Possibly the oldest motoring event in the world that is still run on a regular basis, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is held on the first Sunday in November each year. It celebrates the 1896 passing of the Locomotives on the Highway Act, which raised the speed limit for what were then officially called 'light locomotives' to 14 miles per hour from only 4, and removed the requirement for a man to walk in front of the vehicle. Until 1878 this man had to carry a red flag, and the laws that the Act of 1896 repealed were known as the 'Red Flag Act'. The original Run from London to Brighton (a coastal town pretty much dead south of London) occurred on Saturday 14th November 1896, and was called the 'Emancipation Run'; a symbolic red flag was destroyed at the start. Fourteen of thirty-three starters made it to the finish line; this was a fairly challenging trip by automobile for the time.
Annual celebrations of this continued on a fairly regular basis, though sometimes to other destinations. In 1930, the Royal Automobile Club took over the organisation of the event, which it has done ever since, and except for war years and 1947 it has run ever since.
The event is open only to Veteran Cars; in other words, those built pre-1905. These are fascinating beasts, preceding consensus on the way that cars should work, though there are one or two entrants, very early racecars, whose performance equals modern vehicles, being capable of over 100 miles per hour. Such speed aren't permitted on the Run, though; it is emphatically not a race, and vehicles are limited to an average of 20 miles per hour over the course of the Run. It is, however, permitted to go faster and then stop for breakfast en route!
Over 400 cars enter each year, and the vast majority make it to the destination; most entrants are accepted, though in some years numbers need to be restricted because of available space at the start and finish.
I was an official entrant in 1993, as the registered co-driver of City and Guilds College's 1902 James and Browne, license AW38 and named 'Boanerges' but always called 'Bo' (students are lazy). Bo and all other veteran cars are ... a little tricky to drive. Swinging throttle and ignition levers mounted under the steering wheel shaft, in particular, make Bo almost impossible to drive single-handed in modern traffic, so a co-driver sitting in the passenger seat and operating the throttles really helps -- an interplay requiring much co-ordination and practice between driver and co-driver, especially with straight-cut crash gearbox, with no synchromesh whatsoever. Fortunately, gears the size of battleships mean nothing will break, no matter how nasty the noise!
Preparation begins long before the day of the run; in fact, it's fair to say that for the majority of veteran car owners, the entire year is preparation for the event. Major mechanicals scheduled over-winter and spring, getting the car back together by late spring to have a good season of running over the summer, making sure everything's in tip-top form. A stripdown a few weeks before, making sure the bearings are solid and not wearing, that metal shavings are not making their way into the oil gallerys and drain holes, to block lubrication at the worst possible time. A seized big end bearing has put Bo out of commission before, and it probably will again; the oil takes a long and winding path before emerging there, a passage easily blocked.
Everything starts out in Hyde Park in London in the very early morning. Imperial College is fortunately very close to the Park, and we had the luxury of having Bo backed out onto the sidewalk from his heated garage with a full workshop at our disposal, should we need it. Topping up oil in the dispenser on the dashboard, checking oil levels, making sure everyone's bundled up warm. Every year we took two passengers; one is traditionally the Guilds student union president, the other someone chosen and invited to come along; the Dean, maybe, or a senior faculty member, someone on the governing body, something like that. Driver and co-driver in Guilds regalia, of course, burgundy blazer pin-striped in silver, silver-grey top hat with a burgundy-and-silver band. Gloves, a Guilds scarf, extra sweaters, thermal underwear. It's cold in November in London, especially in the early morning in an open car with no windscreen nor top (Bo is a tonneau, a car with no top, removable or permanent). Everything polished up, of course, the team was in late nights the week before polishing all the brass, waxing the burgundy paint till it glows, picking out the white letters on the tyres.
Closer to time, so we unbolt the bonnet so we can start - flooding the carburettor's float chamber, switching on the ignition - dual trembler coils on the dash providing constant spark as long as the crankshaft is at top dead center in the ignition cycle - engaging the big steel crank in the dog at the end of the transverse crankshaft - the co-driver's job, as the driver adjusts the throttles, ready to catch the first throb of life and nurse it. Cupping hands around the handle, polished by all the turning hands - fingers interlaced, thumbs tucked away so they won't be broken if the engine backfires. Turning till I feel compression, bracing myself, then pulling the engine over the 'hump', short and sharp. Maybe it catches, maybe not, if not, again. Until the engine bangs to life and the driver, Paul this year, raising the throttles, bringing Bo to a fast, shaking idle. Chaka-chaka-chaka, slow even at speed, the barks of the exhausts. Passing the handle to the passengers where it joins the toolkit, swinging aboard, taking the throttles from Paul so his hands are free to work the gears and brakes. Blowing blasts on both bulb horns - the normal trumpet bolted to the dash,the long serpentine horn hooked to the side that we only got out on special occasions - Paul shoving the reverse stick out sideways until the gear chunks into place, backing out with surprising speed, switching into first, and driving out, engine chugging strongly, past the other entrants parked behind their transport trailers on the street, waving.
A bit of a wait in the park, of course, letting the entrants leave in groups, organised roughly according to age as I recall. Some, with no faith in the machinery, keep them running, but I remember that we flicked the switch that killed the power. Bo has no generator or alternator, interestingly; instead, a modern deep cycle battery that we recharge every so often drives the twin trembler coils. Nothing else on the car is electric; acetylene lamps and oil lamps light the way at night. The lamps are always fitted for the run, though not used; we don't have any calcium carbide in the self-regulating gas generator mounted to the side, or water. Eventually, we get notified that we're about to be off, so I get out, swing the crank, the warm engine catching easy, and we're off, double file down the park path, through the bannered start, the massed crowds. Over a million people watch the Run each year, watching the miracle of these vehicles, many now over a century old and without a doubt older than anyone driving them, once more on the road, not just static and stuffed in a museum but running, running well.
It's unknown how much the cars running that day would be, collectively, worth. One can buy a Veteran for anywhere between £15,000 ($22,000+) and £50,000 ($70,000 approx) for an example of one of the more common marques in running condition. At the high end, who knows? Many of these vehicles are unique, and some that have sold have sold for millions.
The Run takes in all the London sights - looping past the Palace and down through Whitehall and past the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament, of course), over the bridge, heading down through south London and down ... traffic is not cleared for the Run except in certain places, most of the time it's negotiating traffic though there are many policemen to hold up advancing fast cars and let us through. Being stuck in this position, leaned over, starts to hurt and ache after a while, but it's just such unalloyed fun that one doesn't really notice. The passengers in the back chatting, swapping tea from a flask, snacks, talking between themselves, but Paul and I are lost in the world of machine, he calling out the changes to me, working through all four forward gears uphill and down. Bo revs slow, probably maxing out at 500 rpm or so, fairly unbalanced, especially in dynamic balance, the shaking motion being (thanks to his twin, boxers' fists cylinders) mostly fore and aft. The drive chains buzz and chatter and roar, the tires hiss on the road, the trembler coils buzzing in a steady rhythm, the pops and chatter of the exhausts.
Down through Croydon and south, Gatwick Airport, following the modern A36 most of the way, dual carriageway a lot of it. Redhill, the name apt, hills to climb, Bo struggling up them in first, willing him on. We've passed a few casualties already, and now seeing more as the hill proves too much for the primitive cooling systems of these cars. Bo himself has side-mounted radiators and no fan, and he gets a little warm.
As we make it further south, the route veers off the main road, going onto narrower roads, intended to give the runners more of the feel of the original, some winding roads, hills and dips. It's amazing, racing down hills and chattering up them, flying through the countryside. We're doing no better than 30 mph, but it feels much, much faster in an open old car. Paul working the handbrakes as we near bends, tightening the band brakes on the back wheels. There's a transmission brake, too, a floor pedal, but the braking force ends up on the rear wheels also.
Finally, we stop; past halfway, time to change co-drivers. Even though I want to continue, I know I'm not up to it - too long in one position, stiff and frozen, I clamber down, let John climb into place instead of me. Taking my place in the support team minibus, taking off the top hat and feeling my hair plastered to my forehead, my shoulders aching, legs shaking, almost dizzy, as they take off, the rest of the miles to Brighton remaining.
I don't really remember much else. One of the back passengers has a two-way radio in communication with the team bus, and we get updates, passing here, passing there. We overtake them after a while, when we get more confident that Brighton is a near certainty.
Standing near the finish line with the several dozen Guildsmen who've made their way down in a rented motorcoach to see us arrive and more importantly, to drink to the success. Drink is the Imperial College number one pastime. We all yell and punch the air as Bo comes in, confidently running. I and the other team go backstage, round to the staging area where we help load Bo on a trailer, to be towed home. Covering him with a tarpaulin, to ward off the rain that we're warned of, the dirt.
In the pub, being bought a few pints, not so many as Paul is, but still ... speeches, fuzzed, my hands still throbbing from the warmth after the cold. More alcohol, drinks, songs, my tiredness pushing through as the rest, the non Runners, party up a storm. Half asleep in my chair, finally, awaiting the coach ride home, blessed sleep.
London to Brighton, in a car over ninety years old, bright polished thunder through the countryside. How British of us all, to do it in November, and if I never ride it again I will remember all of it, always.