Driving the Veterans

When the plea goes out to drivers of more modern cars to give the veterans plenty of road space on Brighton Run Sunday this does not imply that they have ineffective brakes or are in any way dangerous. They require MoT certificates of roadworthiness like any other car that has had at least three years' usage. They do not career out of control down the hills; it is simply that they need more space than today's powerfully braked cars in which to pull up, and that if impeded it takes a long time for their slow-speed engines to pick up. Some of them have quite normal controls. Others have distinctly individual features. Years ago, when these veteran cars had been largely forgotten, much of the fun was discovering how they were intended to work and how to drive them, in the absence of instruction books. It is now very different. Most owners have come to terms with their ancient vehicles, which are invariably in excellent condition. This notwithstanding, the Brighton Run is still an adventure and some new techniques have to be observed, among those who are handling these very aged motor cars.

I recall a few of the veterans' idiosyncracies. For instance, while a 1903 698cc single-cylinder De Dion Bouton had much to recommend it on the congestion-free roads of its heyday, it is less easy to conduct through thick traffic. This is because its driver needs more than a mere two hands to control it effectively! The two gears are engaged by a lever beneath the steering wheel. This also controls the clutch. To obtain neutral the lever has to be centralised, from full forward to engage top speed or fully back, through some 90 deg, to get "low". That is fine if the clutch then fully disengages. But if a quick stop is called for, the right hand will be pushing forward the outside lever that applies the brakes. So no hand remains free for steering, or for playing with the tiny throttle and ignition levers should the engine decide at that moment that it wants to stall. It is not always easy to find the exact spot on the quadrant where the clutch can be made to free; the only mild "bump" I have had on a Brighton Run resulted from this deficiency — very slowly into an extremely rusty Datsun, the Asian owner of which yelled abuse and wanted the police fetched immediately.

Much less difficult to control was a 6hp horizontally-engined 1904 Brushmobile, in which I completed successfully three Brighton Runs — perhaps familiarity helped. Anyway, its 978cc single-cylinder engine pulled down to incredibly low revs, so that changes of gear using the righthand quadrant-lever were not often required, and were anyway easy. Speed was controlled by a hand throttle — no foot accelerator — which as on a Morgan 3-wheeler, would disappear as one turned the steering wheel. The engine was really a single-speed affair, taking its time to get up to its maximum of about 600 rpm. But if you were patient this was no problem and the brakes, foot and hand controls actuating on one drum each, were more than adequate.

Two veterans which I found far more tricky were a 1903 6hp Humberette and an 1898 3 1/2hp Decauville. The Humberette had a detachable starting handle which you had to wind anti-clockwise and which was apt to fly off into one's face. The singlespoke steering wheel controlled higher geared steering than I had ever before encountered and around it were clustered two gear levers and three more controls. Being below the steering wheel the gear lever had to be fumbled for and if you found it while cornering the wheel-spoke would endeavour to chop off your hand. The engine responded so slowly to the little throttle lever that by the time one had found top speed it was necessary to get back into "low" on the two-ratio box. There was also an air lever in front of the steering wheel to play with, as on a motorcycle, and as the foot transmission brake seemed ineffectual, it was desirable, when traffic cut in, to reach for the outside handbrake, which worked the diminutive back-wheel brakes, disengage it with difficulty from its ratchet, and push it forward. There was also a bulb horn I couldn't reach and a mirror I could see nothing in.

The Decauville twin, composed of two single-cylinder De Dion engines on a common crankcase, giving 479cc, was steered by a sort of crossbar and started actually quite easily, by winding a chest level starting wheel. The little engine easily took top gear (again, there were but two speeds), the clutch was light and progressive, but engaging low speed carelessly would stall the engine.

The ride was comfortable in spite of the absence of back springs, weather protection entirely absent. (To compensate, there was independent front springing.) One problem was keeping the ignition advanced, with a tiny lever between my legs, its ratchet inoperative and my passenger's hand too frozen to hold onto it.

Fortunately, the Humberette expired with a "flat" battery just outside Hyde Park, and I felt justifiably able to retire the Decauville at Redhill as it was seizing up and its trembler-coil was only feeding one plug. Incidentally, an oil can would have been needed every 30 miles to lubricate the exposed gears and the four plain bearings of the back axle.

In contrast to these two, driving a 1903 vertical-twin 1.6-litre Centaure-engined Panhard was much less troublesome. The position of the piano-pedals was awkward, the steering heavy and very direct, but otherwise it was easy, after the 3-speed quadrant gearchange with shorter lever movement between bottom and second than between second and top had been mastered, especially as the one-time steering wheel spoke twist-grip controls had been deleted. Less simple, those "one-lunger" veteran Cadillacs, also of 1.6-litres! There is a pedal with which to get the low-speed, which has to remain trodden on until you want the high-speed, when a long right-hand lever has to be pushed forward, feeling as if it is engaging a clutch, which it is. Neutral is obtained by pulling this lever back, reverse by pushing it further back. A pedal applies the contracting rear brakes. If better braking is required, reverse is eased in. Once understood, however, these simple Cadillacs present no anxieties; they slog like mad, yet will gallop along splendidly.

Experience of the mighty Sixty Mercedes suggests that it is not all that simple to master, and the scroll clutch, while providing super grip, can engage fiercely. (Comment from Collings forthcoming?) The Daimler-Benz Museum's 1902 Benz Spider, a lusty 3-litre horizontal-twin, was sampled briefly on the Brighton road and found to have light steering, the engine speed controlled mainly with the mixture lever, a centre pedal you have to press to engage the belt drive, then step on another pedal to engage neutral or for changing gear, this pedal also being connected with the handbrake. The gear lever for the 4-speed box is of quadrant-type and a separate lever puts in reverse.

Lord Montagu's fine 1903 22hp 4 1/2-litre four-cylinder Daimler is rather like an early vintage car to control, clutch and gearshift easy, the brakes powerful, and plenty of power, although the push-on handbrake is somewhat difficult to use, having a strong affinity for its body-mounted ratchet. Reverse is selected with its own lever.

Once understood, a 1902 8hp Beaufort was also simplicity to drive, but two hands were again needed to free a reluctant handbrake from its ratchet, and more than one right hand would have been useful for moving the advance and throttle levers, which move in opposite directions, and the gearlever of this single-cylinder car across the quadrant; however, the transmission brake is notably reassuring, steering light and accurate. Another veteran calling for no special skill is the 1903 20hp Berliet, remembered for accurate steering, a smooth clutch, and a nice gearchange once I had ceased to try to shift speeds with the close-set handbrake and had discovered that to go from 2nd to 3rd you have to go "round the corner" of the gate. Of the two brake pedals, it is customary to use the bigger one. As on most veterans an occasional glance has to be kept on the oil dripfeeds, and in this car, on the exhaust pressure (fuel-feed) manometer.

More in the "early primitive" tradition was a 1901 solid tyred 10hp Wolseley, horizontal engined, of course. It really required driving with legs crossed, because the clutch pedal was on the right, brake on the left! I had almost to stand up to get the clutch cones to free and the pedal travel was very short, although the drive engaged smoothly. The steering was also very heavy. The gears engaged nicely going up, but going down the delay was so long that crunching the cogs in seemed to be the accepted practice. Engine vibration was pronounced when idling and you drove it on the ignition and gear levers.

But all this gives the impression that I am an expert, which I most certainly am not! As for the speed of the veterans, back in 1930 the slowest London-Brighton average was 7.10 mph by Shuttleworth's 1896 Daimler, the fastest 27.72 mph, by Fedden's 1903 Mercedes.