Which was Italy’s first motorway?

A Brief History of the “Motorway of the Lakes” project, also known as the world's first motorway

Italy's first motorway was completed in 1924. It is basically the Milan-Varese motorway that years later will become the so called "Motorway of the Lakes" (Autostrada dei Laghi), or the A8. Besides being Italy's first motorway, the Milan-Varese, is also the world's first. This can seem strange to read, considering the difficult relationship that Italy had with motors during the first decades of the XX century.

In 1922, when the project was approved, there were just over 40,000 cars in Italy, one for every 1,000 people. Motorization, in other countries, was much more advanced at the time. France had an overall 300,000 vehicles, with 8 cars for every 1,000 people, while in the UK, there were 600,000 vehicles, 15 cars for every 1,000 people. 10 cars existed in the US for every 1,000 people.

And the existing road network scenario was not any better. It was, in fact, commonly thought that cars could only be used for local traffic purposes, while for longer ones one used the railway. This is why, for many years in Italy, an Italian statute law forbade building important roads between important cities already connected by an operating railway. Existing road conditions were appalling, with only Milan and Rome carrying out road maintenance, through road rolling and tarring activities; while potholes were covered with gravel in the other Italian cities and villages. In this context, nobody would ever have thought to build the world's first motorway in Italy. Still, this is how things went, and it was Piero Puricelli, an engineer from Milan, who conceived it.

The Motorway of the Lakes. An idea by Piero Puricelli

Many know which was Italy's first motorway. Not many, though, know the historical facts relating to it. Piero Puricelli, graduated from Zurich in Mechanical Engineering. His fame grew when, in 1922, he realized the "Autodromo Nazionale di Monza", in just 100 days. (Monza Racetrack). This newly acquired success made him think about building a road that would be used only by motorized vehicles. Puricelli was, in fact, certain that, in a very short time, motorized vehicles would have replaced animal transport. Cars were ready to lead the transport arena. Puricelli wished to «build a specific road for them that would not connect to other roads, with geometric, technical and structural features able to let them perform with speed, at their best, and safely». What Puricelli actually aimed for was to «create an Italian road culture».

Similar projects had been already completed in other parts of the world. In Berlin, in 1904, the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, promoted the construction of a road to be used for car transport. In 1921, an urban road for motorized vehicles was also built. Still, none of the above, for their very characteristics, are the world's first motorway.

Puricelli was certain that his ideas were correct, so he decided to concentrate his efforts where the contrast between intense traffic and appalling road conditions seemed the greatest. He, therefore, decided to build a motorway between Milan and the Lombardy Lakes. The Engineer illustrated his idea to Milan's Motorclub (Automobile Club di Milano), in 1922, shortly after receiving all the necessary private financing (A law regulating the construction of motorways would be issued only in 1933). When Mussolini came to power, during the Autumn of 1922, he accelerated works, instead of blocking them. It was very important for him to build the first Italian motorway, as it represented Italy's progress towards the future. The motorway was completed in September 1924, inaugurated by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who with Puricelli, drove along the motorway in his Lancia Trikappa. At the time, the media were not very excited about the project. In fact, they actually stated that the «cement paving was so smooth it resembled parquet flooring». The first Italian motorway was completed: a 50 km one-lane road, in each direction. Mostly straight, at first, it did not have any tollgates, but an intermediate mandatory service stop where one had to pay the required toll-fee.

After Italy's first motorway was built

The section inaugurated in 1924 was the first of a long list. The project's second section, connecting Lainate to Como, measured 24 kilometres. It opened in 1925, while the third tract, connecting Gallarate to Sesto Calende, just 11 kilometres long, was inaugurated in September of that same year. From that moment on, Italian motorway tracts multiplied. In 1927, the Milan-Bergamo motorway was built, with the one-arched 80-metre Bridge on the Adda River, raised 40 metres from the rivers' waters. Motorways were not just built in Lombardy. In 1928, the Rome-Ostia motorway tract was inaugurated, illuminated each day by 3,000 electric lights. The following year, a motorway connected the 21 kilometres between Naples and Pompei. Between 1932 and 1933, the Firenze Mare (Florence Sea), the Padua-Venice and Turin-Milan motorways were also opened. Puricelli's idea was widely and greatly imitated. Puricelli, in the meantime, became a fascist senator. He started to think in bigger terms, liking the idea of a European motorway network. In 1933, he met Hitler to speak to him about this, arriving to the project launch of the Rome-Berlin motorway, which remained just a project though, due to the breaking of the Second World War.

The first Italian motorway in numbers

In total, considering all its 5 tracts, the Milan-Lakes motorway measured 84.5 kilometres. It should not surprise that bridges and tunnels are so frequently built in Lombardy, due to the latter's orography and the way mountain ranges are arranged here. The most widely known of these include the one-arched Olona Bridge, the Olgiate Olona Tunnel, the Musocco overpass and the Vergiate overpass. 2 million cubic metres of earth were excavated, and 200,000 tonnes of cement, 65,000 cubic metres of gravel and 32,500 cubic metres of sand were used, overall. The total cost of the Motorway of the Lakes reached 75 million liras. Despite the 7 million liras of unbudgeted costs, the project still managed to keep under 1 million liras per kilometre.