Veteran to classic -- London to Brighton

496 veterans

Incredible as it may seem 496 pre-1905 vehicles were entered for this year's Benson & Hedges RAC/VCC Veteran Run to Brighton. Indeed, the programme told of nearly 500 if you believed the RAC/MSA and predicted up to 2 million spectators. Of these, more than 20 of the cars were on their first Run. America had put in 26 entries, Germany ten, France nine, of the nine overseas applicants, four coming all the way from Australia, and the actual number of starters from Hyde Park was 334, led in fine weather by Ruth Moore's 1892 2 hp Panhard with half-an-hour's special dispensation from the otherwise 8 am departure. (It broke a valve spring on Westminster Bridge, repaired with an elastic band, and after one replacement of the same kind, arrived after 6hr 38 minutes). The pack was then let loose, in sunny weather that turned to cruel hail storms nearer Brighton. The list was headed by 72 De Dions, 37 Panhards and 23 Oldsmobiles.

On this, my 38th "active" Run, I had been offered a seat on Greville Neale's 1904 16/20 Aster. So it was up before dawn and off in the Ford 4x4 Sierra to collect driver, his daughter and crew from the RAC, outside the hallowed portals of which stood Collings' stripped Mercedes 60, ready for Ben and his father to drive it quickly to the seaside. The Aster is an interesting car. It was found by Cecil Bendall many years ago and later given its present wagonette body, with two very exposed but comfortable front seats and a sort of dog-cart behind, able to take another four people and the Run has been done successfully many times, even with six up. Mr. Neale bought it from Stephen Langton in 1983.

The Aster Company of St Denis made very good engines, gearboxes, even complete chassis, in the early days, supplied to at least two firms in France and five in Britain, and sold under brand names. So the identity of Neale's car is somewhat obscure, but it is thought to have been sold as a Gladiator when new, but is acceptable to the VCC as an Aster. The neat T-head four-cylinder engine with separate "pots", has a Zenith updraught carburettor low down on the off-side, feeding through well-polished brass manifolding, matched by similar water-piping. Ignition is by a replacement Marelli magneto. The drive goes through a cone clutch, now Ferodo lined, and the three-speed gearbox is controlled by a long gear lever working in a quadrant. Close ratios make this a difficult change, and if a gear is missed you need to stop and sort it out, when the crunching has died down. The owner managed it extremely well in the congested traffic but even he was caught out once or twice, the lever apt to teasingly push one's hand away if a gear has been inadvertently "lost".

A five-spoked steering wheel has the ignition and throttle levers beneath it. Very occasionally mild wheel wobble set in for a few yards. The brakes shoes are brass, now Ferodo-lined, the lever pushing forward to apply them; the foot transmission brake is normally ignored. The piano type accelerator pedal is between the larger pedals and the needs of the engine are looked after by an Aster "oiler" on the low dash, a little plunger pump being depressed to feed lubricant to the glass-fronted drip-feeds, in two pairs, and thence to the main bearings and timing gears, according to the selected setting of the two-way tap beneath the reservoir. This keeps the front passenger busy, but only at wide intervals.

That apart, and the adding of a little water when the radiator, which could have come from an early Humber, began to ask for it, some petrol (average mpg around 20) and stopping at Horley for the generous hospitality at the Forte Crest Gatwick hotel, we had an uneventful journey, occupying overall about 4-1/2 hours. Here I must put in a word for Greville Neale's very skillful "traffic threading", which helped us very materially in getting -- along although the hold-ups seemed less severe this year. Certainly if this 87-year-old Aster had not had very good brakes and a performance that many Edwardians might well envy, we should not have had such a competent journey. The ride is comfortable and the 820 x 120 Dunlops gave no anxiety. Some disquiet was felt when, with what appeared to be an easy dual-carriageway drive to the finish, the veterans were turned left, presumably to avoid road-works, and sent on a long uphill detour before swinging right and back past the Pylons. This must have added quite a few unexpected and difficult miles to the declared 57-mile route on the A23.

However, apart from that hot radiator, it was all in the day's work to the Aster, which had been untroubled by the earlier gradients and once on top speed gets going quietly and remarkably well. An entirely practical veteran, in fact. There seemed to have been more cars stationary along the route than formerly and not so many on the Maderia Drive when we got there. First in, in this non-race, had been John Bentley's 1901 15hp Mors, with a time of 2 hr 14 minutes.

I had seen HRH Prince Michael of Kent come swiftly into the half-way stop on the 1903 32hp Mercedes, followed by his police escort, which it was said had been hard-pressed to keep station — how good that we have this Royal support in so many motoring events. I had also seen Lord Montagu's impressive 1903 22hp Daimler which I drove on the 1981 Run going well, and while we were still some way out, there was the Collings' Mercedes speeding back to Hereford, after an early finish. Thus is this unique and prestigeous event seen in different lights by different entrants. The Neale Aster is, of course, a car well-known in VCC circles, and was once owned by Fred Hodgkinson. After our comfortable Sunday outing, it was trailed home behind a turbo-diesel Citroën CX2500 Safari, ready for the next outing. Incidentally, Neville was experimenting in the Aster with the new Penrite HPR-50 40/70 oil.

His interests are by no means confined to driving his veteran. It began when he was 16 and he and his brother bought, for £40, a rough 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis, from someone who had acquired three Ghosts as a £100 job-lot and who still gets ribbed for making such an excessive profit! They towed the chassis home behind an Austin A40 pick-up; their father was not pleased when he saw it parked in the drive... School holidays were spent working on the bodyless Ghost and driving it round the Worcestershire lanes, sometimes in the snows of winter; it actually handled very well, even to drifting the corners. Later a narrow tourer body was made for it, in the home garage, Graham Neale (no relation) finishing off the body frame, making the panelling, and most of the detail work.

Greville's other car is his 1934 Frazer Nash, which he bought on a very wet Sunday night in 1960. The owner met him halfway and they haggled beneath a railway bridge in Leeds. The car was not really for sale but in the torrential downpour the owner decided he didn't want to drive home and he even came down £35 on the car's value, after finally agreeing to sell it. A short-chassis Meadows two-seater with Shelsley front axle, hydraulic brakes, and a two-seater body, this is "a super road car", which has given Neale years of pleasurable motoring. It was his only means of transport while he was a student at Loughborough College, until he bought from Vaughan Skirrow an LE Velocette, when they both became that rare breed, owners of a chain-drive car and a shaft-drive motorcycle. Having the R-R chassis, Neville had joined the VSCC as a full member while still at school.

Reverting to the Brighton Run, entries came in from 47 counties, led by Surrey and W Sussex and one notes that from the latter Loder's type-9 1897 Peugeot had its original candle lamps, and that Mark Tidy in his Panhard was on his 23rd Run. Gresham's De Dion Bouton was bought by his grandfather at the 1901 Paris Show and used in England until it broke a piston in 1906 and was left in the back of a garage, and Edwin Boorman, Chairman of Kent Messenger newspapers, who used to hold their own veteran runs, was on the 1902 Panhard his father bought from Sir John Prestige for £35 in 1935. The grandson of the maker drove a Dennis, owned by the family since 1935, Tom Wheatcroft had a 1902 Panhard, and the RAC's 1901 Mors was countered by the AA's elegent 1904 Renault (AA 1), the VSCC run a 1902 Wolseley, the Science Museum their 1903 Peugeot, other museums had extracted cars for the occasion, and Ford and Vauxhall had appropriate entries. Certainly a unique event; HRH Prince Michael of Kent was apparently stopped by the police for speeding — on a veteran! We hope to give finishers and retirements next month. -- WB

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Too Big Too Soon

I see from Eoin Young's celebrated Diary column in "Motorcar" that Sir Peter Masefield is searching for two of the Sunbeam "Maori" engines which were in the airship R34 when it crashed in Yorkshire in 1921 after having successfully flown a double-crossing of the Atlantic in 1919. Eoin says these engines were rescued from the wreckage and put into racing cars that were raced by Tim Birkin in 1921 and Malcolm Campbell in 1922, presumably at Brooklands. Now these Sunbeam aero-engines were of 12,728 cc capacity and the biggest car Birkin raced at the Track in 1921 was his 2001 cc DFP and the largest Campbell got his hands on in 1922 was his 7603 cc 1912 GP Peugeot "Bluebird".

The famous 350 hp V12 Sunbeam had a capacity of 18,322 cc but this engine was a sort of hybrid "Manitou", and although Campbell drove this car on the Skegness sands in 1922, it had been built and raced before the R34 crashed and the same engine has always remained in it. It is now an exhibit at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

So it would be interesting to know from whence this odd story comes? Sir Peter knows all about airships, having written that monumental work on the R101 disaster. It is important that the Brooklands Museum, which he is so ably fostering, should be accurate in respect of history. So I hope therefore, that Young will tell us more about these mysterious racing cars with their Sunbeam aero-engines and their two very famous drivers. -- WB