LONDON TO BRIGHTON AT ITS VERY BEST
As an unseasonably mild London was still shrouded in darkness, nearly 350 pioneering veteran cars, their intrepid drivers, plucky passengers and hordes of enthusiastic well-wishers gathered in Hyde Park this morning (Sunday, 5 November). They were all eagerly awaiting daybreak to signal the start of the remarkable 2023 RM Sotheby’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
It’s now 127 years since the original Emancipation Run, which was held in 1896 to celebrate the recently passed Locomotives on Highways Act. This raised the speed limit for ‘light locomotives’ from 4 to 14 mph and abolished the need for a man to walk ahead waving a red flag.
Expressing that new-found freedom, today’s much-loved homage always commences with the symbolic tearing-up of the red flag – a pre-dawn ritual performed this year by Formula One legend Ross Brawn OBE, together with Ben Cussons, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, which since 1930 has been the custodian of this, the world’s longest-running motoring event.
As daylight arrived – and as a curtain-raiser – a pack of pre-1905 motor- and pedal cycles left the start line also headed for Brighton, the brave-hearted penny-farthing pedallers attracting notable admiration as they embarked for Brighton’s Madeira Drive on the south coast.
Then, at precisely 7:00am sunrise, the first batch of the pre-1905 horseless carriages was flagged away by Cussons, now joined by Peter Wallman, Chairman UK and EMEA of the event’s title partner RM Sotheby’s.
The most venerable of the Victorian ‘light locomotive’ vehicles led the cavalcade as they phutted and hissed their way through Wellington Arch in the very welcome early morning sunshine. Then it was down Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch and Whitehall into Parliament Square and over Westminster Bridge – under the gaze of Big Ben. Here, the sun-drenched, 60-mile route split into two in order to avoid traffic congestion in south London.
Half of the plucky participants followed the traditional A23 route via Kennington, Brixton and Streatham Common; the other half journeyed across Lambeth Bridge and then through Vauxhall, Clapham Common and Tooting. The two routes then merged on the A236 just north of Croydon, with the entire magical cavalcade reunited as it headed towards the challenges of the South Downs, and eventually the Madeira Drive seafront.
Marking the 70th anniversary of the BAFTA-winning film Genevieve, starring Kenneth More and Kay Kendall, the two star cars from that much-loved romantic comedy had the honour of being the first away from Hyde Park this year. The eponymous Darracq and rival Spyker had been reunited to mark the milestone, both kindly loaned by the Louwman Museum in the Netherlands. A number of other veteran cars from the Oscar-nominated classic were fitted with special Genevieve starting number plates, too, providing easy identification.
As ever, vehicles then followed in age order, with the earliest starting first, giving them the most time to reach Brighton. Leading the way this year was an 1892 Peugeot vis-à-vis entered by the Turin Motor Museum and believed to be the first car ever to turn a powered wheel in Italy.
The early starters included the ever-popular Salvesen Steam Car – basically a steam locomotive running on the road, complete with stoker shovelling coal into the boiler’s fiery furnace – and a number of primitive motorised tricycles complete with many riders and passengers sporting period costumes.
Thereafter followed a staggering variety of antique machinery dating back to the era of pioneer vehicles – some fitted with steering-wheels, others with naval-inspired tillers and helms; some powered by petrol engines, others propelled by steam (hence the hissing!) and even electric batteries.
The diversity of their powertrains illustrated the embryonic industry’s innovative spirit as different sources of propulsion vied to dominate the next century of the car’s development. A similar dilemma now faces the global car industry more than a century later. Emphasising the changes that motoring is currently going through, a number of the veteran cars taking part were running on sustainable e-fuels.
The unique 2023 Veteran Car Run, as always, recalled a bygone age when motoring technology was in its infancy, and well before many cars had protective roofs or windscreens, let alone mod-cons such as on-board heaters, radios and sat nav.
Blessed with such eccentric charm and incredible history, the evergreen Run always attracts huge wayside crowds along the entire route, and this year was no exception.
It also attracts participants from around the world, and this year’s entry included cars from Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland; some 25 came from the United States alone.
In total, more than 100 different marques were represented, ranging from Adler, Albion and Argyll to Waverley, Winton and Wolseley. A few, like Cadillac, Ford, Renault, Vauxhall and Mercedes, are still well-known today, but the vast majority have been lost to history.
Maximising the spectacularly sunny weather, most of the starters completed the hallowed journey to Brighton well before the 4.30pm deadline, and so claimed a coveted finishers’ medal. Of the 341 motor vehicles which left Hyde Park 301 reached Brighton, along with 27 antique motorcycles and cyclists, to give 328 finishers in total.
The first car to reach the Sussex seafront was a 1903 MMC driven by Henry Lawson, the reliable British machine completing the journey from capital-to-coast in just under three hours.
While the Run is famously not a race, the A. Lange & Söhne Timepiece Trail provided crews with some competitive fun en route. All entrants making it to Madeira Drive in Brighton also had the opportunity to win an expenses-paid trip to the Madeira Classic Car Revival in 2024, courtesy of the island’s Madeira Promotion Bureau.
In complete contrast to his life in the Formula One fast line, Ross Brawn drove his 1904 Wilson Pilcher 12hp, successfully completing the Run with his wife for a fourth time.
“It was probably the best London to Brighton we’ve ever had – not least as I had the huge honour of tearing the red before the start,” pronounced a delighted Brawn. “The car ran nicely. As ever, the atmosphere is unique, and there’s a great camaraderie among the participants. The crowds lining the route this year were probably the best I’ve ever seen.”
Along with Brawn and both the revered Genevieve icons, Ben Cussons was one of the many to savour the annual event – and a welcome hot toddy courtesy of Aberfeldy single malt whisky – after his untroubled journey aboard a 1901 Mors owned by the Royal Automobile Club.
“This is the London to Brighton Run at its very best,” enthused Cussons. “The Veteran Car Run is so exhilarating, while also showcasing the dawn of motoring and celebrating the freedom of the road. It really embodies the true spirit of motoring, and it is always rewarding to see that the passion and enthusiasm for these pioneer motor cars is as strong as ever. Indeed, this year’s entry was the biggest for several years.
“The glorious weather has been really kind this year, which makes a big difference for these types of early cars and, of course, to all those aboard them. I have seen lots of happy smiling faces among our participants, many saying this has been their best-ever Run.
“I must thank warmly all the people who have come together to make this year’s event so fabulous, including those at the Louwman Museum who kindly provided us with both the cars from Genevieve. Thanks must go first to all those who keep these amazing cars going, and then to all the marshals and volunteers who made it such a real pleasure to drive from London to Brighton.”
This year the route was expertly marshalled by some 350 volunteers, including a large number of newcomers, from as far afield as Canada, Belgium, Germany and the Isle of Man.
Cussons concluded: “My final thank-you is to the astonishing numbers of spectators who lined the route from start to finish, offering fabulous support and encouragement to all of us following in the wheel-tracks of those incredible pioneers who first set out to Brighton 127 years ago.”
The RM Sotheby’s Veteran Car Run provided a fitting climax to the Royal Automobile Club’s busy London Motor Week, during which the Club presented a large array of functions and events. The penultimate one was the free-to-view St James’s International Concours for veteran cars on Saturday, 4 November, which provided the perfect lead-in to today’s grand finale.