The Brighton Run

How it Began

The annual London-Brighton Run for veteran (pre-1905) cars has become one of motoring’s biggest and most popular fixtures, attracting a big entry and an enormous concourse of spectators every November. It has its origins in the Emancipation Run of 1896, staged to celebrate a new Act towards greater freedom to use horseless-carriages on British roads, and as a demonstration (that was the intention, not fully achieved) to horseriding and pedestrian citizens of what the new-fangled “autocars” were able to do.

Until the passing of the Locomotives on Highways Act that year, motors had had to observe a speed limit of four mph, which prevented any real progress being made in mechanically propelled road travel, which was beginning to spread its wheels on the free roads of the Continent of Europe, especially in France. The new Act raised the speed limit for such vehicles to 14 mph, although Local Government Boards could, and did, reduce this pace to a legal 12 mph, slower than a trotting horse perhaps, and the police remained antagonistic to the new mode of transport. But 1896 represented a considerable stride forward. It was to celebrate all of this that on November 14th 1896, the London-Brighton demonstration was held.

At breakfast at London’s Hotel Metropole beforehand the Earl of Winchelsea ceremoniously destroyed a red flag, thereby starting a myth which still prevails, namely that until 1896 the person preceeding an “autocar” had to carry one. In fact, this provision had been virtually rescinded 18 years earlier, by the Highways & Locomotive Act of 1878 which was seen to imply that a man was only required to lead a car if it met horses or other tricky situations, thereby removing a severe halter to vehicles’ progress. This notwithstanding, when Wilfred Andrews, the then Chairman of the RAC, completed the 1956 Brighton Run on a 1901 Benz, he destroyed a red flag, and similar inconsistencies have happened since! Even The Autocar got it wrong. As did the RAC MSA in last year’s Kenco programme.

It is hard now to recapture the atmosphere of that Emancipation Run 94 years ago. The roads were primitive, and the weather was unprepossessing, as the pioneers of automobilism in this country, with many well known Continental experts mingling with them, hampered by a lunchstop at Reigate and doubting onlookers on the way, endeavoured to show that they could, sans horses, get from the Metropole Hotel in London to its namesake in Brighton (London-by-the-Sea) in one winter’s day. Racing driver Charles Jarrott, in his excellent book Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing (1906/1912, MOTOR SPORT 1928) remembered “A foggy, dull, wet, typical November morning found me making my way along Holborn to the Central Hall (the garage used to house the cars) to see what was happening. I shall never forget the scene that met my eyes. French mechanics and German inventors, with enthusiasts of all nationalities, were mixed up in indescribable confusion. Huge flares were being carried about from one machine to another to assist in lighting up the burners of the cars. An occasional petrol blaze was seen through the fog which filled the hall, making the scene resemble a veritable inferno. Noise from the motors, which after desperate efforts, the various persons interested had succeeded in getting started, prevented human voice being heard.”

Yet it was an historic occasion. The Autocar, founded the previous November, celebrated it by printing that week’s issue entirely in red ink. The Run had brought over Gottlieb Daimler himself, Léon and Amédee Bollée, and HO Duncan and HJ Lawson, President of the Motor Car Club were there, along with many other celebrities.

Spectators crowded every conceivable vantage point. It was indeed an occasion, although two Englishmen, Henry Hewetson with a Benz and the Hon Evelyn Ellis on his Panhard-Levassor, had used their cars on English roads illegally before this great “awakening”, Sir David Solomans had displayed four motor vehicles at his Tunbridge Wells Show the year before, and the following year Henry Sturmey got a gasolene Daimler from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Alas, after such a passage of time and as no proper records were kept, it is difficult to say exactly what resulted on this first Brighton Run. Only 14 of the starters have been authentically listed. But these included four racing cars. Otto Mayer had the Panhard-Levassor that had won the 732-mile 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race at 15.0 mph, Mayade the Panhard that had finished first in the 1062-mile 1896 Paris-Marseilles-Paris contest at 15.7mph, Merkel another of those Panhards, that was second at 15.5 mph, and McRobie Turrell was on yet another, which had come in fourth in that event.

Besides these famous cars, van Toll drove Gottlieb Daimler on a belt-driven Canstatt Daimler (it had already appeared in the Lord Mayor’s Show, having been bought by Lawson), Ellis had his aforesaid Panhard, the Bollée’s two of their frightening three-wheelers, the boy Gort rode a Beeston tricycle, Archibald conducted an Arnold oil-carriage, Cornell a similar vehicle, and Altree a Panhard dogcart. In addition, two vans took part, forecasting the coming commercial vehicle movement. One was Peter Robinson’s Panhard parcels carrier, fitted up to act as a breakdown tender. Unfortunately, it broke down itself and did not arrive until the early hours of the following day! The other van was Daimler’s works-hack, driven by JS Critchley, works manager of that company.

Some cars arrived at the finish behind horses, others were said to have been put on the train, unloaded at Preston Park (where the Run ended, prior to forming a procession into Brighton) daubed with mud, and masquaraded as finishers. The true results will never be known. But rumour claims that the Léon Bollée tricars got in first and second, some 2 hours 22 mins ahead of the racing Panhards. After this the Run became an annual event. Not always to Brighton, however, Southsea, Oxford and Richmond being other venues. But by 1902 it had petered out.

It was a copy of the 1896 Emancipation Run which the Daily Sketch and Sunday Graphic thought up as being a useful stunt in 1927. By then cars were, of course, a common sight, but among the more modern ones some pre-war examples were still in use, even to a few “turf-turfs”, and others had been put away in factories or left derelict in country barns. To encourage people to bring them together, the newspapers offered prizes for a revival of the original Brighton run. It was a fairly lighthearted affair. Entries were supposed to be at least 21 years old but dating was casual (in later times the Veteran CC was commendably meticulous over this), the car’s occupants tended to dress up in comic style, some cars carried comic notices, and the term “Old Crocks” was applied to the runners, a description that was to persist for many years. However, that did not stop such renowned personalities as Lt Col Charles Jarrott, SF Edge, JS Critchley, JW Stocks, EMC Instone, and WC Bersey acting as Judges.

An elaborate marking system had been evolved, taking into account age, condition, departure from original design, involuntary stops (5 marks per minute), and the shedding of passengers on hills (observed by exchanging them at the start, a method viewed with horror by the VSCC, presumably on the grounds that you might lose your best girlfriend to another driver). I never heard the outcome — of the marking I mean — and think most of the drivers just concentrated on getting to the finish at Patcham by 3pm after a 9am start from the Embankment.

51 aged cars were entered and it is of interest to discover how many of them were in regular use at that time, and to speculate on how many may have been seen on recent Brighton Runs. Thus an 1897 Daimler (I quote ages as then declared) had been in service certainly since 1902, a Panhard of the same age, bought in France in 1904, was said to have been running ever since, one of Vincent of Reading’s collection, an 1899 Benz, was another in general use and also used for cutting timber, and a 1901 Siddeley, entered by University Motors, had, they declared, been used since 1903. There was a 1902 De Dion that was still working every day in Brighton and another that had been working constantly for the previous 12 years.

Then there was a 1906 Renault used from new as a taxi, a Fiat that had given, its proud owner declared, no trouble in the last 70,000 miles, and a Panhard and a De Dion, both 1906, running about as delivery vans, in Belgravia and Beaconsfield respectively. FS Bennett had put in the famous single-cylinder 1903 Cadillac from the 1903 RAC 1000 Mile Trial, which it had re-enacted in 1913 and was to do again in later years, as I well remember. Some cars took part in later events, like the 1898 Stephens, laid up in 1908, and the ex-Queen Alexandra Renault. A 1906 Rolls-Royce already had a more recent sports body by 1927. One Renault declared honestly a non-original Zenith carburettor, others claimed complete originality, like Mary Miles’ 1897 Benz, and the oldest car was John Bryce’s 1893 (?) Panhard (V 46), with centre pivot steering. It is interesting that General Motors had unearthed an Oldsmobile and a Cadillac, Percy Kidner a 1904 Vauxhall, Victor Leverett a Riley, University Motors an early Star to keep its Siddeley company, and that Copley had the Daimler built in 1898 for the Company Manager. The last named had won first prize in a recent Coventry Hospital Carnival and a 1904 Wolseley the Comic Car prize in a Lowestoft fete, being driven afterwards to London to find a home in the Wolseley showrooms.

That was the flavour of this 1927 reenactment of the historic 1896 Run. As a curtain-raiser, the Daily Sketch had held a run for the “Old Crocks” from Grey’s Inn Road to the Olympia Motor Show. The Run itself had 44 actual starters, of which 37 got to Brighton, 21 of them non-stop, over a road much less easy to drive than it is today, if less congested. A pilot car led them, dire penalties being imposed on any veteran that overtook it, emphasing, as ever, that this is not a race! There were the usual adventures. The Riley and the Vauxhall had short circuits in their ignition, the Siddeley lost a pin from the gear lever, the 1897 Daimler with closed bodywork broke a petrol pipe, and the 1897 four-cylinder Panhard van retired at Purley with a cracked cylinder. Even now, better prepared and understood veterans have such troubles! The cars carried huge boards advertising the newspapers concerned, and the crew of GM’s Cadillac (AB 731) all wore top hats. But the future scene was set, as veterans like a Rover (LF 569), Morrison’s solid tyred Benz (A 7510), and the rest made their slow way to the finish. The dinner then was at the Royal York Hotel.

The search soon started for cars suitable for the next Run, more at first for the fun of it than to preserve priceless heirlooms or to enhance social status. Then a penniless 17 year old, I found a suitable De Dion Bouton under a pile of rubbish outside a Waddesdon garage but could not afford the few pounds asked for it. Kent Karslake described well in MOTOR SPORT his search for a Brighton veteran (February, 1931). He found a 6hp De Dion engine in a yard full of traction engines, dated 1902 in a letter from the makers, and at the owner’s house the car to which it had belonged. It was loaded onto a lorry and entrusted to the village garage, whose owner had known a tube-ignition Daimler once used by the local laundry to deliver washing. He set about restoring the derelict De Dion and in time had it running. Indeed, Karslake was able to complete the 1930 Run on it at 15.9 mph, delayed only by water leaks, although an inlet valve head had broken off the previous day.

Long-forgotten veterans began to emerge, from under hedges, in ditches and outhouses. RO Shuttleworth paid 25/ (125p) for a Paris-Amsterdam Panhard-Levassor and got a rocket from pioneer St J Nixon for continuing to drive it to Brighton after its friction-driven water pump had packed up. He replied in polite but terse terms, guaranteeing that in future his veterans would be properly prepared . . . . The Run became bigger and bigger and, apart from World War 2 and the 1947 petrol shortage, was held annually. After the 1930 event the VCC was formed by Masters, Davis and Wylie at The Old Ship in Brighton. By 1931 the RAC was organising this unique event, which was to grow to International status. Average speed certificates were issued to those who reached the finish on time, although this was discontinued after 1938. Madeira Drive accommodated the finishers by 1935 and the Ministry of Works permitted the Hyde Park start from 1936, when the VCC became joint promoters with the RAC.

The fun of finding suitable old cars was enhanced by discovering how they worked. Led for years by industrious Dennis Field, the VCC then dated the “finds”. Some cars were found to be too modern for the Run, and one disgruntled person took his Bollée all the way on a trailer, incensed that it had been dated as 1897 instead of 1896 or thereabouts. Top racing drivers were not adverse to driving the veterans, among them Dick Shuttleworth, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Capt GET Eyston, Stirling Moss (who has recently acquired a primitive veteran of his own), Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham, Mario Andretti, etc. SCH Davis found a 3 1/2hp Benz (BM58), before buying in France his beloved 1897 Bollée “Beelzebub” (CJ458), and in recent times famous pop stars and TV and other Showbiz personalities (including Terry Wogan and Gloria Honeyford) have been persuaded to take the wheel.

The Brighton Veteran Car Run has developed in a way none of the enthusiasts who took part, for a bit of a lark, in the 1920s and 1930s, could have foreseen. But thank St Christopher no-one has listened to the miniscule minority who have advocated making it a summer’s day event, or bringing in the Edwardians to further congest what is now a very overcrowded, but efficiently policed, route. Entries of pre-1905 cars (pre-1904 in 1928) grew from a permitted 250 in 1960, to 270 by 1973, 300 in 1979, 330 by 1984. Last year the permissible number was increased to 330, with 451 hoping to go, as reserves were brought up. They came from America, Germany, France, Belgium the Netherlands, etc, even from as far away as Australia. The Run remains the greatest possible fun, as I can affirm from having watched some of the very early revivals, and with a personal “score” now of 16 drives or co-drives and 21 other “rides”. Sponsored by Kenco it all happens again on Sunday November 4th, starting at 8am from Hyde Park. Watch it by all means, but please give the veterans plenty of roadspace. WB.