The AA is one of the UK’s most well-known breakdown cover providers. Over the years, it’s grown and become one of the most used breakdown cover services and ranks as one of the most trusted by the UK public.
Although a well-recognised brand at the moment, the AA has had a fascinating history in which it morphed and changed a lot over time. In fact, the original intentions of the business differ drastically from what it is now.
Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the history of the AA, spanning its formation all the way to the modern day.
The AA was founded in the summer of 1905 in London. Although more than a century old, it’s surprisingly not the oldest breakdown cover service in the UK; that accolade goes to RAC, which was formed in 1897.
In 1905, there weren’t as many automobiles on the road as there are now. Less than 1% of the population had a motor vehicle. It was a unique mode of transport for the time saved for the upper class, with roughly 23,000 cars in the entire country at the start of 1905.
The AA wasn’t concerned about assisting broken-down vehicles when it was first created. Instead, the AA was at first a group of people who devoted themselves to warn other drivers about speed traps.
Back in the day, the roads were heavily policed, and the original AA members thought that the police were catching too many people and that these speed traps were a bit unfair.
As cars were pretty new, many people were hesitant about them and didn’t take too kindly to them. In 1905, the speed limit was only 20 miles per hour, and police enforced them regularly with their speed traps.
In a speed trap, two plain-clothed offers would stand a furlong apart ( a common unit of distance in those days). When a car approached, the first officer would raise a white handkerchief to single to the other officer that they should start a stopwatch to time the motorist over the furlong.
If the motorist was even 2 miles over the limit, they could be fined £5 – a month’s wages in 1905 – or sent to prison for 4 weeks.
The first AA members thought this was overkill and that it was destroying the new era of motoring. To combat this, those first AA members organised themselves into teams of cyclists. They would salute or perform other gestures to drivers to warn them of police traps and other obstacles on the road.
To some, this might seem like an over-the-top way of defying the police. Still, these signals and warnings helped make the road a lot safer, as they reminded drivers to be slower and more sensible on the road.
Eventually, the AA started to offer motor insurance policies in 1907, slowly morphing into the AA we may recognise today.
The AA wasn’t called the AA at first and instead went by another alliteration-focused name: the Motorists Mutual Association, or MMA for short.
However, this name didn’t stick around long. As the group garnered a lot of support within its first month, the name changed and altered to the Automobile Association, which it still goes by today.
The AA went through a lot of growth and changes in the early 19th century that would inform the AA as it is now. After its inception in 1905, the group went through various milestones:
The AA is currently and has always been branded yellow. Although this colour makes the patrol cars a lot easier to spot on the road, this wasn’t the main reason why the AA became synonymous with this colour. In fact, the answer is more superficial as a result of the first president’s favourite colour.
The AA elected Hugh Lowther as its first president when it was founded. Lowther was also known as the Earl of Lonsdale, a prestigious position of great power. It’s believed that Lonsdale was a huge admirer of the colour yellow, so much so that he was called the Yellow Earl. It’s said that his collection of carriages was yellow, and he was often wearing yellow when in public.
Due to his fondness of the colour, the Earl of Lonsdale decided that it would be a good colour for the AA that he founded alongside the other first members.
Being the first president of the AA was not the Earl of Lonsdale’s only major achievement in his life. Due to his status, The Yellow Earl was able to influence a lot within English society of the time, an influence that still lingers today.
He played a major part in boxing, instigating the Lonsdale belt, the oldest active belt in British professional boxing, which is intended to be awarded to the boxing champion of Britain. His name was also used for the sports clothing brand Lonsdale, which remains the prime brand in boxing today.
The Earl of Lonsdale influenced other sports as well. He was also an honorary president of Arsenal Football Club in his later life.
The Earl died in 1944 and was succeeded by his brother upon his death. The Earl dies a significant influence in the origin story of the AA.
The AA boxes were a roadside staple across many routes in the UK in the 19th century. These were telephone boxes that also operated as places of shelter for its patrolling members.
These boxes were first built in 1912, and by 1920 there were 61 boxes in operation that all members could use and open with a special key. These boxes were free to use for members and allowed them to make local calls.
In their heyday, there were almost 1000 boxes in the country, all being used as shelter or means of communication by AA members. However, by the 1960s, no more of these boxes were being built.
Today, only 19 of these telephone boxes remain, with eight having grade II heritage listings.
The first of these telephone boxes were put in Kent near Hythe and were a more common feature in the south of England.
Although an organisation over 120 years old, the AA remains the biggest motoring organisation in the country despite its many different ventures and changes.
From humble beginnings, the AA has morphed and changed to become a staple of British life and is still used by a huge number of motorists.
In addition to offering breakdown cover as its main service, the AA has expanded and is venturing into new and different markets. For example, the AA still maintains a hotel reviewing service that champions some of the best hotels in the UK.
The business also offers other financial products and services, including loans and savings accounts. In fact, the AA holds so much money that it’s equivalent to some major high street banks.
You can also get travel products from the AA, which it’s been offering since the second world war.
Despite being one of the biggest businesses in the UK, there are suggestions that there could be troubles ahead. Currently, the organisation is in massive debt, owing billions of pounds. Despite this debt that it’s had for over a decade, the business has remained stable, and its current consortium owners have pledged to inject funds to tackle the debt.
The AA remains one of the best breakdown cover providers on the market and has a unique history that makes it an exciting business to learn about and use. When you join the AA, you don’t just join the 14 million current members; you also join a part of British national history.