Classics: London to Brighton Car Run



SEE more London-to-Brighton pictures:

2000 Honda FCX It’s billed as the world’s longest-running motoring event, and considering that it started in 1896, not many will argue with that.


It’s Britain’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, and earlier this month, it saw some 500 old cars setting off from Hyde Park, the center of the most genteel part of London, on the 60-mile run to Brighton, the town on the South coast often referred to as “ London by the sea.”


The first run was for cars that were the very latest models, and was held to celebrate the fact that new legislation meant that “horseless carriages” could run at up to 12 mph on the public highway and no longer had to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. The new law went onto the statute books at midnight on November 13, 1896, and the pioneer automobilists decided to celebrate the fact by driving to Brighton at dawn on November 14. Almost 40 cars set off on a run supported by the leading lights of the infant industry — even Gottlieb Daimler came over from Germany to ride in one of his latest products.


That first run was celebrated in 1927 by a run for what were then called “Old Crocks,” and apart for interruptions for war and gasoline rationing, it has been run every year since. But it is no longer a demonstration of the latest technology, as it was in 1896; now it is limited to cars from the dawn of the industry, with nothing built after 1904 eligible to run. That means that this year, for the first time, every one of the runners was over one hundred years old.


Worldwide remembrance


Over time, the London to Brighton has become the most important event in the calendar for those who cherish the very earliest cars, and drivers bring their vehicles from all over the world. This year’s event attracted no less than 14 entries from the USA, only one less than the largest overseas contingent, which came from Germany . The two most popular makes on the run were De Dion Boutons from France and curved-dash Oldsmobiles from the U.S. Both these constructors developed mass-production techniques some time before Henry Ford perfected them and consequently a fair number have survived. On the other hand, the run is full of cars with names that have long been forgotten, some of which exist in only a single example.


In recent years, the weekend of the run has expanded, with an auction sale on Friday and a concours d’elegance on Saturday. This year the site of the concours was in Regent Street, right in the center of London’s busiest shopping area, and the pre-Christmas shoppers were surprised and pleased to find around half a mile of the famous street filled with a glittering selection of old cars, many with occupants dressed in period clothes.


On Sunday, however, more practical garments were required for the drivers and passengers, who were faced with a discouraging weather forecast of heavy rain and sixty miles of driving in cars that mostly had no form of weather protection — in the early days, even a windshield was a luxury. Sticking with the original format, the first car still leaves Hyde Park just after dawn, at 7:15 a.m. The cars have until 4:00 p.m. to reach Brighton, and some of the slower models will need all the time available to them. Others, however, can keep up a good speed, and it’s not unusual for later finishers to see cars heading back to London after reaching the Brighton seafront and turning right round again to set off for home.


The starting area is always busy, as drivers and passengers put on their warmest — and in view of this year’s forecast, most waterproof — clothing. Then there’s the job of starting up the veterans, not always the easiest of operations. In the case of the steam cars, it’s a case of firing up the boiler and building up pressure; they also have the task of working out the route so that they will be able to fill up their water tanks.


Cars leave in date order, and this year the first away was an 1892 Peugeot, closely followed by an American-designed and built Whitney steam car. Another rarity in the first group was a French Panhard & Levassor Omnibus, looking like a motorized stagecoach, with seating for three on the roof, two alongside the driver, and four in comfort in the enclosed rear section. On this occasion, the bus only carried five passengers, including a young lady who bravely covered the full distance on the roof seat!


A curved dash to the sea


It takes just over an hour for all the cars to leave Hyde Park, and as the newest (1904!) vehicles are leaving the early starters are well on their way through the southern suburbs of London, cheered on their way by early-risers on their way to pick up their Sunday newspapers. On a fine day, the London to Brighton is one of the biggest crowd-pulling events in Britain, with hundreds of thousands lining the route for a fascinating free spectacle. But this year only the hardiest souls were out as the predicted rain began to fall some twenty miles into the run.


1999 Honda CR-V For drivers without windshields, it was a case of on with the goggles and taking care not to skid on the slippery bitumen. For some passengers it was even worse, for many of the old cars put the passengers ahead of the driver, either facing the direction of progress or with their backs to the road ahead. Whatever the format of the car, it was a wet and windy ride, but to the veteran car enthusiasts, it’s all part of the experience, along with the crowds and the drivers of modern cars who do their best to keep out of the way so as not to impede the old cars’ progress. “A veteran,” one driver said, “is fine when she’s rolling along at a steady speed. Slowing down and stopping is a bit difficult, and so is starting off from rest. But if you can just keep going, everything’s a lot easier.” In order to make things better for the veterans, on the steeper hills modern traffic is confined to one side, so that the old cars can take a run at the hill and keep valuable momentum in order to top the incline. It’s not unusual, however, to see passengers jumping out in order to give a push when necessary.


For most of the entries it’s plain sailing, although the watery metaphor wouldn’t have been too popular this year. Running on roads much smoother than those of a century ago, the cars are able to explore the limits of their somewhat limited speed envelope as they pass through open country on the approach to Brighton and the finish line on the impressive promenade.


The seaside wasn’t very welcoming this year; the sea crashed into the shingle, throwing spray ten or more feet into the air, and a strong wind caused the raindrops to travel almost horizontally. But that didn’t worry those that had made it for a finisher’s medal. For them there was the possibility of a hot drink, or even a swig from the brandy bottle that had been carefully packed back in London.


This was the 72nd run in 110 years, and there’s every sign, from the quality of the centenarian cars on display, that it could run until all the entrants are two hundred years old.


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