Street cars of desire

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On the first Saturday of November, with Christmas shopping underway and under the ‘festive’ lights, Regent Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares in London, was closed to traffic. But not to cars.

They called it the biggest free motor show in the United Kingdom. That is no surprise, bearing in mind where it was, and that it cost not a penny for people to get amongst it. Tag lines aside, it was certainly an ambitious project, bringing together in three separate zones, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, said to be the world’s oldest motoring event, the RAC Future Car Challenge, one of the newest events on the calendar and ‘The Nation’s Favourite Cars’ which was essentially the best of British automobile design and engineering.

The marketing literature tells me that Regent Street is “where the world comes together” and that “time is always well spent” in Regent Street. Both of these claims, as I discovered, are true. The place was heaving with tourists, shoppers and curious passers-by. And it was time well spent, a nice relaxed liffle motor show in the early winter sunshine.

Imagine the red tape and paperwork involved in closing a main street. I was told this involved the Metropolitan Police, Westminster Council, the Chamber of Commerce, safety permits and no doubt the odd risk assessment or two. These things are not done on a marketing man’s whim. The presence of DayGlo-jacketed ‘Civil Law Enforcement Officers’ (parking wardens to you and me) in a closed street was never explained.

There was even a Jubilee angle, this the display of cars built during the six decades that Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne. The ones we found in Regent Street were, according to a readers’ poll in a motoring magazine, the nation’s favourite cars. Plenty of lovely Jaguars, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces and MGs. There was loud ‘live’ music and a lot of chaffer from a stage in Beak Street which I thought rather jarred with the tranquil business of just wandering around among some interesting cars.

There is something so fascinating about the London-Brighton run for those ‘old crocks’, a term of endearment for the cars that were built before 1905. What is amazing is that there are still this many, about 500 in all, that are capable of moving around, let alone moving from London to Brighton. November is not the perfect time for this run because cars didn’t have heaters in those days and so most drivers and passengers were swathed in rugs. But that’s all part of the joy of it, I think, why we stand and marvel at how far the motor car has come.

Both poles of the automobile’s progress over the past century were represented once the entrants of the RAC Future Car Challenge arrived to line up beside the veterans, following their early-morning run from Brighton. Renault triumphed in the overall production car stakes on this third annual event for low-emission vehicles with its five-door electric Zoe, the so-called ‘supermini’ completing the journey in an allocated time with the least amount of energy used. Models from both Vauxhall and Mercedes-Benz also claimed class wins.

One of my favourite snapshots of the show was an AustinHealey 3000 rally car parked alongside the new McLaren MP4-12C. The Healey looked as fast and purposeful as the McLaren though they were built half a century apart. Meanwhile, the Ferrari store, which is a permanent fixture along Regent Street, was doing brisk business in a line of shoes and shirts branded with a Prancing Horse, and young lads had their photos taken siffing in a Grand Prix car.

But the biggest crowd was drooling over the veteran cars as they got up steam for their run down to the coast. Lots of good smells and sounds here. The Brits love their fix of nostalgia and so, it seems, do the visitors from the far reaches of the globe.

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