. 
  • 1907 – The club was given royal approval by Edward VII, meaning that it was endorsed by the royal family and was able to change its name to the Royal Automobile Club
  • 1912 – The RAC started building roadside emergency telephone boxes, which members could use to make calls and be used as shelter. The AA also started to build telephone boxes around this time, meaning that they became a familiar sight for motorists of this time. 
  • 1987 – The RAC introduced the Advanced Computer Aided Rescue System. This system worked similarly to a GPS and was able to help patrolmen and women locate broken-down cars so that they could get to them quicker. 
  • 1998 – The RAC de-mutualised, meaning it became a limited company, operating like a standard business. 
  • 1999 – The RAC was acquired by LEX Group. This meant that all ties to the royal family were severed and that the Royal Automobile Club and the RAC became two separate organisations. The Royal Automobile Club still operates to this day.
  • 2002 – The LEX Group changed its name to RAC Ltd.
  • 2005 – The RAC was acquired by Aviva. 
  • 2011 – The RAC was acquired by Carlyle, an American private equity firm that bought the company for £1 billion. 
  • 2013 – The RAC began to expand its offerings and launched a new and used car buying website called 
  • 2014 – Patrol cars were issued with universal spare wheels for various cars. This meant that more broken-down cars could be repaired on the roadside. 
  • 2016 – patrol cars and vans were equipped with state-of-the-art battery testers to help members care for their vehicles better. 
  • 2019 – RAC started to develop technology to help electric cars, including the RAC EV Boost, a van-mounted unit that can charge electric cars quickly so that they can get on the move again. 

What is the RAC Foundation?

The RAC Foundation is a charity that explores the economics, mobility, safety and environmental issues relating to the roads in the UK and their users. The RAC Foundation has a tied history to the RAC and began life as a research arm of the RAC Motoring Services, the organisation that is connected to the RAC breakdown cover that we know today. 

Established in 1991, the RAC Foundation aimed to research the standard of the roads to try and make them better for motorists. The foundation has been publishing research to promote informed debates and advocate for policies that would make the roads safer and better for everyone. 

Currently, the RAC Foundation isn’t connected to the RAC breakdown services or the Royal Automobile Club. All these different groups were related when it was first established in 1991, as the Royal Automobile Club still owned the RAC at this point. However, when the RAC group was sold to LEX in 1999, all of these arms became independent organisations, meaning they became separate from each other.

Final Words

The RAC has an interesting past, and over the years, the original Royal Automobile Club has morphed and separated into three distinct and separate entities, all spawning from Frederick Simms’s vision. 

With its long history, the RAC breakdown services remain one of the most popular in the UK, helping millions of people annually. Plus, the former research arm of the RAC, the RAC Foundation, is also now one of the most influential motoring charities in the UK, providing useful reports that have contributed to making the UK a safer place to drive. 

Then there’s also the Royal Automobile Club, which remains an important part of this organisation’s history, although it has been separate from the RAC since 1999. 

Although it’s changed a lot over the years, the RAC’s core values and aims remain to provide support and care to motorists in the UK. The RAC has seen a lot of changes in the industry, and with driverless cars and the mainstream shift to electric models, there’s bound to be more than the RAC will want to be on the cutting edge of.

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