These days the Historic Commercial Vehicle Society is a very significant organisation in the overall vintage vehicle scene and its annual Brighton Run is accommodated at the finish on that seaside town’s Madeira Drive, where there is ample parking-space for larger machinery than one sees at the end of the VCC veteran-car run and the Sunbeam MCC’s pioneer run for pre-1915 motorcycles. Apart from the now well-established HCVS’s Brighton Run which is supported by a fine assembly of trucks, vans, buses, coaches, steam-waggons and fire-engines from a past age, restored to the perfection seen in veteran and vintage cars, these old commercial vehicles are a feature of many other rallies and runs.
So as a change from cars, I thought it might be interesting to recall how it all began. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu organised the first such rally, in 1957, at what was then the Montagu Motor Museum (but is now the all-embracing National Motor Museum) at which proposals for a club for the ‘heavier metal’ could be discussed. Ever glad to be in at the beginning, I persuaded Trojan Ltd of Croydon to lend me its 1928 RAF tender.
Not only did Trojan agree, but it was willing to allow a Mr Frazer, who had been with the company since 1926 and knew these quaint two-stroke devices intimately, to come with me. This wasn’t true ‘heavy metal’, of course, because this little pick-up was like the Trojan light car, except that the supple cantilever back springs were replaced by half-elliptics. But it was fun to putter-putter from the factory to Beaulieu that July, after I had found a six-volt battery, which Trojan hadn’t got. Being A7 orientated, that had presented no difficulty, so we were soon on our way, and I became reacquainted with the driving techniques required for these epicyclic two-speed utility cars — like holding the gear-lever firmly to avoid the bands slipping on hills, up which, however, the under-floor engine slogged splendidly.
After lunch at Palace House I was off on the short road run for the 35 entries, glad that the Trojan was easy to control in the crawling congestion simply by easing that gear lever back and forth, to inch along as required (the local police were difficult in those days, and halted all of us for a licence inspection).
Thereafter, a provisional committee was elected to look into the possibilities of a club for these vehicles, headed by Sir Henry Spurrier of Leyland, Lord Montagu, executives from the industry, the editor of The Commercial Motor and the Rev Atkinson who had brought along a 1938 Brooke Bond Trojan van. This Beaulieu Rally opened the batting, as it were, For the record, a Traffic Truck won The Commercial Motor Cup, a 1928 Model-T Ford van the Motor Transport Cup, a 1932 Foden steam-tractor the Commercial Vehicles Cup and another Model-T Ford took the Rootes Cup for best vehicle overall. I went home thinking if the club materialised it should perhaps confine the steamers to waggons, move the suggested cut-off date to rather earlier than 1945, and ban private cars turned into fake commercials.
It was some time before the HCVC was formed, after good work by many with commercial-vehicle interests at heart, including Prince Marshall (his brother was named Earl; my parents were less sagacious when naming me!), Nick Baldwin and others. Indeed, it was not until 1962 that the first HCVC Brighton Run was held. It started from the then Museum of British Transport at Clapham and made the Brighton Road via Balham, Wimbledon, Sutton and Reigate. Again I managed to witness a first, by getting a seat in the 1909 Type-WP3 12 seater Commer shooting brake, owned then by The Swan Revived of Newport Pagnell, though its yellow livery indicated that its original owner had been Lord Lonsdale. This sturdy vehicle, with final drive by side chains enclosed in large casings, served us well. But the vibration from the solid tyres was indescribable, to which was added rattling from the strap-lifted windows. I imagine that His Lordship used the Commer for transporting beaters and loaders on shooting parties and did not expect his guests to ride in it. A big mirror showed such servants if they were correctly dressed before alighting. We five passengers got in through the back door, folding steps being provided, so high was the floor, and we sat on upholstered bench seats, leaving the driver to his task. Which was no easy one on this longish run, the engine being controlled by a hand-throttle, the clutch extremely fierce and the gears selected by an enormous lever with a segmented quadrant. Fortunately the old ‘bus took most of the gradients in top, for although the driver coped will with downward gearshifting, upward changes caused fearful crunches.
But on we went, the Reigate level-crossing jolting us something ‘orrid, But it was fun. We overtook a Foden steam-waggon early on and later passed the LGOC double-decker bus from the old No 36 route, while a 1927 Leyland Lion single-decker, all its 35 seats occupied, was coming up behind. Soon we were leading, until descending Reigate Hill called for bottom gear and made the brakes burn. Yet, with a pause for refreshments, the journey took only three-and-a-quarter hours. Driving-tests followed. A memorable start for a club which is now recognised worldwide.
To mark the inaugural event in 1962, Lord Montagu received the gift of an ex-Chivers 1919 ex-WD Leyland box-van, meticulously restored. As I left for home, by modern bus, train, taxi and Renault 4, I mused that it was rather a case of “from Cornet to Commer”, as two days beforehand I had been flown back from a Renault car launch in Spain in the then-new DH Comet airliner.
Having enjoyed this jaunt, the following year I made sure I went again. This time I was able to secure a ride in TT Broughton & Sons’ well-known 1928 Foden steam-waggon (No 13138) with drop-sided platform body. It was a familiar sight in rallies and was always driven to them, not low-loaded. It had been to one such event in Cornwall, using five cwt of coal for the 160 miles. Quite immaculate, it had nevertheless done real work again at the time of the Suez crisis, when petrol had been rationed. Its driver, Mr H W Hearn, had driven steamers of most makes before joining this firm of winch-makers, and helped them to restore the old Foden. So off I went in a Triumph Vitesse to Amersham to take part in the drive to the start of another HCVC ‘Brighton’. With Mr Hearn’s son acting as stoker and changing gear on a shout from his dad, we made it in about two hours for the 40 miles to Clapham with one stop to ‘feel’ the big-ends.
But what a different world from that of cars! The gear-shifting, for example. It involved sliding over a horizontal lever and as the required gears engaged, dropping in the locking-pin. The Foden possessed three forward speeds but middle gear sufficed even for the pull up into Chalfont and for climbing Battersea Rise to Clapham Common. So skilful were the stoker and Mr Hearn in not letting the boiler ‘blow off’, that steam pressure never varied from 200 lb/sq in. It was a new experience to sit so high that you looked down on other vehicles, with disdain, the flywheel and crankshaft spinning round before one, the noise loud, and much of it coming from the 10 ft driving chain that had been in use for a quarter-of-a-century.
Yet the ride on the pneumatic tyres (twin 40 x 8 Pirelli Carriloads at the back, a Pirelli and a Henley on the front wheels) was comfortable and the brakes, with two pedals, unexpectedly powerful, so that Hearn could stop easily for pedestrians who stepped onto crossings. Policemen lost their dignity in clouds of steam, when they appeared anxious to interrogate us. Thus we progressed, at a steady 20 mph, 10 mph up hills, until our goal was reached, and, after the water-pump gland had been repacked, the Foden was sheeted down for the night.
I had hoped to see refilling with water on the actual run, from rivers or streams. But I was disappointed; there was competition between the Foden and Sentinel fraternity not to require such stops. So Mr Hearn was carrying 100 gallons in the main tank, 120 gallons in an auxiliary. We had a pleasant journey to the seaside, in five minutes over three hours, including a pause at Bolney, four up, as one of the firm’s typists had joined us. All Broughton’s staff apparently liked their Foden; at the finish the MD himself helped to polish her. We had been the first steamer to arrive on Madeira Drive, and had consumed between 1 1/2-2 cwt of coal. Once again National Benzole, the sponsor, had done us proud — and every sort of commercial had turned out, 89 entered in all — taxis, fire-engines, of which Lord Montagu drove the Rootes’ 1913 Commer, even a De Dion road-sweeper. In 1964 my commercialism came from riding in a 1922 14-seater Maxwell char-a-banc driven by Lord Montagu. He had as his other passengers a troupe from the Black & White Ministrel Show. This had its amusing
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