The Inimitable Veteran C.C. Event Recalled by John Bolster, who used to compete successfully with a 1903 Panhard
NOW that all real motoring is at a standstill, and even talking cars over a pint has become a rare pleasure, the average motoring enthusiast probably spends many hours as I do, dreaming about the fun we used to have. There were those journeys to distant places, with the “Special” on a trailer behind the “30/98” Vauxhall and a passenger posted to watch constantly astern for speed cops. There was the thrill, ever new, of trying to keep the “racer” straight while it accelerated like a bullet., and sometimes there was even the pleasure of achieving a “fastest time of the day.” Those were happy days, but yet there was one red-letter day in all the year which excelled every “dice” in enjoyment. I refer to that day each November when about a hundred cars, all manufactured before 1905, started off from London in their attempt to get to Brighton.
The last two or three runs have been organised with a strict time schedule and a compulsory lunch stop, which has rather spoilt the free-and-easy nature of the thing, though I suppose it was necessary to prove that it wasn’t a race. However, it was the earlier runs which were particularly enjoyable, and I shall try to describe a typical one of these.
The start was from a big London garage, where we had left our car a few days previously to be scrutineered. We arrived very early to make sure that she was in good fettle for the run, and as dawn broke my brother was greasing chains or checking the action of the drip feeds for the oil. I was removing the sparking plugs to put a little petrol in the cylinders for an easy start, and my wife was fitting numbers or polishing brasswork. Of course, the car had been meticulously prepared weeks beforehand, but you can’t be too careful. Anyway, about the time when we simply couldn’t think of anything else to check over, we heard some of the earlier starters being warmed up. The oldest cars were started first, and the others followed in order of age, at half-minute intervals, the parking arrangement in the garage facilitating the process by the very old gentlemen occupying the ground floor, and the comparative youngsters coming down later in lifts from the higher floors. As our car, a 1903 Panhard et Levassor, was one of the later starters, we had time to go downstairs and see the earlier people go off.
The 1891 Connstatt Daimler was the first to leave, followed by a number of Benz and Benz-type cars, such as the Star Dogcart and the Arnold Motor Carriage. The Benz device consists of a two-seater, with tiny front wheels and enormous back ones, the horizontal single-cylinder engine operating a countershaft through a two-speed belt drive, and the countershaft, which carries the differential, urging the back wheels through a pair of very flimsy chains. If that were all, no harm would result, but in order to start off you have to use a thing called a “Crypto,” which is a subsidiary epicyclic reduction gear, and is so violent in action that the lightly loaded front wheels invariably leap high in the air, assisted by the weight of the engine, which is carried above the back axle. We laughed at our friends going through this indignity, but an even better laugh was to come, when Andy Leitch (of Bugatti fame) arrived on the line with the 1900 Begot et Mazurie, because this is quite the smallest car there has ever been, and Andy is so enormous that he absolutely dwarfs the little machine. There was a colossal crowd outside the garage, applauding each car as it set off on its exciting journey, and when one of the drivers made a bad gear change, the applause turned to shrieks of laughter and boos, which suddenly made me remember that our Panhard has a very difficult gear change. I immediately suggested to my brother that he should take the first shift of driving, but he said it was my turn to drive the London end of the journey, as he had had that job last time, and those slippery cobbles and tramlines just weren’t funny!
When we went back to our Panhard to warm her up we found that the exhaust fumes of the earlier cars had absolutely filled the building, and it was almost impossible to breathe. We watched Dick Nash winding furiously at his Panhard before it would start, and then I told my brother that if I was having first shift of driving, he was in for first shift of winding. I flooded the carburetter and closed the choke, retarded the ignition commutator and switched on the trembler coils, and brother Richard, with a thick leather glove to protect his hand, attacked the starting handle. Incredible to relate, she burst into life with one pull up, and was quite soon running at her working speed, at which she is maintained by a centrifugal governor. I suppose it would not be very original to describe the ensuing scene as bedlam, but by the time all the cars on our floor were running, it was hardly possible to see for fumes, and everyone was coughing and wiping their eyes. The noise, though, was delightful, compounded of the quick “tuff-turf-tuff” of the single-cylinder De Dions, the much slower “terff-terff-terff” of the Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the uneven “putter-putter” of the twins, amid the steadier rumble of the rare and exalted four-cylinders. Our two-cylinder Panhard often made an extra loud “chuff” when the action of the governor caused an explosion in the silencer, but we knew that this was a sign that everything was adjusted correctly, so were not as alarmed as some of our friends.
Eventually, when almost suffocated, it came to our turn to go down in the lift, and most of the way down I held the clutch out, so that the enormous cone would have time to slow down enough for first gear to engage without too much noise. This was fairly successful, and we were flagged off by the starting marshal and got away without a spectacular leap, soon achieving our maximum speed of 7 m.p.h. in bottom gear. It was then regrettably necessary to transfer the gear lever to the next notch on the quadrant, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as the engine always runs at a constant speed, though it can in some way be influenced by the “act of God pedal,” which has a slight effect on the governor. However, if you don’t shift rapidly, she won’t “take” the next higher gear, so the quickness of the hand had to deceive the gearbox, and we got cracking with only a fair amount of laughter from the crowd. On second gear she will approach 20 m.p.h., and this is a nice ratio for traffic, which you can nip through very prettily with the high-geared steering and short wheelbase. If you apply the handbrake, there is a hissing noise from the rear of the car and the clutch is automatically disengaged, whereas if you apply the footbrake there is a chattering noise under the floorboards and the clutch, again, is put out. As neither of these methods results in much retardation, I thought that second gear would do very nicely, but another competitor was catching us up, so in went top gear. The car got into her stride, and soon we were dashing along at 32 m.p.h., which meant close oil 1,000 r.p.m., and gave an impression of speed about equivalent to 90 m.p.h. in a modern car.
Very few people understand quite what a constant-speed engine entails. In the case. of our Panhard, running on a level road, you can choose between driving at 7, 20 or 32 m.p.h., and although the “act of God pedal” may vary the rate to a certain extent, the gears are “speeds,” as they were always termed in days of yore. All the gears are indirect, and top gear can only be used under favourable conditions, so that in a “scrap” with another veteran, smooth and rapid gear shifting is a sine qua non. In our case, the journey to Brighton was enlivened by numerous “races” with other competitors. The very old cars, such as the Benz, were passed as if stationary, and the Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs were fairly easy meat, as were the Bollees and M.M.C.s. The Darracqs, on the other hand, made short work of us, the big Mercedes left us standing, and the Lanchesters could pass us on a hill. The larger De Dion however, were just our match, and we would pass and repass, the passengers sitting on the floor to improve the “streamline,” and the drivers making appropriate gestures of joy or despair, according to their fate. It was wonderful how the very heavy traffic on the road made way for us, and how the police would help us in every possible way, so that all rules of the road were waived in our favour, and we were kings for a day.
At last, yet all too soon, the Pylons told us that we were entering Brighton, and checking in at the Madeira Drive, we found that we had averaged 23 m.p.h. We had made the journey non-stop, but as we walked among the cars, and congratulated those of our friends who had won through in spite of serious troubles, we remembered our first Brighton Run, when the radiator burst, and my wife in the “30/98” collected vast quantities of water, which we poured through a funnel to keep the engine cool, the water cans being passed from car to car at our full 32 m.p.h. So at last we were at Brighton, but that is over 50 miles from my home, so after supplying ourselves with food and drink, the Panhard had all her greasers, drip feeds, etc. attended to, and, after a certain amount of winding, the old engine said “putter-putter,” and off we went on the homeward journey. We got through Lewes before stopping to light the oil lamps, and then, in pouring rain, had almost reached Tunbridge Wells when death from exposure seemed imminent, and a public house had to be visited to get a little warmth into our frozen carcases. Coming out of the warm pub, it seemed suicide to climb on to the Panhard and battle against the wind and the rain. As soon as the old car was clattering, though, we forgot all discomfort, and the task of picking out the road by oil light, coupled with the pleasure of increasing the performance with accurately timed gear changes, made the miles seem shorter. Soon we were splashing through Tonbridge, Ightham, Wrotham, and up Wrotham Hill (with, as they used to say, “power in hand”), and in a few minutes we were home. The engine was switched off, the enormous flywheel gradually slowed, the automatic inlet valves gave a last convulsive snort, and the Panhard settled down to her well-earned rest. We were very proud of our veteran after this non-stop run, especially when a letter arrived from the Panhard works in Paris congratulating us on our performance, and saying that some of the men who built our car were still employed at the works.
In addition to the Brighton Run, the Panhard has competed in a lot of Veteran Car Club events, some of which have entailed quite long journeys, 170 miles in a day being about the best we’ve done. She doesn’t always complete her journeys non-stop, in fact one usually seems to arrive at one’s destination with oily hands, but whatever happens, it always seems to be possible to make a temporary repair at the roadside, and her slow-revving engine seems quite unwearable. Before making a long run, a couple of hours of greasing and oiling is needed, but sometimes I think that the more preparations you have to make, the more you enjoy the drive. It is partly the feeling that without intelligent preparation and skilful driving a breakdown is almost inevitable, and partly the sensation of living again in the very earliest days of motoring history, that makes Veteran motoring the best there is.