People's History of the NHS



Dr Gareth Millward

Invacar was the trade name of a number of “invalid carriages” built for the government during the first thirty years or so of the NHS. Essentially adapted tricycles with a rudimentary bodywork, they provided independent transport for disabled people.

The founder of Invacar, Bert Greeves, had worked with motorcycles before the Second World War and wanted to produce a vehicle that could help injured ex-servicemen. The Ministry of Pensions (through a series of mergers later becoming part of the Department of Health and Social Security) agreed to buy the cars and lease them to ex-service men as part of the War Pensions scheme. Through the Ministry of Health, this was extended to the “civilian disabled” as well.

Assessing the impact of Invacars is inherently difficult because of the politics of disability policy in Britain in general in the second half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, they undoubtedly gave disabled people a level of independence that they would not otherwise have had. As one Wellingborough resident writing to the Daily Mail told the editor:

‘I had an “Invacar” for seven trouble-free years and travelled at will to discover all the beautiful countryside which lay all around me in Northamptonshire, and beyond, which otherwise would have forever remained an unknown world to me.

I was able to pick a wild rose from an overhanging hedgerow and travel away on holiday.’[1]

However, there were significant problems with the vehicles. Bert Massie, a disabled activist from the 1970s until his passing in 2018, rightly identified the political issues arising from the schemes origins. As a programme initiated with the help of the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Pensions, the cars were seen primarily as prosthetics. This meant the provision of Invacars was treated much like the provision of artificial limbs, not as a wider service designed to meet the overall needs of disabled people.

It was illegal to carry a passenger in the Invacars, literally and metaphorically isolating the user from friends and family. This directly impacted on Freda Blyth, a disabled mother who was sent to court for using her invalid carriage to take her two young children to school.

‘I cannot rely on neighbours to look after my children every time I go shopping. … I cannot leave the children at home because they are too young. … I must work as a short hand typist because I cannot live on the widow’s pension and National Assistance. And I must go shopping.’[2]

The cars were also prone to accidents. With only three wheels, breaking and turning was liable to see the Invacar topple over. The thin shell – by the 1970s made from fibreglass – led to some spectacular images of mangled carriages. Some of these had nasty, even fatal consequences. In many cases, however, the fibreglass acted (unintentionally) like a modern-day “crumple zone” protecting the driver inside. Regardless, the images worked in the favour of campaigners for better transport and welfare provision for disabled people.

The Disabled Drivers Association and Invalid Tricycle Association campaigned for adapted mainstream four-wheel cars to be standard. Such a car would have helped Freda Blyth and removed the stigma surrounding the “Noddy Car” as the vehicles had been labelled. In 1970, they joined forces with Graham Hill, the two-time Formula One world champion to meet Prime Minister Ted Heath in Downing Street. Heath was asked to drive one of the Invacars to show how difficult they were to control and perilous to drive.

The Department of Health and Social Security agreed with campaigners that the Invacar was no longer an appropriate response to the disabled people’s needs. Over the 1970s, both Conservative and Labour government made a number of reforms to the social security system to formally recognise disability as a distinct category. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, widely seen as the first disability rights legislation in the world, placed a duty on Local Authorities to advertise their services for disabled people. And in 1975 a new Mobility Allowance was created to meet the extra costs associated with mobility for disabled people.

Alongside Mobility Allowance, the Labour government also created Motability, a scheme which bought cars from British manufactures, adapted them for disabled people and leased them to Mobility Allowance claimants in lieu of a cash payment. The popularity of the Invacar dwindled after this point, being discontinued in 1981 and banned on safety grounds from British roads in 2003.

Some greeted this development with disappointment. A number of drivers found regular cars, no matter how well adapted, less suitable than the Invacar to which they had become accustomed. The imposition of a new form of vehicle took away what to them had been a symbol of independence. For others, the new cars were far more accessible, both literally in the sense of being able to drive and socially by improving their ability to drive with friends and family without the stigma associated with the old invalid carriage.

[1] Phylls Arnold, letter published in Daily Mail, 29 July 1976, p. 21.

[2] ‘Break the law … or neglect my children’, Daily Mail, 3 August 1966, p. 7.

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