Veteran - Edwardian - Vintage, December 1962

A section devoted to old-car matters

To Brighton on a Model-Q De Dion Bouton

Through the generous co-operation of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu I have driven four times in the R.A.C. LondonBrighton Veteran Car Run and have successfully arrived on three of these occasions. On two of these I drove the Montagu Motor Museum’s 1904 6-h.p. Brushmobile. In 1960 I got but a mile or so because a 1905 5-h.p. Humber had a defective coil and this year I had a great run down at the wheel of Lord Montagu’s 1903 6-h.p. De Dion Bouton. Lady Montagu was entered to drive the De Dion but she was indisposed—her illfortune was my good fortune but I apologise to all those spectators who waved and cheered No. 130 on its way and were no doubt disappointed at what they saw in control of it! I fear much film has been wasted… 

Whereas the Brushmobile was very easy to handle, with its slogging long-stroke 978-c.c. single-cylinder engine that will go on pulling down to almost zero revs., its 3-speed gearbox and effective brakes the Humber, although I scarcely got to know it, seemed underpowered and somewhat delicate, with its ” square ” 613-c.c. engine and frail frame.

The De Dion, on the other hand, was by far the most difficult veteran to drive, but this is no disparagement of a car that was quite outstanding in its time. It is merely that to a driver accustomed to a footbrake and a foot clutch the little car is a tricky proposition in the sort of traffic you encounter on ” Brighton Sunday.” For these reasons : the model-Q De Dion Bouton has the famous vertical single-cylinder 90 x 110 mm. (698 c.c.) engine under its shapely little bonnet, a 2-speed gearbox, and that famous De Dion back axle over which far faster drivers than I have sat! Ignition is by coil, energised on this occasion by a new Lucas battery I brought for the purpose. The carburetter lives on the near-side, feeding the automatic inlet valve through a long copper pipe. The engine is cooled by a gilled radiator slung at starting-handle level, the water tank living behind the cylinder, with the oil tank incorporated with it. Petrol tank and battery live under the bench seat, behind which is a capacious locker. Suspension is by 1/2-elliptic front springs and the famous De Dion back axle is sprung on 3/4-elliptics.

It is the controls that render the De Dion difficult to drive on traffic-filled roads, because you need more than a pair of hands. From the steering column below the small wood-rimmed wheel protrudes a gear-lever that also works the clutches that engage top and bottom gear. Pull this lever back and you go into firstspeed, push it well forward (it works through rather more than 9o°) and you engage top. Somewhere between is neutral. This is simplicity itself and ensures completely crashless gear engagement that today’s engineers resort to such complex methods to achieve. But until the lever is in neutral, the drive remains connected. True, there arc two foot pedals, one selecting reverse if the gear-lever is in the top-speed position, another that simultaneously puts the engine on half-compression and applies a feeble transmission brake. But if you need to stop suddenly it is necessary to push forward the outside handbrake lever that applies band brakes on the back wheels. As this occupies the right hand, and the left hand is looking for neutral, no hands are available for the tasks of steering and keeping the engine idling by adjusting spark and throttle, which are controlled by a couple of tiny levers normally operated by the right hand. The only other lever is a half-compression control, while there is a fine bulb-horn sticking through the dashboard and a useful brassbound rear-view mirror. There is also a plunger oil pump on the floor, with positions for sending oil to the differential as well as the engine, but the care of this I left to my passenger….

But let me make it clear that only in crowded modern traffic is this at all difficult. I had to concentrate all the way on November 4th (which may be why one spectator called to me to cheer up!), but on less busy roads, and way back in 1903, control of a De Dion Bouton would be simplicity itself, the clutches engaging the constant-mesh gears smoothly and progressively, while the engine, the first high-speed power unit in the days of 800-r.p.m. sloggers, simply asks to be given its head.

On “the day “—a Sunday of typically English and inimitable entertainment alike for the many spectators and the crews— we were up at 4.30 a.m. and four hours later were waiting in Hyde Park with other De Dions at the head of our group of starters. This bright green model-Q with red upholstery—AA 20 —is a very well-known veteran, being the first exhibit Lord Montagu selected for his Museum, after it had been in use on his father’s estate since before the First World War. It has been seen on the Albert Hall stage and in countless television shows and was to have been driven on this occasion, as I have said, by Lady Montagu. Instead, it was crewed by myself and Michael Sedgwick, the Montagu Motor Museum’s Curator.

In splendid weather we set the little car on its adventurous journey, determined not to over-drive it, but to get to Brighton by 4 p.m. at all costs. Early in the run lots of stationary veterans were observed but the De Dion, developing perhaps 6 b.h.p. at 1,500 r.p.m., got along splendidly, as, with greater experience (previously I had driven it only on the wide runways of Hendon Aerodrome) I gained confidence in controlling it.

After we had taken Brixton Hill without coming off top-speed I felt that nothing could stop us—and nothing except traffic hold-ups did. The little car with its heavy load (we both wore many layers of clothing) would pull away from Oldsmobile and similar long-stroke one-lungers up hill and was satisfactorily fast on the level, to the accompaniment of the merry snorting of its automatic inlet valve. So effective is the De Dion ” Single ” that crawling up the hills, even re-starting on them, presented no anxiety, while there is quite noticeable acceleration when throttle and spark levers are moved forward. The engine idles fast, vibrating the handsome mudguards and brass oil-lamps, but it never missed a beat and picked up obligingly when lack of extra hands caught me on high-speed with the spark advanced.

So we ran comfortably down to Brighton, filmed by TV cameras, with the crowds waving and touching their forelocks just as if Lady Montagu had been at the wheel. The Brighton Run would be less fun without the enthusiastic spectators, and the Police, too, are simply wonderful in their good-tempered control of the traffic through which they somehow contrive to get the veterans—and there were 239 taking part—out of the knots and on their way.

We kept close company for a time with Lord Strathearron’s very handsome 1903 Georges-Richard until it went ahead for itspre-arranged stop near Bolney for Lady Strathcarron to step out of this landaulette and let another lady member of the family ride in state to the Madeira Drive. Bensted-Smith came by in the Montagu Motor Museum’s 1902 7-h.p. Panhard-Levassor and we gave free passage to Peter Hampton in his 1903 60-h.p. Mercedes racer and to the Shuttleworth Trust’s 1903 ” ParisMadrid ” Dietrich, which used to thrill me as a schoolboy.

About half-Way we were troubled that we might be ahead of time and as the R.A.C. in its wisdom has set a top average of 20 m.p.h., we stopped in order to waste time. On lifting the bonnet to choke the carburetter for re-starring we noticed a thin spurt of water issuing from the top of the tank, where a seam had opened up, so we resumed the road promptly and pulled into a garage. The leak had now ceased and the water level had scarcely dropped, and it was not even necessary to replenish.

Having ascertained that we were not ahead of time, we drove gently on towards our destination, the only other pause Coming when the petrol tank ran dry. Luckily this is so much a part of road-test curriculum that I had a can with me; helpful spectators assisted me with replenishing the De Dion’S tank. She re-started easily, although the energetic engine kicks like Stanley Matthews unless fully retarded, and around 12.30 p.m. we phuttered happily to the finish.

With their usual generosity National Benzoie had laid on muchneeded sustenance and Lord Montagu and Mr. F. C. Glover entertained their friends to a cocktail party at the Brighton Motor Museum. I am indebted to Lord Montagu for these interesting November experiences All the Montagu Motor Museum’s entries and the Brighton Museum’s Brushinobile got in safely, although Lord Montagu’s 1903 Sixty Mercedes had been delayed for .a while with electrical trouble. It only remained to see the De Dion on to the truck in which it was travelling back to Beaulieu in company with Lord Strathcarron’s GeorgesRichard and to take Sedgwick back there in the M.G. I too that had acted as my tender-car.

The Brighton Run is quite unique. The maximum permitted entry of zso pre-1905 cars was over-subscribed and entries came in from France, Italy, the U.S.A., Holland, Belgium and Denmark. Space precludes listing the successful arrivals, who gained the simple but entirely suitable Commemoration Medal, but for the record the 19 unfortunates who fell by the wayside this year are listed below. Incidentally, I started with gastric ‘flu which was cured en row—a fine testimony to fresh air—and exercise!—W.B