On a Berliet to Brighton

November marked the 90th anniversary of the Emancipation Run that celebrated the freeing of the horseless carriage from many petty restrictions. Since 1927 this has been commemorated by the veteran car London-Brighton Run, organised from 1930 by the RAC, with the full co-operation of the VCC. This year sponsorship came from RAC Motor Services, with a little low-key help from Mercedes-Benz to remind us that Germany regards 1986 as the centenary of the practical motor-car. A record entry of 416 pre-1905 cars was received, but only 367 started, there being 49 non-starters. This was an enormous number of such cars to handle, but thanks to the police, the marshals, and the marvellous weather, it all went off well, in spite of an accident involving modern vehicles causing a considerable hold-up some miles out of Brighton.

It was excellent, too, that at last food (and loos) were available near the start. HRH Prince Michael of Kent was again at the wheel of the NMM’s 1903 22hp Daimler which I drove in the 1981 Run, but Lord Montagu was less fortunate with his 1899 12hp Daimler, which had petrol-feed problems.

This time, for my 35th participation, Roger Collings had suggested to Louis Holland that he take me in his 1903 20hp Berliet, surely one of the best turned out cars in the event? Indeed, it could have won any Concours d’Elegance, in my view, yet it proved to have all the performance required to make light of the congested, and in places hilly, A23 road on “Brighton Sunday”. Mr Holland has owned it for some seven years, but its earlier history is obscure. It had been registered in Wolverhampton (JW 206) and the Swing-Seat Tonneau body by Carrosserie Burgeon & Cie of Bordeaux had been replaced for the Run with a sporting but comfortable two-seater body, and third little seat up behind, although the original body has been retained. This was appropriate, because this Berliet could at one time have been a racing car.

Three things suggest this. Firstly, the wheelbase is quite short, around 76″. Then the little pump which pressurises the exhaust gas feed of petrol and oil to the Berliet’s engine should this falter is mounted at right-angles to the chassis frame on the near-side along with the cut-out control, neither of which can be reached by the driver, but which are placed conveniently for a mechanic carried on the car’s step. And the big front mudguards are each attached by just one nut, implying that their quick removal at speed venues was once in mind. In fact, Berliet did build racing cars, a 6.3-litre coming in third in the 1906 Targa Florio and a 3.8-litre Berliet finishing 2nd in that year’s TT, in both cases driven by the Marseilles agent, Paul Bablot.

Be that as it may, Louis Holland’s car is a very fine veteran, as docile as it is powerful, so just the job for coping with the traffic, the hills and the hold-ups of the Brighton Run. It follows the advanced specification pioneered at the time by Mercedes, of honeycomb radiator, pressed steel chassis frame, gate gear-change, etc, Marius Berliet of Lyon, who had started making automobiles in 1895, following this lead, like other manufacturers of high-grade cars, from 1903. The Berliet’s four-cylinder engine has mechanically-operated overhead inlet valves, its low-tension magneto converted to h.t., and is fed by a large Zenith carburetter on the off-side, which has its own drip-tray.

The drive goes via a plate clutch, not the Mercedes-type scroll clutch, with final drive by side chains. There are small shock absorbers for each axle, so that in spite of its short wheelbase the Berliet rides road irregularities well, and the big wheels are shod with 795 x 105 Dunlop Cord tyres. There is an undersheld on the chassis and it is interesting that the timing gears at the front of the engine are enclosed in aluminium cases, whereas even Mercedes were not adverse to leaving the “mangle-cogs” exposed. The car’s accoutrements include London-made Salisbury Flario headlamps, candle sidelarnps by Lanternes Willocq-Bottin of Buxelles, a “curly” bulb-horn, and matching rear lamps.

I must commend Mr Holland in the way the car was turned out.  The engine was spotless, all the brass, of lamps, long unsupported steering-column and control levers, etc. absolutely gleaming, the paintwork spotless. Around 8.30 am on this beautiful morning the engine was cranked-up, the three of us climbed aboard, and we were off, on what is claimed to be the most prolifically supported motoring event of them all.  

All this was soon forgotten as Louis coped skilfully with the congestion and the trailers and the modern cars that impeded our passage. Very soon one realised how free from the usual vibration the Berliet is, its front mudguards just flapping slightly as bumps were encountered, not shaking violently as is so often the case with a veteran, and no tremors being felt up the steering column. When we took Brixton Hill as if there was no gradient to climb I realised what a splendid car this 1903 Berliet is, never mind its age…  It fairly galloped on the clear stretches, engine beat merging with the hum of the chains, although I admit that somewhere around Coulsdon Roger Collings’ Mercedes thundered past, still on its trial-size back tyres.

Later I was allowed to drive. I found the clutch smooth, the gear change easy, once I had remembered that the brake lever is inboard of the gear lever and one must not attempt to shift with the former!  You come out of second and “round the corner” into third, and then forward into top gear, a wonderfully smooth and pleasing rnovement, the lever having a long sweep.

The hand-brake is used to slow the car but I preferred the more powerful foot-brake — in fact, there are two brake pedals, but you tread on the big one. The piano-pedal accelerator is well over on the right. An advance and retard lever shares the big brass quadrant above the steering-wheel with the hand-throttle and needs no attention. The steering is accurate, but heavy on corners, due to tight king-pins.

The Berliet makes little demand otherwise on its driver. The only things on the footboard to glance at occasionally are the six lubrication drip-feeds and the Berliet manometer, the latter reading up to five metres and indicating whether exhaust-fed pressure is being maintained, or needs supplementing with the aforesaid pump. This dial is matched by a little brass clock (keeping correct time, naturally!) and there is a tumbler-type ignition switch, and on the left a device for reducing exhaust pressure if this becomes too high. That is all, so the driver is able to concentrate on the enjoyment of the Berliet’s considerable performance. Incidentally, although we stopped for sustenance for a short time, we were on the Maderia Drive well before midday, the accident tailback included, and although Louis was soon going to drive back to his home in London (he has no use for trailers or tenders), no petrol, oil or water had been added during our pause. What is more, Mr. Holland has such faith in Dunlop that no spare tyre was carried.

He certainly has a very fine car in this Berliet; it is easily possible to imagine it taking its occupants down to Brighton in contemporary times, with all the nonchalance of a modern car today, and much more enjoyable. — W.B.