The early morning air in London’s Hyde Park fills with blue smoke, blasts of backfiring motors, and rattling sounds of century-old gears pulling bizarre vehicles across the pavement. This is accompanied by applause, cheers and honking of geese-like horns. It is the start of the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Every two minutes, fleets of fantastical vehicles – from two-person tricycles to love seats on buckboards to elegant horseless carriages – depart for the 60-mile drive to the finish line on Brighton’s seawall.
In a way, it looks as if the world’s most exotic automobile museum has been
robbed of exhibits. These vehicles are from 111 to 121 years of age, and represent brands we know, like Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Mercedes, to those we don’t: De Dion, Bayard, Darracq, Clement. It’s shocking to realize that when these rolling antiques first sputtered across England’s roads, Queen Victoria was on the throne. In fact, she could look out the windows of Buckingham Palace to watch these very vehicles roll by on this exact same run.
I first learned about this Run from an old black and white film called Genevieve. It was about an obsessed newlywed, who put his car – Genevieve, a 1904 Darracq – ahead of his bride, as he plotted and labored to beat his neighbor and nemesis to Brighton. In spite of the film plotline, the London Brighton Veteran Car Run (LBVCR) isn’t a race, rather it’s a celebration of changed legislation. On November 13, 1896 the British Parliament changed the “Light Locomotive Act” allowing the speed limit to soar from 4 mph to 14! It also removed the necessity of having a man with a red warning flag walk ahead of vehicles.
To celebrate this emancipation, the next day 33 vehicles drove the 60 miles from London to Brighton. In 1929 the Royal Automobile Club launched an annual run to mark this freedom, making the LBVCR the world’s oldest motoring event. To qualify cars must have been manufactured prior to January 1st, 1905.
In recent years the Run has expanded into a three-day event held the first weekend in November. It begins on the
Friday, when Bonham’s host an auction of rare car memorabilia. This is open to the public and gives you a first glance into this exotic world or veteran car ownership. On the Saturday, part of Regent Street hosts a display of 100 veteran cars. People are allowed to get up close, touch the vehicles and talk with the owners.
By today’s standards these vehicles, some made with wood, wicker and elephant hide, seem too fanciful and impractical to drive, yet more than a century later they’re still on the road.
The oldest vehicle in the run is a two-cylinder, two horse-powdered 1895 Peugeot Vis-à-Vis. Passengers and driver sit facing each other over a steering wheel set in the middle of the floor. One automobile expert laughingly told me “it’s a great design for people who want to play cards while driving.”
I met participants, like the retired university lecturer who, with his wife, took two days to drive the 262 miles from their home in Northern Wales to London in their open 1905 De Dion, to peers of the realm, retired bus drivers, stock brokers, students from the Imperial College, a US Ambassador to a man straining to push his 1902 Darracq into place, who turned out to be Jean-Jacques Clerico, owner the world-famous Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris.
To the novice, some of the technology seems wonderfully simplistic. Harold Pritchard, a London-based investment broker, says, “Most of what goes wrong you can see. If it’s physically broken, then it’s a matter of can we weld it or can we machine a new bit. It’s not like a modern car when you open the bonnet, look at the engine, slam it shut and walk away.”
Michael Tuero, originally from Toronto, and employed by the Yorkshire Motor
Museum to care for its 35-car collection. Standing by a Cambridge, Massachusetts-produced 1903 Cresmobile, he says, “Its top speed is about 20 mph. Going downhill you might get to 22 mph.”
The trick, Tuero says, to driving a veteran car is “Getting used to it. It actually drives and handles quite well, you just have to get know the body leans quite a lot when you turn because it’s light.” The real challenge is braking. Malcolm Barber, the San Francisco-based former chairman of Bondham’s auction house, who drives one of the three 1903 Peerless cars known to exist says, “Stopping is an event in a veteran car. In a new car you can just push the brakes and you stop. I only have two brakes on the back wheel. If I want to stop I have to start thinking the length of the parish” about where he hopes to stop.
The highlight of the event remains the actual run on the Sunday. Slower cars
lead the pack, beginning their pilgrimage at 7:15 am from Hyde Park. The last – and fastest – group leaves at around 8:30 am. Cars start to roll across the finish line on Brighton’s seawall from 2 pm onwards. In between start and finish, they will sputter and zip along the near vacant streets of London from Hyde Park down Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace, along Birdcage Walk and over Westminster Bridge, picking up traffic in the suburbs as the public wakes up. Surprisingly roads are not closed to regular traffic, so unsuspecting travelers find themselves bumper-to-bumper with these exotic creatures.
Tour companies offers the opportunity to follow the run in open top double-decker coaches to Brighton. This lets spectators watch the start and end of the Run, as well as seeing the vehicles on the highway. The other option is to watch the start, hop one of the trains which run hourly to Brighton and see the vehicles cross the finish line on the seawall.
On our drive to Brighton, we encountered our first breakdown just past Big Ben.
So much smoke billowed out of the vehicle, we feared it was on fire. Fortunately, it turned out to be the 1896 Salveson steam car, so the problem wasn’t as bad as it looked. At another breakdown, two women passengers in Victorian dress sat in a bus shelter waiting for a ride, like leftovers from a costume party.
Along the way we laughed at the double takes from other drivers as 100-year-old cars pulled into gas pumps for a fill-up. Near Crawley, the halfway point in the run, a passenger in a 1904 Oldsmobile jumped out of his seat to help push the car over the brow of a hill.
At the finish line in Brighton a 1902 Rochet came in with such speed that the
passenger had to jump out and grab the car to help stop it, like you would a charging animal. The driver of a 1901 De Dion Bouton managed to bring his car to the finish in spite of having the steering wheel fall off by keeping a firm grasp on the steering column. Several cars were pushed across the finish line.
Whatever challenge they faced everyone crossed the finish line with broad smiles and full of laughter, which makes the London Brighton Veteran Car Run an excellent reminder of what a celebratory people the British are. Forget the stiff-upper lip cliché. This is a race of people who see humor and an opportunity to party in virtually all situations, like raising the speed limit.