Veteran-Edwardian-Vintage

A section devoted to old-car matters

To Brighton by Benz

I have been on more Veteran Car Runs to Brighton than it is perhaps expedient to count. But this year, entries being restricted, the Montagu Motor Museum which, in recent years, has generously provided me with a pre-1905 car to drive, was permitted but one vehicle, Lord Montagu's 1899 Daimler Phaeton. So I had no plans and intended to give the November pilgrimage a miss.

Fortunately for me, during preview day at the Motor Show Roger Collings came over from the Gilbern stand to chat and, remarking that he was doing the Brighton Run alone, on his recently-acquired 1899 Benz Vis-a-Vis of 3-1/2 h.p., asked if I would like to accompany him.

Thus it came about that, the night before, I stayed at the Headfort Place Hotel, within walking distance of the start. Luckily I am a light sleeper on these occasions, for my requested 6.30 a.m. call failed to materialise. By 7.15 I was walking to Hyde Park clad in the extraordinary clothes I find essential to keep me warm on the journey which lay ahead–fortunately, it was still dark!

There were all the usual scenes, veterans arriving with a multitude of differing sounds, bells sounding, whistles blowing, as the enthusiastic crowds, cameras as yet unslung, save where there was the luxury of flashlight, milled around them. Right at the front of this long cavalcade of pioneer autocar history, composed of 244 cars if non-starters are discounted, was the courageous Maurice Smith, throwing lumps of fuel into the fire of his 1895 solid-wheeled Lawson steam mail cart. How, one wondered, would he ever coax it to the seaside . . .? Alas, he didn't.

The Benz on which I was to ride was brought by Collings, whose early enthusiasm for the older cars was fostered, incidentally, by ownership of a 12/50 Alvis when he was in the Army, at an auction sale. Its history has yet to be unravelled but it is absolutely typical of those abundantly practical Benz autocars, which Karl Benz of Mannheim manufactured in considerable numbers from about 1893 onwards–crude but simle and easily understood in an age when anything not drawn by a horse was regarded as mysterious, and perfectly acceptable by most people until Panhard-Levassor made the rear-engined, single-cylinder, belt-drive specification out of date. There were many copies of this ingenious vehicle, with its horizontal engine in the boot, exposed big-end, crank and con-rod presenting themselves to anyone curious enough to open the lid, so that other entries, although having oher-make names, looked very much like the 13 real Benz' entered. Roger Collings' example was once a Vis-a-Vis but now has a bench seat for two forward-facing automobilists, behind a low "dashboard", although, on arrival at Brighton, which is anticipating, lo, someone came up and said the original extra seats still exist.

Otherwise, all is decently original – surface carburetter, trembler-coil iginition with exposed wipe contacts, and so on, with the Crypto-epicyclic gear for emergencies. The position of the hand throttle-lever has been made more convenient and, as leather does not survive for over 70 years, the bench seat has been re-upholstered. But, apart from that, No 19, Benz Reg. No. D65, engine No. 1686, was typical of the Karl Benz System as any on the Run, and very smart, withal. It proudly bears a plate on the side of the body proclaiming it to have been supplied by Hewetson's Ltd. of 6, Dean Street, London, W, and its engine bearers are stamped "Orig.Benz" as some insurance against imitators.

So, with the fuel tank full of special Shell SPB1 spirit, to humour the carburetter, the bearings fed with Castrol GTX, the big-end with moly. grease, off we went, worming our way to the forefront of the first group away, at 8 a.m. on what was to be a beautiful day, more like spring than early November. That night, rain fell, but for the 74th Anniversary of Emancipation Day the VCC and RAC were singularly fortunate. This brought out happy spectators in their thousands (some say millions) and "Blue Peter" banners borne by excited children, all along the 53-mile route. Yet the traffic was remarkably light, except into Brighton itself, where, ironically, the police controlling the Madeira Drive roundabout didn't give a damn how long a panting veteran, so near to journey's end, was held waiting. Everywhere else the police were wonderfully helpful and it was hardly their fault that later in the day bad congestion engulfed the Gatwick area. But again I anticipate . . .

Leaving Hyde Park we noticed that Maurice Smith had already stopped, but, we hoped, only to pick up a passenger or for minor adjustments. The oldest car in the Run, Ruckworth's 1895 3-1/2 h.p. Benz Sociable, also soon came to a halt, as it was to do on several later occasions, but this German entry got in safely, winning Autocar's plaque for the oldest entry to complete the course. We had had our share of alarm, when, going towards Victoria Street on the new route to Westminster Bridge (the veterans no longer, alas, go down the Mall and past Buckingham Palace), other drivers pointed at us and shouted. Hoping it wasn't because they thought I was Mr. Bibendum gate-crashing on a solid-tyred car, Roger got out and got under, to find the Crypto belt hanging loose. However, he was confident we wouldn't require the lowest gear, so we continued without fixing it.

Somewhere about Streatham we gradually caught and passed Elder's 1899 3-1/2 h.p. Benz dog-cart. It overtook us again going downhill but, alas, died out in Norbury, the exhaust tapper-pin having broken, allowing the valve gear to fall away from the timing pinions.

By this time, on this lovely Sunday morning, the faster cars began to come by and Collings began to wonder about his wife, who was in her first Brighton Run with the 1904 single-cylinder 8 h.p. Darracq, discovered in Wales, and in which she was accompanied by three girl friends. "But", observed Roger philosophically, "it has excellent brakes, and the Land Rover is behind her".

After we had been going for half-an-hour, and having ascended Brixton Hill, the first serious acclivity, strongly on the low speed, we stopped to check the level in the glass oil-container and to pump more grease into the big-end. On most Benz there is a grease cup on the big-end but Collings prefers to feed cool grease in more positively. The oil level was very low, so we figured that we should pause every 30 minutes to fill up. But subsequently little more oil was required, so perhaps the level had been low to start with. At Redhill we drew into Price's, the Ford agents, where they were generously providing free coffee and food–Ford is truly a wonderful organisation, as I felt sure the Gilbern Director beside me would agree. We got down to oiling his Benz, even to topping up the two wick-feed containers which supply the main bearings, greasing the big-end again, strengthening the n/s solid cushion back tyre by binding it with insulating tape, and putting a gallon fuel into each tank, through a very small-orificed brass filler extension, doing the same with the similar filler which serves the side water tanks. The cooling system is supposed to be condensing, the copper tubes above the boot which looks like a big silencer being an air feed–air being intended to enter on the n/s, vent on the o/s, flowing over a water pipe as it does so, to condense the coolant back into the tanks. In fact, most Benz just boil away the coolant on hills. But as only one replenishment was needed, and as we got up every hill between the Metropolis and Brighton without dismounting–to look forward again, which one does frequently in a veteran in Brighton Sunday traffic!–it isn't difficult to see how Karl Benz was able to compete successfully against the horse. The manner in which the engine slogs away up hills, at near zero r.p.m. (its top speed is probably 600 r.p.m.), is a feature of the horseless carriage from Mannheim. The engine has "square" dimensions, 110 x 110 mm., giving a swept volume of 1,045 c.c., in most of these smaller Benz, and an atmospheric inlet valve is used, although at first both inlet and exhaust valves were mechanically opened. We had a comfortable ride, on those big back wheels and full elliptic springs all round.

Tom Lightfoot, having joined us in his fine 1902 25/28 Mercedes, which he was holding down to 50 m.p.h. on account of the traffic, we were invited to his hotel, three miles further on, for a drink in the Vintage bar. Here we met Mrs. Dass, Secretary of the VCC, and 90-year-old Mr. Walter Randolph, looking very well, a gentleman who saw the Run of 1896, took part in the 1,000-Mile Trial of 1900, and travelled with Lord Montagu on the Daimler in this year's replica of it. He was seeing the Run from a 1901 Panhard-Levassor, owned by Tom Lightfoot and driven by Count Bernard de Lasse.

From this point to Bolney I drove, which when the owner is beside you and you have never previously "experimented", must be akin to a first solo flight, except that a Benz is so easy to manipulate. The steering column rises vertically in front of you, centrally between the occupants, and this Benz is driven from the left. It is steered by a handle on the steering disc, a pointer charmingly showing where the small front wheels are supposed to be pointing; this is at first alarmingly direct "control". On the column are two levers which change over the fast and loose pulleys of the two crossed leather driving belts, to give high and low speed. Perhaps illogically, the short wooden handle selects "high", the longer handle "low". But to change speed is simple. One lever is brought back, the other then pushed forward, the speed of manipulation taking up the drive smoothly or with a jerk, for there is no clutch. Another little handle, lower down, works the Crypto emergency low gear, out of action in our case. Final drive is by side chains.

Speed is varied by pushing forward or easing back the throttle lever on the left side of the body. A tiny pedal protruding through the floor can be trodden on to slow the Benz but as this works on the countershaft, through the differential, it tended to pull the car to the right. A long outside hand-brake, with ratchet, moving forward to apply spoon brakes to the back tyres, is used only for parking, to save the rubber. On the front of the seat bulkhead a toothed strip of metal can be set as desired to advance or retard the spark–if you saw Roger fumbling between my legs, that is what he was doing. A tumbler-switch adjacent cuts the ignition. And, apart from a curly bulb-horn, that's about all there is to it.

At Bolney we stopped, to refuel men and machine, and apply some more tape to the tyre. Here Mrs. Judy Collings was in fine form, because the little Darracq had given her no trouble and her companions were thoroughly enjoying themselves, a "giggle all the way", saying whenever the driver had to change gear they blew the horn, to drown out the noise. A friend of the Collings', Johnny Thomas, had also arrived–we had seen his big-wheeled 1896 Leon-Bollee at intervals along the route and Roger had leaped from the Benz to push on one of the severer hills (causing me to be apprehended for pausing to wait for him by surely the only surly policeman on the route), for this three-wheeler was down on power, but running on its hot-tube, which its driver left burning while he went into the hotel, to the consternation of the uninitiated. Thomas had shed his wife soon after the start to give the air-cooled engine's two horses less weight to pull–so his was a very stout solo drive. It is nice to record that more engines seem to be on tube ignition, these days.

After this Collings resumed control of his Benz and it was an easy run to the Pylons, where the cars were checked in this year, and into Brighton to finally hand-in the check card. Collings had all the way nursed the Benz, switching off down the steeper hills to conserve the brakes, and he made no attempt to hurry the final miles, urging on to greater efforts those bicyclists who rode alongside. Yet our running time was not much over 4-1/2 hours and had we been desperate, the whole journey could have been done at an average of about 12 m.p.h., admittedly on well-policed, modern roads. Top speed? Perhaps as much as 18 to 20 m.p.h., mainly downhill. Petrol consumption was in the region of 25 m.p.g. and half-a-pint of Castrol was consumed.

The whole thing was highly enjoyable and to really get fun out of the Brighton Run you need to go on an early primitive, as I did all those years ago on the late Capt. Wylie's Hurtu, when he was Secretary of the Veteran Car Club. We got there on that occasion, too, which perhaps confirms the practicability of the Systeme Benz.–W.B.