The annual London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run, for vehicles manufactured no later than 1904, is – so far as I am concerned – something of an acquired taste. I had done two Runs before, the last probably in the ’90s. I remember both as having been ‘interesting’ but little more than that. My view was somewhat jaundiced by the fact that since I was the heaviest person on board, the moment any significant uphill gradient was encountered, I was ejected overboard to trot alongside as far as the summit. There are plenty of hills on the Brighton road, so I soon twigged why it is called the Brighton ‘Run’. After four or more hours of that, I was wet, cold and frankly knackered…
Both times when we got to Brighton we were too late to qualify as finishers. Indeed the sun was setting, dusk was closing in, the finish-line arch was being dismantled, and more reliable – or fortunate – cars were already loaded up and being trailed home.
Ooh I’ve just remembered a third Run in which I was involved, on that occasion tuf-tuffing to the startline beside London’s Serpentine in a wickerwork-bodied contraption of French manufacture, with single-cylinder engine somewhere round the back. It had been a 5am start-up just to get to the line. The skies were grey, freezing drizzle drifted down, and seagulls were coughing into the fog. Two of us were crammed into this thing, we were flagged away and that tiny little engine which might – just – have powered an adequate coffee grinder went tuftuf-tuf-cough-urggghhh. And it died.
What blessed relief! We had covered all of 10 yards, and hadn’t even reached the park gates. By this time I was thinking more of a warm coffee bar and breakfast than bracing sea air at Brighton – and we leaped from the car with broad smiles, ready and willing to retire on the spot. But beware the enthusiastic British spectator. Wouldn’t you know there was one right where we stopped. “Bit of trouble boys?” he bawled, followed by the dreaded, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you going” – and he did…
Grim-faced, we tuf-tuffed away onto Park Lane, down Birdcage Walk and past Buckingham Palace… getting wetter and colder by the yard. Over London Bridge, down into Brixton where thankfully the hill finally killed our car beyond sight of any expert spectators. Back into my warm and comfy estate car we then cruised through the appalling traffic down to Brighton, arriving in time for lunch.
I hadn’t even thought of tackling the Run again until Mercedes-Benz offered its Stuttgart Museum 28/32hp 1904 Simplex for last November’s edition. Coo, a proper car – 50mph cruising, gated gearchange, low-slung reinforced steel chassis, honeycomb radiator… one of the seminal Maybach designs with which Daimler AG had first defined the truly modern motor car.
Sure enough, this time we thundered imperiously down to Brighton without the Simplex’s 5.3-litre four-cylinder engine missing a beat. One team-mate was German girl Anke Ruckwarth in her father’s prodigiously powerful Mercedes ‘Sixty’ (horsepower), which she blasted down to Brighton’s Madeira Drive so rapidly that she arrived far too early and was disqualified – an achievement which she wore
But absolute number one for the Mercedes team that day was Nigel Mansell, who seemed really to enjoy himself in the 1904 Mercedes ‘Forty’. He learned to drive it around Lowndes Square in London the previous evening, and did a splendid job on the way down – delighting the Lotus Seven Club members in their rest stop at Hassocks by mixing in extremely well.
But what really entranced the Mercedes mechanics was that while they were hanging around in a pub on the outskirts of Brighton – waiting for yours truly to catch up (honest – he had more than an hour’s start) – Nigel entertained them all with his extraordinary dexterity and new-found talent for card tricks. Apparently he took it up seriously to retrain neurologically after his Le Mans incident, and has found an innate talent for it. Well I never.