Still rebelling and driving road policy after all these years, the AA celebrates its centenary

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The Independent Online

Exactly a century ago today a group of irate motorists gathered at the Trocadero in Piccadilly and plotted to combat the menace of over-zealous constables.

The modern Automobile Association (AA) may pride itself on its respectable reputation but its original founders were rebels for the motoring cause. Today, the breakdown organisation celebrates its centenary by publishing a road map revealing the location of thousands of fixed and mobile speed cameras and traps in Britain. If not in spirit, certainly in essence, it has remained loyal to its roots. Since Richard Moffat Ford was fined £5 for breaking the 12mph speed limit in 1901, police had clamped down on the increasingly popular horseless carriage. Armed with pocket watches and hidden in bushes or up trees, they waited by roadsides, ready to pounce. In 1903 The Autocar published a map of England and Wales indicating 37 "police ambuscades where the letter and not the spirit of the law is enforced".

Led by the wealthy, self-made Charles Jarrott, 90 motorists met at the London restaurant on 29 June 1905 to discuss the perils of pedantic policemen. Jarrott, who made his fortune selling Oldsmobiles for £150 each, had been hauled before magistrates in Lincolnshire and convicted of "driving furiously".

Together, the affluent drivers decided to form the Automobile Association to lobby their case and to offer the services of patrolmen who would warn members of speed traps. Seventeen people signed up immediately, paying the annual two guineas subscription.

Cyclists, smart in their knee breeches, cap, collar and tie, were dispatched to patrol the roads wearing red rosettes and carrying flags. But the police started booking them for obstruction so a more subtle form of sedition was devised. Should a patrolman come across any of the AA's badge-bearing members, he would salute. Should he fail to do so, it would indicate that a speed trap awaited. With 17,000 motorists on the road paying 4p a gallon for petrol, the AA swiftly grew to 100 members in its first year. Its patrolmen and women continued to salute until 1961, when 3.5 million members made it rather impractical.

In 1906 the organisation began putting up the first road signs, years before local authorities. During the Second World War the signs were pulled down in case the Germans invaded and found them helpful.

While the RAC, founded eight years earlier, appealed to aristocratic motorists, the AA championed the average driver during an explosion in motoring between the wars. By 1939 there were two million cars on the roads of which 725,000 were AA members.

Today the organisation, having changed hands twice and been acquired by CVC and Permira for £1.75bn last year, is the 40th largest private company in Britain with 15 million members and 11,000 staff.

The AA continues to pride itself on being a vociferous lobbying body for motorists, pointing out that it was instrumental in introducing seat belts and lead-free petrol.

Today this huge body - with Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport, guest speaker at its centenary dinner tonight - is anything but anti-establishment. And a spokesman insisted yesterday that putting the location of speed cameras on its map had the backing of police and was in the interests of road safety. Nevertheless, one cannot help thinking Charles Jarrott would approve.

100 years on the road

* The Automobile Association, also known as the AA, attended more than four million breakdowns last year in the UK. It also helped to deliver 18 babies and got 70 brides or bridegrooms to the church on time.

* In 1910, the AA routes available to people were simply hand-written directions.

* In 1912 it started inspecting hotels and, to date, has inspected and rated more than 4,000 and reviewed almost 200 restaurants, details of which are published in a series of annual guides.

* After the war the AA protested against petrol-rationing and helped to have the ban lifted by 1950. Following this it led a number of campaigns including the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, implemented as law in 1983, and the introduction of lead-free petrol.

* AA patrols stopped saluting its members on the road in 1961.

* Following many advances over the years, in 2001 the AA introduced a text-messaging service to members broken down at the roadside. Its arrival time has since averaged 36 minutes after the call or text has been made.