21 November 2011

London to Brighton 2011: An insider's perspective

Regent Street is particularly busy in the traditional run up to Christmas, however the past few years has seen heightened excitement among the shopping folk: Not only are the shops offering deals a plenty, but there are also 150 veteran cars, 50 Jaguar E-Types and 50 Mini Cooper S lined up and down Regent Street. This is the real start to the London to Brighton Veteran Car weekend. We are blessed with clear skies and inquisitive punters. Among the assorted vehicles we spy the 1904 Darracq “Genevieve.”

The excitement of the shopping community is surpassed by those with their veteran cars who are ready for their annual pilgrimage to Brighton, starting at dawn from London’s Hyde Park on Sunday 6th November, and I am riding with Lord Montague and his museum director, Doug Hill, on board the National Motor Museum’s De Dietrich.

Arriving at Hyde Park the following morning, it is still dark but the illumination of the street lights Velo in pole position. Fantastically, the Hagerty-insured car is the oldest vehicle entered in the Run and is being piloted by the youngest driver, Mr. Oliver Wright — who at the tender age of 18 has been practising with the vehicle to ensure he can guide it to Madiera Drive in Brighton on behalf of the Ward brothers, the owners of the vehicle. The start horn sounds as the first sector departs at precisely 7.02am. They will hopefully arrive in Brighton in roughly five hours time!

My departure time is 7.54am and there are so many fantastic cars to see, and so many people to talk to, that I am now in danger of missing my ride.  However, Lord Montague and Doug are patiently waiting for me and we are all on board and ready to go when the steward announces we have five minutes to go!

With a turn of the crank handle and an almighty shudder, the car is quickly settling into its rhytmn.  Doug is at the helm; this is his 35th Brighton Run, so he knows what he is doing. It is a poisoned chalice for him, though; his boss is seated next to him and he also needs to keep an eye on the next-door car, Lord Montague’s 1903 Daimler, this year being driven by HRH Price Michael of Kent. The convoy is soon trundling toward the starting line, and then, with quick waves to the crowds, we’re off!

The police have closed a number of roads on the route and this allows for quick and safe passage out of the city. There is something rather surreal passing under the shadow of Big Ben and over Westminster Bridge in a car built more than 100 years ago, then seeing the London Eye and realising that we are not lost in a time warp.

We are soon through South London, and the countryside beckons before disaster strikes.  The Daimler’s clutch won’t engage and the gearbox looks to be badly damaged. On the roadside the team from Beaulieu gather around the car whilst an anxious royal looks on. The tool kit is soon out and the team works like clockwork taking the gearbox apart, repairing the damaged parts and then, to everyone’s great relief, getting the car back up and running. Not quite the same time as a Formula One team pit stop, however we are back on track after 1.5 hours.

Reaching speeds of up to 50 mph, the 24 hp, 4-cylinder De Dietrich comfortably tackles the hills at Crawley and Clayton, where we see some earlier cars being pushed by their passengers.

The route from Hyde Park to Brighton is 97kms, or 60 miles, and is lined with well-wishers and veteran enthusiasts. Many car clubs also use this Run to celebrate old cars with barbeques, and bacon and sausages seem to sizzle in each village. Union Jack flags are waved by pensioners and children alike, and each person we see along the route has a smile on his or her face.
Far too quickly I realise that we are on the last stretch of road as we tackle the traffic entering Brighton, then we are at the seaside, with Madiera Drive being completely closed off to Veteran vehicles. 

Hundreds of people cheer as we reach the finishing line and, despite the freezing temperatures and being open to the elements for the past eight hours or so, it has been a remarkable experience. I have to admit to huge respect to all participants. It takes an enormous amount of effort to ensure the car is ready to take part; the logistics of entering the run and being prepared to get our hands dirty makes this event more of a challenge than any other events Hagerty has been involved in during the year.

My huge thanks go to Doug and his team from Beaulieu and, of course, to Lord Montague for allowing me to take a seat on his fabulous De Dietrich, the real star of the show!

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