Being privileged to live in Brighton, for almost all of my life, I may be forgiven for becoming somewhat blasé about some of the annual events and attractions that take place here. Some of these are local events, whilst others are far more widely known. Probably the most well established event on the calendar is the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Brighton has links with the dawning of the motorcar that may well not be widely known. An example of this is the National Speed Trials, held on the sea front on the first Saturday of September each year. This event has taken place since 1905, the year that the Brighton and Hove Motor Club (the oldest motor club in the country) was founded.
However, even that illustrious motoring event pales into insignificance when compared to the London to Brighton Run, which was first staged on 14th November 1896.
Notice the use of the word Run the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is not, and never has been, a race!
WHAT WAS THE FIRST RUN IN AID OF?
Well, strictly speaking, it was a celebration of the liberation of the motorist from a series of restrictive rules governing the use of their horseless carriages. The most famous of these was the regulation stating that a man carrying a red flag had to walk in front of a motor vehicle in order to warn all other road users of the approaching danger. As of midnight on 13th November 1896 these regulations were swept aside by parliament.
This really was not so surprising. The motorists of the day were an elite and powerful bunch, largely the moneyed aristocracy. Motoring was a very expensive hobby then, rather than in any way being regarded as family transport. Cars were dangerous too, so were the dirt tracks that passed for roads in those far off days, general communications were incredibly poor when compared to today also. Motorists needed to be skilled mechanics, that or carry a professional mechanic on board with them. The early cars were fragile and unreliable; almost everything about them mechanically was prone to leaking, braking or exploding. In terms of appearance they looked every inch a horseless carriage, indeed, some had even been converted from horse carriages!
The first Run was staged from the Metropole Hotel in London to the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. 33 cars took part, 14 completed the route, although reputably one was loaded onto a train and faked to look as though it had driven the 60 miles!
OK, THE MEN WITH RED FLAGS ARE ALL REDUNDANT! NOW WHAT?
The dawning of the motorcar brought with it a second industrial revolution. Bicycle and sewing machine manufacturers, largely based in the Midlands, Birmingham and Coventry particularly, rapidly turned their production facilities over to that of car manufacturing, obviously at the turn of the twentieth century THE up and coming industry.
Naturally, what was happening in Coventry was pretty much mirrored by developments in Pittsburgh, Paris, Frankfurt, and even in Glasgow. There were indeed far, far more car manufacturers in business at the turn of the twentieth, than the beginning of the twenty-first century.
As you probably know, the first, proper, recognisable, motor car was produced by Carl Benz of Mannheim. It was a three-wheeled mechanically propelled vehicle with its single cylinder engine mounted at the rear and driving the two rear wheels. The following ten years saw rapid and diverse development in the design of cars. By 1900 the current popular format, four wheels, four seats and an engine at the front (then always driving the rear wheels) was well established.
What was not so well established was the actual mechanical motive force. The horse had been replaced, but there were several schools of thought as to the means of mechanical propulsion. Obviously the Victorian era had been supported industrially by widespread use of steam power. Coal was cheap and freely available, both here and abroad. Steam engines on the whole were large, noisy, cumbersome and very heavy. Such cars were obviously inefficient as sufficient coal and water had to be carried to journey from A to B.
Mr Benz, whilst not inventing the internal combustion (petrol) engine, had refined it sufficiently for use in his little car. Whilst vastly more efficient than a steam powered one, the owner of a petrol powered vehicle still faced the practical difficulty of obtaining the precious liquid. There were no fuel stations, only chemist shops stocked it!
The greatest surprise of all is that in 1900 there were, as now, two electric cars on the market, both of American origin.
As well as the engines, the actual control systems brakes, steering etc, were far less standardised than on todays cars. A surprising number of these cars lack a steering wheel, without which they are usually steered with a tiller like a boat.
HAS RICHADA FOUND A TIME MACHINE?
No, fortunately not! I may be a great fan of Victorian engineering, but I harbour no desires to live in that era. However, on 5th November (2006), we did attend the 110th annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, sponsored by Tindle group Newspapers and the Daily Mail and organised by the RAC.
Without actually joining the run, preferably on a veteran car, it is difficult to follow the whole route from London to Brighton. Living less than half a mile from the London Road as it passes through the Brighton suburbs, we decided on this gloriously sunny day to stay close to home, setting up camp in nearby Preston Park, the penultimate stop for the cars before reaching the sea front at Madeira Drive.
Our chosen position, next to the check in caravan, proved to be an excellent one for taking photographs and indeed for gaining a close up view of the cars in motion. With these old cars there is a lot of very low speed drama, they are far more alive than any modern car and of course far, far more unpredictable in their behaviour. At this stopping point we observed cars over heating, being started on cranking handles or more often push started with the help of the ever enthusiastic RAC marshals.
The noises that are made, the smells, the shaking and vibration are all alien to the modern motorist, but here all add to the drama. Particularly dramatic are the steam cars, my personal favourites and those I think of the majority of the many spectators here.
As with modern cars, you can observe big, luxurious limousines, sports cars, large and small and many very lightweight, delicate run-abouts. Then there are the tiny three wheeled two seaters, usually tandems, which have far more characteristics in common with a bicycle than any horse-carriage.
You will read and hear these cars described in very unfamiliar terms; Vis-à-vis (a fragile looking light body with two abreast bench seat), Runabout (as previous but sportier and lower to the ground), Omnibus (looking a little like a stagecoach de-coupled from the horses), Open cart (self explanatory!), Forecar (another tricycle like contraption), Charette Anglaise, Phaeton and Dogcart (horse-carriage derivatives), and of course the Voiturette, surely the forerunner of the modern micro-cars.
One of the most ironically named bodies the Coupe, turns out to be the exact opposite of the modern day, sleek coupe. This particular car, a beautifully preserved 1901 MMC, is a tall two door box on wheels with no windows in the rear.
With the exception of the limousines, which are very rare, none of these cars offer very much protection from the elements nor indeed make any concession to modern day safety protection. A few of them have been retrospectively (100 years later!) fitted with seat belts, although in a fragile car with no roof one wonders how much protection they would afford you should the worst happen.
The majority of the drivers and passengers are a very friendly lot, waving at the crowds, posing for photographs and when stopped, usually more than happy to chat about their extraordinary machines. Some owners even dress in period costumes most of these early cars lack windscreens, the leather flying helmet and goggles are therefore not just for style!
HOW CAN YOU PARTICIPATE IN THE LONDON TO BRIGHTON RUN?
In order to qualify for entry on the London to Brighton Run, a car has to be proven to be Veteran, that is to have been built prior to 1905. This may well be problematical as it is notoriously difficult in many cases to prove the provenance of some of these century old cars. In almost all cases the makers are long defunct, some cars are still discovered in barns etc and are in such a decrepit state that identifying them is impossible, let alone proving their date of manufacture.
To take part in the London to Brighton Run, you also need to be a member of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain. This club was established in 1930 and now has over 1500 members world wide. Its membership is rather wider than the London to Brighton rules permit, catering for all cars registered before 1st January 1919. Whilst cars registered before January 1905 are termed Veteran, cars built between 1905 and 1919 are called Edwardian. In fact in order to join the club you are not actually required to be the owner of a Veteran or Edwardian car.
Starting at Hyde Park in London, the cars set off in groups from 7.07 to 8.30am. The oldest and / or least powerful cars leave first, allowing them extra time to drive the 60 miles (97km) to Brighton. The first stop is at Lambeth Town Hall, following this come Norbury and Croydon, where they drive through the usually pedestrianised shopping centre.
Leaving the metropolis behind, the original route is followed as closely as is possible now known as the A23 - of course roads at the end of the 19th century had no numbers, navigation being carried out largely by gut instinct and if lucky, the use of a compass.
A further stop is made at Redhill, then Gatwick before reaching the half-way official coffee stop at the George Hotel, in Crawley town centre, a well known coaching inn on this route. From Handcross through to Pycombe, less busy B roads are followed, cutting out a notoriously dangerous stretch of the A23. From Pycombe the A23 is followed to its conclusion at the sea front, having detoured into Preston Park on the way.
This is no easy route for these ancient cars, there are steep hills both up and down, and some twisty country lanes. There are always plenty of marshals and spectators lining the route, willing to help push the cars up the hills when their tiny engines are unable to do it alone. Along the way, local car clubs also provide assistance, as do the RAC, who organise the event.
As the day goes on, driving conditions for the old cars become progressively more hostile as ordinary traffic joins them on the roads. Some of the drivers get to Brighton as quickly as they are able to observing the 20mph speed limit for the event. The first cars usually arrive at around 10.30am, therefore getting here before the majority of Sunday drivers have clogged up the route. Later in the morning and early afternoon, the Veteran Cars will be stuck in huge jams jostling for position amongst the Mondeos and Micras of our modern world.
These cars do not mix particularly well with modern traffic, their main handicap being woefully (by modern standards) inadequate brakes. If you find yourself sharing road space with them, please allow plenty of extra space.
Being the first Sunday in November, usually the weather adds to the challenge, this year was an unseasonably delightful day, rounded off by what I believe to be the most spectacular sun-set that I have ever seen.
WANT TO BE A SPECTATOR?
Depending on where you live, and indeed how far you are prepared to travel, there are many excellent places from which to watch the progress of the Veteran cars. If you wish to see them all assembled then the start point is the obvious place to go. The closer to Hyde Park you are, the more cars you will see and the shorter time you will need to wait to see them. By the time they reach Brighton, the field is very spread out, officially the run ends at 4.30pm, cars still come in after that remember the first cars would have arrived at around 10.30am!
Over the past 26 years I have attended probably 10 of these events. This year, primarily due to the weather, there was the biggest crowd of spectators that I have seen. Whilst we waited in Preston Park for some of the early comers, we chatted to and observed some of our fellow spectators. This is a true family event, surprising actually are the number of very elderly enthusiasts, many of whom are women.
Added attractions for spectators, and often the press, are some of the very well known celebrities and personalities taking part. This event has always attracted the well known and the well off! Lord Montague of Beaulieu has for many years taken part in one of his museum pieces, I didnt actually spot him this year, but he was behind the wheel of a very impressive looking 1903 De Dietrich. A large sporting car boasting four cylinders (the norm here being one or two) and 24hp, it was one of the two most powerful cars on the route on Sunday.
The second 24hp car was a Panhard et Levassor, my wife had been looking out for this one Number 117 as according to the entry list, Pink Floyd member Nick Mason was supposed to be driving. Unfortunately when the car arrived at Preston Park, he did not appear to be in it.
We were actually in the company of my Polish brother in law, his girlfriend and another Polish couple. None of them had seen anything quite like this before and were fascinated by the whole spectacle.
This is a very friendly spectator event, there are no charges for watching anywhere and you can get close to, touch even, the old cars. This is particularly the case at the Finish Madeira Drive, where on this fine afternoon things turned into a bit of a free for all. We had lunch at Brighton Marina, leaving the car in the car park there to walk along and see the assembled cars parked on the sea front.
A FEW STATISTICS FROM THE 2006 110th ANNIVERSARY EVENT
In total there were 493 entries for the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run this year. It is a source of amazement to me that so many pre-1905 cars should still exist. They were after all built in tiny numbers to be sold into a very limited and elite market.
85 of the entrants were classified as international some from as far away as China and Australia.
Of the 493 entered, 438 actually arrived at the Hyde Park start.
A very good percentage of the starters, 395 cars in total, finished. This success rate was no doubt partly due to the unusually cooperative weather conditions.
The oldest driver to take part in this years event was 89, the youngest 17 the average age of all the drivers was 56 years.
The oldest car was a 1895 Peugeot Vis-à-vis, it was the first car to set out from Hyde Park. 36 other cars dating from the nineteenth century also took part.
15 Steam cars and three electric cars were entered, the remainder being petrol driven.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE, OR I HAVE WETTED YOUR APPETITE FOR VETERAN CARS:
Both the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run and the Veteran car Club of Great Britain have excellent web-sites, any search engine should get you to them.
The next London to Brighton Veteran Car Run will take place on 4th November 2007. As this year there will be two days of prior events, Bonhams Auction House holding an auction of cars and memorabilia on Friday 2nd, whilst on Saturday 3rd November a Concours will take place in Regents Street (London) from 11.00am to 3.00pm.
The whole event is rounded off, where it started all those years ago, on the Sunday evening at the Brighton Metropole Hotel and the Veteran Car Clubs annual ball.
How could I finish a review on the London to Brighton Veteran car Run without mentioning THAT film! For the younger readers amongst you, Im sure that reading a review on Genevieve would be your first taste of this classic British movie. For those familiar with the film, portraying a fictitious London to Brighton Run (many years ago now!) it may well have been your first taste of the event!