As the furore over eligibility for this year’s Brighton Run subsides, Bill Boddy looks back over many years of participation in this truly special, quite unique — and very British — event
Some who drive their ancient cars in this celebrated winter outing may regard it as a challenge just to take their pre-1905 primitives on the 56-mile journey. Others who do so may be aware that they are recalling for those who turn out to watch their passage – and the spectator interest all along the route from the Hyde Park start to the finish at Brighton’s Madeira Drive is quite remarkable – an important landmark in motoring history.
Whatever, this is a great happening, the challenge undeniable, as I have seen on a number of occasions, thanks to those who generously let me ride on or drive their veterans on this inimitable outing through wintry sunshine or pelting rain.
As soon as I heard about this splendid affair, from the pages of The Autocar, I had to watch it. This involved a visit to the London garage the day before the start, where popping and banging and chuffing indicated that the curious ‘autocars’ were being got ready for the morrow’s adventure, amid choking clouds of exhaust smoke.
Or I would take a long walk to Brixton Hill, the first acclivity the pre-1905 vehicles had to master, rather early on those Sunday mornings. Later, long tram and bus rides would take me to spectate from where the veterans diverted from the old Brighton road at Thornton Heath and went up past Croydon Airport, to rejoin it at Purley. Most would go past at a pedestrian crawl, but one looked out for the occasional faster primitive, such as the 1903 Paris-Madrid replica Panhard of Dick Shuttleworth, which was faster than some modern family saloons.
My first discovery of what it was like to actually go on a veteran came about in 1936 when speed-trial expert Dick Nash asked me to ride with him on his 1900 Peugeot, a fine little car, endowed with enormous headlamps.
Next year I was honoured to be given a ride with Capt Wylie, RN, Secretary of the Veteran Car Club, on his 1898 (later redated) Hurtu, a true primitive, on Benz Ideal lines. A girl I knew had agreed to get up early that Sunday and take me to the start, follow us to Brighton, and return me to London in her 1934 Austin 7 saloon. Wylie was anxious to complete the Run quickly because the VCC’s dinner guest was Jean Batten, the famous pilot. But the Hurtu was very slow. Then, disaster! The automatic inlet valve of its gas-engine power unit in the boot had fallen onto the piston. It was then that a St Christopher-sent miracle happened. With screwdriver and pliers, I contrived to depress the valve spring and aim the cotter-pin into the tiny hole in the valve stem. It was sheer luck, unlikely to happen to anyone ever again. “I knew you were a journalist,” Wylie said to me, “but I was not aware that you are also a skilled engineer!” Me, who could scarcely decoke an A7…
While this was afoot, Monica Whincop had brought hot coffee from a roadside stall. Wylie was overcome by the gesture, saying, “Today’s young people are usually so thoughtless.” With that he gave us all tickets for that VCC dinner, Monica, her boyfriend and me. I had intended to return to London as soon as the motoring part of the Run was over. Now I had to take a taxi to Monica’s home, borrow a too-large dress suit, later watch the pair dancing and take another taxi and a train home the next morning. A ‘Brighton’ I particularly remember.
In 1938, no seat being available, I followed the veterans in a vintage Austin 7 coupé. War stopped these commemorative pleasures, but then in 1946, J F Kentish took me on his very nice single-cylinder 1902 de Dion Bouton, a little car with a big cape-cart hood. Petrol rationing cancelled the Run in 1947, but in ’48 George Lanchester himself drove the well-behaved 1902 twin-cylinder Lanchester lent by Hutton-Stott, in which I rode. With its unconventional but well-proven mechanicals, including the wonderfully comfortable springing, it was advanced for its age. In fact, so effective a veteran was it, we arrived at Madeira Drive too early. Two other Lanchesters finished with us, but the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby in a fourth had had gear-selector problems, necessitating him to reverse up some hills.
Variety added to the enjoyment of the ‘Brighton’. In 1949, I went in a 1902 15hp Panhard-Levassor, one of France’s great cars of its time, with a four-cylinder engine, but still with suction inlet valves, a veteran brought all the way from Southport by the keen Geoffrey Frank.
Another fine French car was my 1951 conveyance — Hutton-Stott’s 1902 Type-8 Paris-Vienna de Dietrich, to be driven by Ron ‘Steady’ Barker. Torrential rain failed to spoil things, and en route the police were very helpful. But loss of bottom gear, so that we had to push up some of the hills, and temporary loss of the 800rpm top engine speed, showed up Steady’s skill with old motor cars and we raced to the finish. He then drove back to Newbury, but I funked more damp, using a hotted-up Morris Minor.
In 1954 came a ride with Stanley and Mrs Sears in his immaculate 1901 Type-E four-cylinder Mors, another fine French car but very much a veteran with again auto intake valves, chain drive, and hand-oiling of the main bearings. But its 15.9hp engine got it along at 45mph on the 2:1 top gear. The pre-Run Genevieve film and television coverage had brought out enormous spectator support and much road congestion, but in spite of changing No1 plug, adding that oil, and treating a slipping clutch, the Run took only three-and-a-half hours.
CF South’s rare 1904 Tony Huber, with 10/12hp Type 4T2 two-cylinder engine, took four of us to Brighton in 1955, in spite of excessive engine vibration, the route now magnificently policed and traffic control aided by a Westland Dragonfly helicopter. Where is this car now?
Next, it was in a better-known veteran, Peter Pointer’s beehive-radiator 1902 Wolseley, with Herbert Austin-designed horizontal 2.6-litre engine, still with typically veteran features and long chains in the transmission. Not an easy car to drive, nor fast, but it took a full load to its destination without difficulty, hot water venting onto the front passenger’s legs as it warmed to the gradients. It was owned by a clergyman until 1920, then dismantled, to be carefully reassembled.
In 1957 and 1958, I accompanied Lord Montagu in the Harmsworth Mercedes 60, being allowed to keep it overnight at our place in Hampshire and drive it to Hyde Park. And for the next seven ‘Brightons’ I drove veterans from the Montagu Museum (now the National Motor Museum): a 1903 6hp ‘one-pot’ Brushmobile (Brush Electric Co), a sort of 978cc gas-engine on wheels on three occasions, an ’03 5hp Humberette that only got as far as the Mall (coil trouble), and then the delightful 1903 Q-type 698cc de Dion Bouton, with Museum Curator Michael Sedgwick beside me. After a quick tyre change, we had no brakes, which somewhat perturbed him.
The Museum finally lent me a true primitive, their 1898 3.5hp Decauville. I was to take a coach-driver, as a prize due to him. In the hotel foyer, as I pulled on my Sidcot suit, he asked, “Where you going then, the North Pole?” Hatless, in a thin mac, he was soon scarcely able to light a cigarette or hold at full advance a tiny ignition lever beside his legs. The twin-pot power soon evaporated and, fearing a blow-up and seeing a Mann Egerton garage open and half-hourly trains to London advertised on Redhill Station, I abandoned there, got a passing driver to take my frozen companion to the finish, and by grace of British Rail, a cab, and my VW Beetle, I was walking the dog on our local common before the last veterans were due to pass the final checkpoint.
In 1964, I drove another fine Museum veteran, the 1903 Panhard with twin-cylinder 1645cc Centaure engine and a difficult quadrant gearchange. The ancestor of the modem car, it was quite practical. I had the President of the Antique MCC of America alongside me and we averaged 16.7mph to Brighton.
On other occasions I co-drove, as a way of embellishing Motor Sport reporting, with Michael Ware in the same Panhard, on an 1899 Benz with Roger Collings, and much later on Louis Holland’s trouble-free 1903 20hp Berliet. I also shared a one-lunger Cadillac with Eric Thompson; the big-end gave out but we arrived in time.
Another good Run, with Lord Montagu driving, came in 1967, in a 1903 16hp 4181cc Fiat, a fine car on Mercedes lines, with a T-head engine so quiet that you could hear the rattle of the chains, and such a useful ‘suburban’ third gear that top was not engaged until well clear of London. Luxury all the way, as Bob Johnson, PRO of General Motors in the UK, had put his flat, which overlooked Hyde Park, at my disposal the night before the Run. Dr Lacerda, owner of Portugal’s only motor museum, and a BBC man came with us.
So these November adventures continued. Most exhilarating was when Roger Collings took me in his 1903 nine-litre Mercedes Sixty. The greatest car of its era, it had such pre-1905 items as the scroll clutch, T-head engine, low-tension ignition, total-loss lubrication and exhaust-pressure fuel feed. We overtook many other participants and arrived first, although that meteoric 1977 dash was 100 per cent safe, the brakes never used hard. It was fun to see surprised police and the Mayor unready as we arrived, in an overall time of three hours, five up, including a stop to buy apples and even to let me drive in an attempt to lose a little time. Roger then drove back to Wales.
Les Wilson took me on Tom Lightfoot’s 1901 Panhard and I later drove Tom’s 1902 Beaufort, with big one-cylinder power. With two minor troubles it got to the Pylons check, some way from Brighton front, in just under four hours.
For three Runs I went in British Leyland’s veterans, a 1901 10hp solid-tyred Wolseley that had depressing maladies, the charming 1904 20hp tonneau-bodied Thornycroft, and the 1903 16hp Albion, the latter two shared with cheerful Brigadier Charles Maple. Difficult to drive, with lots of troubles, the Wolseley arrived on one-and-a-half cylinders after six hours and ran out of petrol at Marsh’s commentating microphone.
I remember how what should have been an epic drive for me in Lord Montagu’s 1903 Daimler was marred by continual failure of a tyre tube, dealt with by his back-up team as if I were an F1 ace, remaining in my seat during this six-hour stint.
When Daimler-Benz brought from Stuttgart Museum the Benz Spider and then the 28/32hp MercedesSimplex, an overnight ignition problem which the M-B’s PR thought would cause a no-go on the big car was rectified through the night – this was Mercedes-Benz! The Museum Curator, von Pein, let me ‘conduct’ for a while both cars.
I returned to the NMM’s de Dion in 1984, binding gear-shift clutches causing me to collide at almost zero mph with a tatty stationary Datsun, from which rust flakes fluttered. To my annoyance, one wooden mudguard of the de Dion was split. The Datsun’s owner wanted to call the Police but onlookers took my side, and when he sent a claim to the Motor Sport office they asked for his insurance. We heard no more!
Next, a no-trouble 12/16 Talbot, which the late Ann Shoosmith threaded through traffic gaps with great skill, and a co-drive with Louis Holland (1903 Berliet, another reliable veteran). I had my experience of steam in Bob Dale’s 1900 Gardner-Serpollet. Headquartered at Kew’s steam museum, the enthusiasts for this sort of silent external-combustion motoring fixed a loose steam-pipe, and the double-phaeton used 35 gallons of water and nine of burner-fuel in four hours.
My luck held re good trips, as in G Neale’s 1904 16/20 Aster, while a contrast was a quick dash on the racing Peerless 60 of Don Meyer, who used its great accelerative and braking powers to full effect, but had to repair a short in the electric fuel pump.
The Brighton Run is both a commemoration of the emancipation of the motor car and fun for those who venture on it. Let all who take part in or watch this unique English event enjoy it again on November 3.