Veteran to Classic - Veteran Car Marathons

At this time of year the interest caused by the recent RAC/VCC Veteran Car Run from London to Brighton, an event which attracts a really large number of pre-1905 cars and an equally astonishing number of onlookers, produces a spin-off in veteran car memories. Last month we explained the origin and subsequent developments of the Brighton Run.

A much better organised and altogether more influential happening occurred in 1900, in the form of the 1000 mile Motor Vehicle Trial organised by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland. Although the Emancipation Run of 1896 had been held not only to celebrate the newfound freedoms of autocarists but in the hope of showing non-believers and the uninitiated that horseless carriages were a substitute for horses, the full aim was hardly realized. On the contrary, the 1000 Mile Trial achieved this aim far better. It took place in April and May, when more people were likely to watch the passing vehicles than on a foggy November day, and it went round much of Britain instead of just between London and Brighton. Moreover, the competing vehicles were displayed at one-day shows at the stopping places and were on view at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, on the Saturday prior to the start and for a week at the Crystal Palace on their return.

This ambitious Trial was a real attempt, albeit a brave one, to show off the newfangled motors to anyone who was interested. One who was interested was HRH The Prince of Wales (HM King Edward VII), who soon afterwards purchased his first Daimler, a make which predominated with royalty until the Rolls-Royce found more favour in recent years. The route of this demonstration-cum-trial of 90 years ago was London-Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Kendal, Carlisle, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and back to London, a distance of 1060½ miles. In addition, there was an optional speed trial at the Duke of Portland’s Welbeck Park, over a road which still exists, as MOTOR SPORT described some time ago, and the formidable hills on the route included the 2½-mile Taddington Hill near Buxton, Dunmail Rise near Kendal, and Birkhill near Moffat, while an ascent of Shap Fell was optional. For those who attempted the entire test the mileage rose to 1108½, a formidable distance in 1900.

Nevertheless, 83 motor vehicles were entered and 65 duly started from Hyde Park Corner. As with the Brighton Run, in 1896 and today, the 1000 Mile Trial was not a race. Indeed, strict speed limits were observed. In London the drivers were restricted to 8 mph for the initial 4½ miles, were allowed to increase this to 10 mph, if they could, for the succeeding 6½ miles, thereafter being permitted to proceed at up to the then legal limit of 12 mph, in England and 10 mph in Scotland, although Maidenhead imposed a speed of 6 mph and extracted a Bridge toll of 8d on four-wheeled cars.

After this long passage of time there is little point in trying to record all that befell those intrepid pioneer autocarists, except to say that FTD in the Welbeck speed trial was made by the Hon CS Rolls’s 12hp Panhard-Levassor, at 37.63 mph averaged over the mile uphill and mile downhill course. There was a tie for second place between an 8hp Napier and an 8hp Panhard. Ascents of the aforesaid hills were also timed, FTD up Taddington being made by an Ariel motor-tricycle, at 18.9 mph, Tolls’s Panhard next best, at 17.7 mph, while up Shap Fell from the three-quarter mile from the Bay Horse Inn to the summit, an Empress tricycle was quickest, at 14.48 mph, with Rolls second, at 13.29 mph. However, Rolls had his revenge up the 3000 yard, 1 in 8½/1 in 11, Dunmail Rise, beating Lord Iliffe’s Enfield Quadricycle. Not bad times, surely, back in 1900? When the adventurous finally got to the finish in Whitehall, 12 had been successful, the vehicles they drove consisting of three Daimlers, two Panhards, two Ariels, a Napier, a de Dion Bouton, a Gladiator, a Wolseley and an MMC.

These days, of course, all manner of very creditable long endurance journeys are being accomplished by vintage cars, from that great marathon to Australia by a Roesch Talbot to the Pirelli Classic Marathon and similar events, etc, and next year we are to have the CAAR Nederland’s Amsterdam-Moscow Rally for pre-1960 cars (entries appear to have closed with 119 teams but the organiser is Will de Hek, Frankrijklaan 3,2034 BB Haarlem, Pays-Bas). Nevertheless, it is perhaps interesting to look back to two long runs made many years ago by veteran cars.

The 1000 Mile Trial was continued and in the 1903 event Fred Bennett took part with his then new Cadillac. After an apprenticeship at the Crewe locomotive works, Bennett had been the Pall Mall Electric Company’s resident engineer before joining the Anglo-American Motor Co and bringing Cadillac and Oldsmobile cars to England. The Cadillac was to become the top American car but in those early days it, and the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, were pioneers of the simple peoples’ car, as it were, preceeding the Model T Ford in foolproof design, and in size being a sort of forebear of the Austin 7. The 5hp Curved Dash Oldsmobile had a horizontal single-cylinder water-cooled engine, of 4½ x 6in bore and stroke, under the floor, which drove via a two-speed and reverse epicyclic gear, which in top speed gave a maximum of 20 mph at 760 rpm. The wheelbase was 5ft 7in, and the chassis was sprung on springs extending from axle to axle, rather as on a vintage two-stroke Trojan, providing a flexible ride. Final drive was by a long chain. Steering was by tiller and the weight was a mere 7 cwt. The Curved Dash designation was derived from the shape of the front splashboard, which provided about the only protection from dust and mud. I refer to the early model, as in 1904 a much heavier version with a larger engine was introduced.

The Cadillac of the time was similar, but the 6½hp model had a bore and stroke of 5x5in (1608cc) and a forward radiator, petrol and water tanks being hidden under the bonnet and there was a tonneau body and wheel steering. It was one of these Cadillacs that Fred Bennett used eventually for publicity sprees to publicise his agency for later models of this fine car. It was his idea to stage that Standardisation test at Brooklands in 1908, wherein three brand new single-cylinder Cadillacs were selected from stock by the Technical Committee of the RAC, filled with petrol for the very first time, accumulaters installed, and then driven to the Track, where they did ten laps so that performance could be measured. They were then driven to sheds outside the Track and completely dismantled. In a fourth shed, after all the parts had been thoroughly mixed up by the RAC, two mechanics put first one and finally all three Cadillacs together again, forty new pieces being used to assemble car No 3. After which, all three Cadillacs restarted easily and were driven round the Track. (For further details of this unique test, see page 23 of my Brooklands History).

In 1913 Fred Bennett then used one of these Cadillacs to run a successful re-enactment of the 1903 1000 Mile Trial. In 1924, to celebrate its 21st birthday, the old Cadillac headed a procession through London, followed by the latest in eight-cylinder Cadillac cars in which rode high members of the motoring Press, who had, of course, first been adequately wined and dined. The veteran Cadillac produced more publicity for Fred Bennett than had been visualized, when it caught fire in Grosvenor Square. More fire engines than ever seen before, it was said, rushed to the scene, but rumour has it that they were not allowed to quell the blaze until the photographers were properly lined up!

By 1953, when this venerable one-lunger Cadillac was 50 years old, and Fred was 79, he decided to do another re-enactment of that first RAC Trial in which he had driven the car when it was new. It had clearly recovered long since from its near-fiery end; indeed, Stirling Moss had driven it, with Fred beside him, in the 1952 Brighton Run. Bennett was destined to become the VCC’s President in 1954 and he was the sole surviving driver from the 1903 Trial who could have repeated the run with the same car. He started at 8am each day on the eight routes and, in spite of being ill temporarily, it all went off to schedule. H Henocq, Bennett’s gentleman’s gentleman, prepared the Cadillac, his chauffeur followed the veteran in a modern Ihd Oldsmobile Hydramatic saloon, and the RAC checked things. The VCC provided the observers, Major Broweell on the first day, G Mawer on the Eastbourne route, R Foster to Worthing and back, H Budd doing the Folkstone spell, P Bath the Southsea bit, Dennis Field went to Bexhill, Kent Karslake took the final spell to Brighton and back, while I was on the Worthing journey. The Cadillac’s only trouble were a leaking water pump, dirt in the carburettor, and a loose mudguard. The route (which differed from that of the 1900 Trial) was rendered longer due to having to follow modern road changes, so it added up to 1000 miles plus a Brighton Run thrown in for good measure. On the day I was observing the Cadillac turfed along well, putting some 29 miles into an hour once clear of London and averaging 25.1 mph, running-time.

Fred Bennett had apparently found his original Cadillac again soon after the First World War, before which it had been a chemist’s delivery van from around 1909. Ever one for some publicity and a bit of fun, Fred dug it out for the first Daily Sketch ‘Old Crocks’ Brighton Run and took part with it in most of the subsequent Runs. By 1953 its only concessions to modernity for the 1000 mile adventure were a standby magneto in case the coil packed up and a new battery, but along the years it had needed a new petrol tank, water tank, radiator and one wheel, after some 250,000 miles it was claimed. In the end Fred’s son lent the car to the National Motor Museum and in 1966 I was allowed to co-drive it with Eric Thompson in the Brighton Run, in which we just scraped home in time, after taking up the big-end.

Another veteran marathon of this same kind was staged in 1950, by the well known historian St John Nixon, also re-enacting the 1900 1000 Mile Trial, driving an 1899 3½hp Wolseley OWL 707, which in 1136 miles over the modern roads gave no trouble apart from a broken driving belt. I recall that at the time we were rather amused at this splendid venture, because Nixon had previously expressed the view that ancient cars were historic heirlooms which should not be used again, for fear of damaging them! However, all credit to Nixon, who undertook similar re-enactments in 1960 and 1970. He had some claim to this, as he had as a boy ridden through the original Trial on the step of the 8hp Napier driven by the famous SF Edge. Anyone who has failed to get his or her veteran car to Brighton in recent years may care to reflect on these two marathons which I have plucked out of the past. WB