London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

John Simister treasures his day behind the wheel at the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This Sunday, Hyde Park's early-morning misty peace will be interrupted by an extraordinary sight and sound.

Hundreds of veteran cars will gather there before setting off for Brighton to celebrate a blow for motoring freedom, as they do every year. It's the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, an event of fabulous eccentricity and fantastic spectacle. Last year, I took part in an ancient Vauxhall. This is what happened.

It is a strange feeling, climbing aboard a diminutive, ultra-lightweight car that has been on this Earth for 101 years. But this 1903 5hp Vauxhall is far from alone in its survival. Today it's joined by 505 other cars built before the end of 1904, a good number of them powered by steam, and all attempting to drive from Hyde Park to Brighton's Madeira Drive on the seafront to celebrate the liberation of the motor-car from the backward-looking prejudices of the Victorian establishment.

You could argue that similar prejudices exist today, especially in Ken Livingstone's London, but they have evaporated this morning as all thoughts turn to the emancipation of the machine that would change the world. The London to Brighton Run celebrates the passing of the The Locomotives on the Highway Act (1896), which abolished the 4mph speed limit for self-powered vehicles, although the requirement for a man to walk ahead with a red flag had been dropped a while before. At last, Britain could join the rest of the world in relatively unfettered use of the new-fangled motor-car, although a notional limit of 14mph did remain.

That so many veteran cars survive at all is surprising. That so many are gathered on this run, compared with the 58 entered for the first one (of which 33 turned up), is scarcely credible. The Run did not become a regular, annual event until 1927, and since 1930 it has been organised by the RAC with support from the Veteran Car Club, set up in that year.

November is not the best time to drive a veteran car. Wind and rain are unkind to primitive electrical systems, exposed brakes and drivebelts. Hills become even more of a hazard. The previous year was miserable for most, especially those in (or on) a car with no windscreen. This year, it's dry and not especially cold. The omens are good.

I'm driving with Andrew Boddy, custodian of the little Vauxhall that lives, with its slightly bigger 1904 sibling, at Vauxhall's Heritage Centre. We have unloaded the Vauxhall (made at the original Vauxhall Ironworks in London, and the oldest original Vauxhall in existence) in a side street near Hyde Park, and fired it up. This is akin to resuscitation: lift up the floor, tickle the carburettor to flood it a little, set the throttle and ignition advance and crank the starting handle, which attaches just behind the left front wheel. A hefty tug or two, and the single-cylinder, 983cc engine chuffs into gentle life, the Vauxhall bouncing comically on its springs with each beat of its heart.

Off we go to Hyde Park to take our place in the date-order starting line (oldest first) at number 218. In front of us is a De-Dion Bouton, probably the most popular make on the Run; behind is a Cadillac from the days long before Vauxhall and Cadillac shared stabling at General Motors. I feel extremely vulnerable, perched high with little ahead but an extra front seat. First gear runs out of speed - 800rpm or so - quite quickly, so second is smoothly selected to give a new meaning to the term "loping gait".

To begin with, the Vauxhall oscillates gently with each firing stroke, so we bounce along as if striding on legs. As the engine speeds beyond the resonant frequency of the springs, the bounce happens with every other stroke and then dissipates. And what surprising springs: all four are modern-looking coil springs instead of old-fashioned leaf springs, and the axles are positively located by hinged rods to a very stiff chassis. This is amazingly up-to-date, as is the speed and precision of the steering.

There's no steering wheel, the merits of such things being still under debate in 1903; instead, we have a tiller that works like a one-hand handlebar. There's no self-centring castor action, so you have to correct the course all the time and be ready for some worrying fishtailing even at the Vauxhall's 20mph or so top speed.

Through the starting archway and we're off! London's roads are clear this early in the morning, which is good because veterans are unhappy in stop-start traffic and many drivers of modern cars have little idea of the veterans' modest braking ability. But there are plenty of people out to watch. We have two vocal means of reply, a bulb-horn and a klaxon, to be used sparingly for this is a genteel run. I also have a vital extra job: keeping the sight glass of the total-loss lubrication system topped up with an oil can.

Within a couple of miles there are immobile veterans all over the place, their owners lying underneath, but most will get going again. Ours has an intermittent misfire, but is making fine speed across Westminster Bridge and out towards Brixton, Streatham and Croydon.

A tall, closed-body Panhard et Levassor with bevelled-glass windows keeps us company as we strive to maintain momentum, and soon clouds of acrid smoke reveal that we have caught up with an 1896 Salvesen steam wagon and its crew of engine-men.

Our misfire worsens after lunch, despite running repairs to the wiring, and on the hill out of Staplefield (the Run avoids the A23) we grind to a halt. An 1892 Panhard is seen serenely ascending past us, but one human-power, pushing behind, is supplementing its brace of horsepower.

A marshal kindly tows us to the emergency car-resuscitation zone at the top of the hill with his Discovery, where Land Rover's managing director, Matthew Taylor, is pleased to see our mode of arrival. His 1899 Wolseley has sheared a drive pin and its gearbox is in pieces.

The Vauxhall's trouble turns out to be a bad contact in the contact-breaker, an object under considerable stress from the torrent of random sparks off the trembler coil (it works like an electric doorbell). Filed flat again, it works and off we go, now with seemingly rampant horsepower. Outside Brighton, I take over the tiller, and learn how to make the Vauxhall go.

It's simple, actually. On the top of the tiller shaft is a handle: pull to the left to engage first gear, to the right for second, and don't worry about the clutch because it engages automatically as the revs rise. Nor are there any crunches, because this is an epicyclic gearbox, which uses bands to unlock or lock appropriate gearwheels that then drive the chain to the rear axle. Speed control is achieved by turning a knob, which works like a tap to alter the airflow restriction to the pneumatic inlet valve.

The Vauxhall people have suggested I drive at the end because it is "less dangerous", but the baptism is fiery as I negotiate the now-busy traffic, hand ready to pull on the handbrake. But, stalling only once and managing to stay on top of the hyperactive steering, I coax the Vauxhall to the finish line amid cheers and more waves. Sixty miles in a 101-year-old car, and another blow struck for freedom.

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