The Veteran Car Run
The Editor Drives the National Motor Museum’s 1903 De Dion Bouton
THE RAC Veteran Car Run is now one of the great motoring fixtures of the year, enjoyed by members of the VCC and the public and attracting about as much news coverage as a Grand Prix. The Run had 59 entries of pre-1905 primitives in 1930, by which time it had become properly established, and the number rose to 100 by 1935,167 by 1951, and was up to more than 200 by 1954. This year the Police, who expressed an especial desire to give the old vehicles an easy passage from London to Brighton on November 4th, permitted 330 veterans to start. As on many occasions in the past, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu lent me a suitable car, this time the National Motor Museum’s 1903 6 hp Q-type De Dion Bouton, Reg No AA 20.
I had a successful Run on it in 1962 with the late Michael Sedgwick as my passenger, so knew something of it. It was the very first car exhibit in Lord Montagu’s original Montagu Motor Museum, now the NMM, having been used on his father’s Beaulieu estate as a hack from 1910 to 1930. It is the epitome of the sensible, smaller veteran and more of this make than any other have survived to take part in the Run. The product of the aristocratic Count dc Dion and the undistinguished-looking Georges Bouton, it represented extremely practical motoring when that pursuit was in its inf..), and so was very appropriate for driving in the Brighton Run. The engine, using electric ignition, was a high-speed unit for its day, the two forward gears were selected by expanding clutches, thereby avoiding any fears novice, lady or even an advanced driver might have of changing speed on a “crash” gearbox, and at the back, inherited from steam-carriage days, was the famous De Dion back-axle, used then more to reduce unsprung weight and help the tyres than with thoughts of faster cornering in mind. The constant-mesh gears obviated the then customary whine of the “crash” box. The model-Q had the vertical single-cylinder engine set in front, beneath a typical coal-scuttle De Dion bonnet. Here then was a very practical 1903 motor car selling in 1903 for about £200. You can no longer buy them for that sum today, however, in spite of the numbers of “Ding-Dongsthat have survived. . . In 1962 Lord Montagu’s little De Dion got me to Brighton satisfactorily but I was quickly made aware that what was the most simple and foolproof form of control on the clear roads of the early 1900s was not at all easy in the heavy traffic of “Brighton
Sunday-. the problem is that when a quick stop has to be made the right hand is pushing on the external brake lever while the left hand is endeavouring to persuade the gear-selector handle on the steering column to find neutral, and if the tiny throttle and ignition levers on the opposite side of the column slack back, the engine will stall. However, Lord Montagu’s engineers had set things up so that the engine idled well, and they had thoughtfully marked the place on the gear-quadrant where neutral should be. Nevertheless, I confess to stalling when I shouldn’t have and finding driving the little car very hard work, although the De Dion is very docile if coaxed along in traffic mainly on its low-speed clutch and the spark advance, which is the lever set just above the hand-throttle, so that both can be moved forward together to speed up the engine. Every five miles or so you feed oil from a plunger-pump labelled as supplying various parts of the hidden mechanism. But the foot transmission brake, and the little lever called the decelerator that alters the opening
of the exhaust valve, I was advised not to use. To reverse you select top gear after first depressing another pedal. That’s about all there is to it. The long-stroke engine slogs splendidly up hills, athough 49 cc smaller in size than that of an A7, its automatic inlet valve chattering happily. So I was all set for a good “Brighton”. Lord Montagu generously laid on an early breakfast for his guests, who included HRH Prince Michael of Kent who was driving the RAC’s 1902 10 hp Wolseley, at the friendly, obliging Royal Lancaster Hotel, conveniently near the Hyde Park start and with a useful garage on its roof. He also stood everyone lunch at the “Ship Hotel” in Brighton, where the VCC of GB was founded 54 years ago. For Lord Montagu it was a family Run. Lady Montagu was driving the 1901 Progress Voiturette, Ralph Montagu the Museum’s 1903 12 hp Daintier, and Edward himself the historic 1899 Daimler that his father drove in the Paris-Ostend contest of that year, it thus being the first British car raced on the European Continent. I was fortunate to have as my passenger a NMM Trust member, Mr. W. E. Everett, whose interest normally is V12 and other Jaguars, but who wanted to experience a Brighton Run. He proved a splendid companion, willing to crank the De Dion’s engine innumerable times and flood its carburetter when a mysterious fuel starvation malady stopped as on a number of occasions on the latter part of the route. In 1962 the De Dion got me to Brighton in about four hours. However, both car and driver have become older and this year, although the traffic problems were relatively light, with the most depressing hold-up of all at Bolney, the journey took some six hours, including a pause for hospitality at the Gatwick Penta Hotel and a few more stops to top-up with water, as the under-bonnet tank feeding the low-set frontal gilled-tube radiator had opened-up a seam. This was never a real problem, the steam disappearing when we were on the move, and there is a pump to help circulate the coolant. However, without the help of Mr Everett and the preparation done by the Museum’s Chief Engineer Howard Wilson, and Roy Brunskill, Norman Legg and Douglas Hill, my 33rd “active” Run would not have been anything like so easy. • . . The De Dion really is a pleasant little car, and must have been simplicity itself to drive on former “open” roads, as I have said. The single-cylinder 698 cc engine does vibrate excessively at idle, so much so that the top of one of the Lucas “King of the Road” headlamps worked loose, but the Dunlop 700 x 80 tyres gave us no trouble. In their heyday the small De Dions were very popular with doctors, lady motorists and others. When the great motoring historian Kent Karslake found a 3-speed 1902 6 hp model (with normal clutch and gearbox) as a box of bits, in the summer of 1930, similar to the one his father had bought new, he thought well
enough of it to get the local garage to build it up, so that he could drive it in that November’s Brighton Run, in the days, long since gone, when all such veterans were invariably called “Old Crocks”, the drive taking 3 hr 36 nun 5 sec, equal to a 15.9 mph average, and the late Anthony Bird, who wrote the definitive De Dion Bouton history, said of the 1904 8 hp De Dion he used as everyday transport in 1947 that “it performed nobly in spite of its age and the only time I found the vibration a nuisance was when I tried to light the sidelamps when the engine was running”. . . He confirmed what I discovered, that the steering with the small wood-rimmed five-spoke wheel is very light and said that the 6 hp model certainly deserved its appellation of the “PopuLaire”. Another historian, St John Noxon, wrote of De Dion and Bouton that they were the first to throw open the doors of motoring to the millions, and the general quality of their productions earned for them a world-wide reputation. The 6 hp De Dion was in production from 1901 to 1905, in five variants, and the Q type was only available in 1903/4. When driving in the Run there is not much chance to take stock of how others are faring but I met Roger Collings when he was
going fast back to London afterwards in the indomitable Sixty Mercedes and learned that he had had a puncture, and one noticed many who had not made the Pylons by the required time of 4 pm, including Colin Crabbe’s enclosed-bodied 1898 Delahaye. It was good news that Rosemary Bolster had driven the 1903 Panhard-Levassor which her late husband John ran for so many years. At breakfast I had met a keen contingent from Indianapolis who had brought over their 1904 20 hp Premier.
One amusing aspect of the 1984 Ran was that, in the official programme, my passenger was quoted as one “J. Hunt”. This resulted in shouts from the onlookers intended for the former Grand Prix driver and TV commentator. But James had had the good sense not to turn out for what could have been a wet and beastly ride; in fact, the weather was glorious, and Brighton certainly deserves some sunshine, after recent sordid events. . . . Continuing my weekend “French Connection”, I used a comfortable and useful Renault II TXE five-door hatchback as my back-up car, which on the Sunday evening made light and economical work of the 250-mile run home to Wales via London. More about this modern French car next month. W.B.