23 November 2010

London to Brighton: A long way at 100-plus

I’ve had the good fortune over the last 50 or so years to visit and participate in a great many events for contemporary and historic racing cars plus tours and concours for antiques and classics. Very near the top of my list and one I rarely miss is the annual London-to-Brighton Run, held the first Sunday of every November.

If you’re a mystified American, or you’ve meant to go and never got round to it, here’s the genesis of the London-to-Brighton Run. If you’re a fan, you’re probably thinking right now of your favorite pub from which to watch – perhaps at the top of a steep hill…

On November 14, 1896, it became legal in England to drive automobiles on public roads at a maximum 12 mph. To celebrate, a “long distance” drive to Brighton was organized by the Motor Car Club with 58 entries, 37 of which showed up and several of which were suspected of hopping a train to guarantee their arrival.

In 1927, two London newspapers staged a re-enactment with 50 entries of machines meeting the pre-1905 requirement. In 1930 the RAC took over and the event has been held ever since with the exception of the war years. It became immortalized in the 1953 movie comedy “Genevieve,” which pretty much guaranteed the event’s survival. The film was named for a 1904 Darracq which spent subsequent years in Australia and still participates in the annual run on behalf of the Dutch National Motor Museum.

The London to Brighton Run has, by most measures, the largest spectator attendance of any motoring event in the world. Estimates range from 250,000 to 1 million spectators, on a bright sunny day. Why not? It’s free and a pretty lavish souvenir program costs only £5 ($8). There are 60 miles of road to picnic alongside, plus the start in Hyde Park and finish at the Brighton sea front.

2010 saw a record entry of 560 cars, a great many of which most car people have never seen. There is ample opportunity to inspect many of the entries closely before the run at the concours held along Regents Street, which is entirely closed for the occasion.

On Friday afternoon, event sponsor Bonhams holds its annual auction of London to Brighton eligible cars at its Bond Street headquarters. The highlight of this year’s sale was the 1903 Sunbeam four cylinder, four-seater that fetched £352,800 ($556,800) and in which I hitched a ride on Sunday.

Thankfully the weather God smiled this year, and Sunday dawned cool and clear. It was a pleasant contrast to 2009 foul weather, with gale force winds and a couple of inches of rain!

Go early if you want to see the oldest cars. The first car out is at official dawn, within minutes of 7 am. Departure is by vehicle age, oldest first and alphabetical within each eligible year. An 1894 Benz left first and a 1904 Mercedes entered by its manufacturer and driven by none other than race driver Jochen Mass was near the end of the queue at 8:20.

In years past, the oldest running car in the world, an 1884 de Dion et Trepardoux steamer would putt away first, looking like a mobile chestnut roaster. That car went into Texas lawyer John O’Quinn’s collection a couple of years ago, but with his death in a car crash, it seems likely to come to market soon, to take its place of honor at the head of this event.

Nowhere else will you ever experience hundreds of hundred-plus year-old cars, all moving under their own steam (some literally). The autumn foliage in Hyde Park and a blue exhaust haze make for fascinating photo opportunities.

A great way to see the best of the event is to watch the departure from the park and then take a taxi to Waterloo Station and catch one of the hourly trains to Brighton, where you arrive about an hour later. Walk or take a taxi to the famed Madeira Drive, where England’s first Speed Trials were held, to watch the cars arrive. Arrivals continue until four o’clock – the latest an official finish is permitted.

The run itself is a real challenge for these aged vehicles, with the first 20-plus miles in the kind of traffic they were never intended for. It’s surprising to see a bus or van cut off a 100-year-old car whose brakes are lucky to stop it at all, let alone quickly. Amazingly, on a good year more than 80 percent of the relics will finish the run. Entries typically come from 15 to 20 countries including, this year, China and the Czech Republic. Of the 569 entries accepted, 44 were built prior to 1900 and 140 were from outside Great Britain.

You will never see as many examples from the dawn of motoring anywhere else. There is no museum in the world that comes close to presenting such a comprehensive reflection on the huge variety of approaches to car building at the beginning, whether petrol, steam or electric.

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