Brighton Run

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Steaming to Brighton

This isn’t about a former journey on the LB & SC railway, but how I did my 37th “active” Veteran Car Run on Bob Dale’s 1900 Gardner-Serpollet. It was my first on a steam-car, although I have been on Foden steam-waggons in two Commercial Vehicle Runs. This year 380 pre-1905 cars started on November 5th in welcome “greenhouse” weather, and by courtesy of Mr Dale I was among them. The Dale family are steam enthusiasts and used as their base Kew Bridge Engine Trust Museum, with its famous working beam-engine, fed, with other engines, from a Lancashire boiler — this fascinating London “backwater” is open every day, from 11 to 5, except for Christmas week, and is well worth a visit.

When the 1900 5 hp (nominal) Gardner-Serpollet arrived from Lincolnshire, trailed behind a Range Rover, I was able to acquaint myself with the mysteries of steam. Leon Serpollet was a pioneer, who by 1902 had taken the LSR to 75.06 mph at Nice, with one of his steam cars. From 1899 he had adopted petrol car trends, eschewing slide valves for poppets and using normal pistons instead of those with crossheads and guides. He was financed by the American Frank Gardner from 1900 but their efforts were perhaps just too late. Production from the Paris works ended in 1907 and an effort to make the cars in Italy ended one year afterwards. Yet Serpollet had made a very effective product, as I was to discover the next day . . .

Mr Dale’s light blue car (D-5633) is a double-phaeton, with the traditional boat-shaped prow, complete with “ship’s rail”. Steered by a small wheel on a vertical column, it has half-elliptic suspension and runs on 875 x 105 Dunlop Cord tyres. It has the expected single-acting, flat-four cylinder engine beneath the floor, fed from a liquid-fired rear-mounted 16-jet burner heating a flash boiler. I am not sure that I fully comprehend the controls, but we will try! Protruding from the steering pillar are two levers, a Serpollet speciality, controlling the eccentrically driven pumps feeding water to the boiler and fuel to the burners. Pressdown grips free these levers from their ratchets. The driver has to play a delicate duet with these two levers, to maintain a proper head of steam.

Forward of the steering wheel is a steam pressure gauge, supplemented by a modern one mounted outboard at the rear of the body and read by mirror. A vertical tube by the column acts as a regulator, or safety valve. Steam pressure is normally 200 to 400 lb/sq.in., but rises to 800 lb. at times. Brass dials on the dashboard — there is no bonnet — comprise a Stewart No.7 speedometer on the right, driven from the n/s front wheel, matched on the left by a clock. Between these are smaller dials indicating temperature of the steam coils and burner fuel feed pressure, the latter maintained by a pump convenient for the driver’s right hand. Small accelerator, warning bell and brake pedals occupy the floor. Inboard of a normal right hand brake is a long lever that builds up steam for starting; to reverse, the engine rotates backward. At the steering column’s base, there is a control for the donkey-pump, a jolly little red knob rising in its tube to show that the pump is working. Domestic stop-cocks behind the front passenger’s legs turn off water and burner feeds. There may be a few more controls i have overlooked! It was the late Kent Karslake, highly experienced in driving all manner of veteran cars, who wrote: “I have myself never attempted to drive a steamer”; which I endorse as a very wise decision!

Fortunately Mr Dale’s son-in-law, who drove us to Brighton, is an expert, who never pulled as up abruptly, gave his passsengeis any bad moments or lost steam pressure. The Serpollet’s rear suspension is harsh, so pot-holes are best avoided, but the ride generally is smooth. The loud exhaust beat as the Serpollet accelerates would please avid vintage-car folk. The pick up is surprisingly quick and none of the hills troubled the car. Steam rises around the seats, the smell rendolent of my model boat days, and shouts from onlookers who think the Serpollet is on fire simply mean that flames are blowing back from the burners, never apparent to the car’s occupants and quite acceptable …

That morning in Hyde Park the burners were roaring contentedly as the carriage lamps, mirror and two-pane, brass-bound windscreen were fitted, the wicker umbrella-basket being already in place. No more attention was required to get away, once the engine was warm.

Originally a condenser was fitted, but as this caused oil to pollute the steam, and its pipes soon sooted-up and corroded, a water tank has been substituted. This may have increased water consumption but we only stopped twice to replenish it, from jerrycans carried in the Nissan Patrol support car, the first time in Redhill, when a detached steam-pipe was also quickly replaced. It was a run that has converted me into a firm Serpollet supporter! It occupied less than four hours, an overall average of about 15 mph, using perhaps 35 gallons of water and some eight gallons of burner fuel. I am indebted to Mr Dale, and to Roger Collings who prompted it, for another very interesting “Brighton experience”.

Not surprisingly, it was Collings who got in first, the now almost immortal Sixty Mercedes co-driven by the great-grandson of Baron de Caters, who drove just such a Mercedes in the 1903 GB race and of whom Charles Jarrott wrote: “A personal and intimate friend, a true sportsman, and the very best of fellows would perhaps sum up shortly his characteristics”. While the Serpollet was stationary in Redhill, Lord Montagu went by very fast on the 1903 GB Napier, ex-Transport Minister Paul Channon his passenger, finishing this time and taking Pyecombe hill on top speed. Following him at a more sedate pace was the Guild of Motoring Writers’ President, Lord Stratchcarron, in his snug Georges-Richard brougham. It was no less than 45 minutes after Collings and de Caters that the next veteran arrived Jane Hutton-Stott in the Lanchester, aided by ex-GP driver lnnes Ireland. HRH Prince Michael of Kent, whose participation and interest in all forms of motoring sport does no much good, was on the RAC’s 1901 15 hp Mors. Third in was Nick Mason’s 1901 Panhard, followed by Mrs Moor (1901 Progress), and Mrs Schieffllin (1900 Panhard) from the USA not that this is a race, whatever the masses of keen onlookers may think!

The Brighton Run is unique and the 1989 event was as enjoyable as ever, if you were an early number and ahead of the traffic jams. WB

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