November brings the annual VCC/ RAC Veteran Car Run from Hyde Park to the Madeira Drive. Since the war this has become more and more of an occasion for Show Biz celebrities, so that participation by non-veteran-owning enthusiasts is at a premium. Nevertheless, the “Brighton” is still one of the great British institutions, enjoyed by an encouragingly large number of spectators, officially estimated at some 2-million ; this year the sponsors were Renault Limited, whose Publicity Chief, Alan Dakers, drove a 1900 4½-h.p. model and who had laid on Paris-type Renault ‘buses for the benefit of spectators. My disgruntlement last year at not being offered a seat on one of the veterans turned to gruntlement this time, and I would like to thank all those who offered me a ride. In fact, I accepted the first one received, from Tom Lightfoot, who was taking VCC Secretary Joan Das down in his well-known 1902 25/28-h.p. Mercedes and suggested that I ride on his wife’s 1901 7-h.p. Panhard-Levassor, which 80-year-old Len Wilson was driving.
Somehow Brighton-time seems an occasion for the sampling of older motor cars. Thus, two days before the event, I went down to Woking Motors and was introduced to the 1928 36/220 Mercedes-Benz that lives at this garage by the Hersham roundabout, which at one time was occupied by Tony Crook’s Bristols but is now full of Thomas Tillings’ Mercedes. Besides the 36/220 they have an enormous side-valve straight-eight Nurburg Mercedes and a 230 cabriolet of this make, as well as an Edwardian Wolseley-Siddeley tourer. I was soon out in the vintage car, which is an imposing yellow and black coupé, the body non-original, its rear quarters enhanced by dummy hood-sticks, reminding one of a blown-up SS1. The layout of instruments on the engine-turned facia is reminiscent of those on Peter Hampton’s open Mercedes-Benz that I described recently, but this 36/220 has the correct ball-gate central gear lever. Once again I found myself looking along that vast louvred bonnet to the big triple-pointed star mascot. The brakes pulled to the right but were otherwise effective, full depression of the central accelerator brought in the always-exciting howl of the Roots blower, the steering, although devoid of castor-return, proved light, and once again I experienced briefly the thrill these great cars impart, which I first experienced 48 years ago. Had it been possible to enjoy this experience until darkness had fallen our way back would have been lit by enormous Karl Zeiss headlamps, augmented by a central spotlight of the same make. As it was, the outing had to be curtailed. But I am indebted to Erik Johnson, Public Relations Manager of Mercedes-Benz (UK) Limited, for enticing me into this top-car from the vintage years.
Later that day I found myself driving a six-cylinder 2-litre OM, round Hyde Park of all places, a car thought to have been the one driven by Clark in the 1929 TT, but now endowed with a two-seater instead of a four-seater body. It cried out pathetically for the open road, refusing to pull at low speed unless flogged along in third gear. This engine has triple SU carburetters, replacing the original RAG instruments, and dual ignition by coil and magneto for the 12-plug head, the plugs actually screwing into the cylinder block, above which is the R. F. Oats push-rod o.h.v. conversion.
The following morning the theme persisted, when I drove out to the Mercedes-Benz headquarters at Brentford, where the M-B transporter carrying their entry for the Brighton Run, and the oldest commercial vehicle still functioning, was being unloaded, after Customs delays at Dover, only solved after a very substantial bond had been deposited. The solid-tyred lorry has a vertical twin-cylinder engine with hot-tube ignition, and wheel steering operating through a massive rack-and-pinion. The other vehicle was that very fine 1904 28/32 h.p. Mercedes-Simplex from the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, which their Restoration Engineer, Emil Kern, was to take on the Run and on which he was soon lavishing careful preparation. It has such “period” features as I.t. ignition, fuel-feed by exhaust-pressure, five foot pedals, one of which opens the cut-out, and chain drive. Ducellier gas-lighting and ribbed 895 x 135 Continental tyres figure in the specification. Several of us elected to accompany Herr Kern on a test run and, of course, rain immediately fell down and drenched us—the rear seat occupants hadn’t thought to raise the lofty cape-cart hood, which only covers that seat anyway.
When I met the Panhard on which I was to ride to Brighton early on the Sunday morning, I was delighted to discover that Mrs. Lightfoot owns the famous Le Papillon Bleu, the two-cylinder model built specially for the great pioneer racing driver, the Chevalier Rene de Knyff when that gentleman was a Director of the Panhard-Levassor Company. It seems that he did not own it for long, because Leslie Bucknall saw it while visiting the factory, set his heart on acquiring it, parted with a heavy load of sovereigns, and shipped it to England. After the Second World War it was in the ownership of Alec Hodsdon and this very notable car was the subject of a MOTOR SPORT “Veteran Types” article by Kent Karslake, who had accompanied Cecil Clutton when he drove it in the Brighton Run a quarter of a century ago.
Suffice it therefore to say that it has a front-mounted vertical two-cylinder engine of 90 x 130 mm. (1,654 c.c.) running up to 800 r.p.m. The inlet valves are automatic, the side exhaust valves are operated by an exposed camshaft on the n/s, and ignition is by trembler coils. The original Kerbs carburetter is in situ, but with the governor removed, and engine speed is controlled by advancing or retarding the spark with the ratcheted Panhard twist-grip control which is part of the four-spoke steering wheel. The drive goes through a 3-speed gearbox and side chains. A gilled-tube radiator is carried ahead of the brass-bound bonnet and the upper parts of the engine are accessible by lifting the raised lid thereof. The body is a compact rear-entrance tonneau, in which Mrs. Wilson sat, saying this position was better for her back. Had we been travelling at night we would have been served by J. & R. Oldfield of Birmingham’s Dependence gas-lighting system, or, had the moon been out, the Nirona No. 12 oil side lamps might have sufficed.
This Panhard, which runs on 875 x 105 Dunlop tyres, is no sluggard when in a good mood. Estimates of its top pace vary from 30 to 50 m.p.h., the latter undoubtedly safely attainable downhill. Having cranked-up for Mr. Wilson with the front starting-handle that drives through a push-in ratchet and short length of chain, I climbed aboard, warmly but comfortably-lightly clad in my Functional storm-coat, to find no protection above the low dashboard. This is fully stocked, with two large oilers, an alloy box shielding the drip-feeds, a water gauge down by the passenger’s left foot, which actually reads water pressure in meters, a hand-pump, the wooden box housing the vital ignition coils, and, over on the driver’s, side, a 50m.p.h. Eliott speedometer above an Eliott Bros. of London mileometer.
I have implied that this short-wheelbase 1901 Panhard-Levassor was a fast car for its day. Indeed, its two separate exhaust pipes extending downwards from the n/s of the tall cylinders struck a sporting note, which was confirmed as we got going in fine style. Out of the Park and for some distance thereafter we dualled with Michael Wilcox’s Locomobile steamer and Brixton Hill held no terrors for our ex-de Knyff Panhard. It climbed in middle speed, a gear which could be held to a useful pace for overtaking. But the gears were audibly difficult to engage and disengage and bottom speed is so low that changing-up is apt to be postponed for appreciable periods. Our head-long progress was most enjoyable and I was musing on how splendid it must have been for the Chevalier, sweeping along the empty roads of his native country just after the turn of the century, and thinking how soon I would be enjoying Lord Montagu’s hospitality at Brighton’s “Royal Albion”, when most of the Panhard’s power vanished and we were but a single-cylinder 800 c.c. veteran, and a substantially built one at that! No. 1 plug was on the blink. Indeed, before we were clear of Croydon it had twice to be changed. It is interesting that back in 1950 Karslake had remarked on a weakness of the spark in one cylinder.
Another anxiety also intruded, to marr a repetition of the early joys of this November morn. At the start water had been pouring from the water-pump, which is friction-driven from the engine flywheel, and these days has a worn spindle or worn glands. From then onwards our progress was retarded by the need to beg water from bystanders, change that lifeless plug, and, as the engine overheated, to request push-starts when it stalled and now proved too stiff for me to swing it. I would here thank all those who so kindly assisted us in these triple plights. The thought occurred that the Chevalier would not have been amused….
However, we had started early, at 8.15 hours, and although we stopped at Horley for Tom Lightfoot’s customary hospitality (hot soup or coffee is a great comfort on the Brighton Run) and to administer to our recalcitrant Panhard, we were in the famous watering-place by 13.25 hours, Le Papillon Bleu pushed up the last of too many acclivities by me and yet another willing helper. Others had been in trouble, too. We would be overtaken, and then catch up and pass, the attractive Mrs. Jensen, but her 1903 Curved Dash Oldsmobile eventually had her out of it and pushing. But in moments of retribution, our Panhard would recover itself and gallop away, overtaking John Bolster’s younger car of the same make on one such occasion.
There are times when the Brighton Run is rather like banging one’s head against a wall–it’s so nice when you stop! This being the case, it is a great pity that whereas the Police all along the route were absolutely wonderful in the help they extended to the Veterans, in Brighton, except at the very last traffic-lights, they did nothing to assist. Perhaps the Mayor, Alderman A. J. Clarke, who welcomes those taking part in the Official Programme, will look into this before next year’s event? One way in which congestion could be reduced would be for the RAC to disqualify anyone whose veteran is seen to be accompanied by a trailer or tender-car, as these can quite well use the signposted alternative routes, returning the opposite way if a broken-down competitor requires recovery. It is also very poor form for “imitation” veterans to turn out, enjoying the Police facilities intended for genuine competitors. But if congestion was ghastly in places the weather behaved and, having gone down on a 1902 15-h.p. Panhard-Levassor in 1949, driven Lord Montagu’s 1903 7-h.p. Panhard in 1964, and acted as co-driver to that car in 1969, I was delighted to do the Run this year on the famous Le Papillon Bleu. Thanks, Tom Lightfoot.—W.B.
Having had my first experience of the Run on the late R. G. J. Nash’s 1900 Peugeot in 1936, I was delighted to see his son going well on the same car this year.
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Lord Montagu of Beaulieu relied on the 1903 24-h.p. De Dietrich, originally owned by gold-mining pioneer Sir Joseph Robinson, and he arrived in ample time to act as host at his cocktail party.
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In fact, the first arrival was R. R. Loder’s 1898 Stephens dog-cart. It was followed in by Neil Corner’s 1901 four-cylinder Mors, which has air-cooled cylinder barrels. His mechanician was the Hon. Patrick Lindsay, who was being instructed on the technique of filling the oilers before the start.
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In contrast, Sir Clive Bossom, Chairman of the RAC,. who had Fred White of the Metropolitan Police on the 1902 Beaufort, got no further than the House of Commons before retiring.
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Stanley Sears, on holiday from Portugal, drove his racing Mercedes again, at the age of 72, and the Gordon Bennett Napier from the Harrah Museum, running as a stripped racing-car, was an inspiring sight.
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The Show Biz element was out again in some force, Lord Montagu’s 1903 De Dion Bouton being driven by TV comedian Les Dawson, while Sandra Harris of Thames TV had a long speil in the Programme about going on the 1974 Run on a 1904 Darracq that broke its gearbox and retired, and was hoping for a better ride this time. But whatever you think of the event, it has become a great institution, which this year attracted 30 entries from Overseas.