Sunday, November 5th 2017 dawned beautifully clear and bright, perfect conditions for the world’s longest-running motor event, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
As we parked next to Hyde Park shortly after 6.30am, I found myself with an unusual sense of anticipation. Unusual, because my job has taken me to some weird and wonderful motoring events, but the London to Brighton has for some reason always slipped me by; I was a ‘Run virgin’. Greg, my photographer, asked me how many pre-1905 vehicles would be attending. “I’m not sure… 50?” I replied hesitantly. As we reached the forming-up point, it was immediately obvious that my estimate was wildly out- there were closer to 400 snorting, shuffling, fire-belching machines lined up ready for the off. Combined with a light mist hanging over the Serpentine and the profusion of period dress, the result was something akin to a steampunk convention, but with fewer piercings and more champagne.
Eventually, after some searching and finding that my media pass seemingly didn’t allow me access anywhere, I found the Hagerty cars. First, resplendent in his Argyll glengarry was Hagerty MD Angus Forsyth who was co-driving George Beale’s 1904 Peugeot 69 Bebe. Not far behind was the 1901 De Dion Bouton 4.5hp drive by our Marketing Director, Marcus Atkinson, partnered with mechanic and TV personality Edd China.
Both cars set off from near the back of the grid and at first all went well. I had a small camera/ video team following in a chase car, and at first the London traffic took away any modern motoring advantage we had; a plan to film them crossing Westminster Bridge was scuppered by a temporary set of traffic lights on Birdcage Walk, and we only caught up with them close to the Imperial War Museum. We remained with them through Clapham and all seemed to be going well: the drivers were waving to the crowds and the crowds were waving back. Then somewhere near Balham, the De Dion Bouton pulled up and Edd quickly unlatched the engine cover. The engine of seemed to be overheating and not pulling properly. Coolant was topped up, then they set off again, but a couple of hundred metres further, it was clear something was still not right. After another 20-minute ‘tuning’ the car was bump-started on its way again, but only a few miles later, on the outskirts of Morden, the De Dion Bouton once again rolled to a halt. Within seconds, Edd was once again under the bonnet, and this time decided more radical surgery was required. With the help (and tools) of an RAC patrol who were supporting the event, the tweed-suited mechanic deftly removed the head and confirmed what he had suspected: the problem was with the big end. Sadly, the difficult decision was taken to retire the car.
Almost immediately, we heard some other bad news- the Peugeot had suffered a very similar problem which had seized their engine and was also being retired, Angus sadly telling me this was the first time he had ever failed to complete the event. Such is sometimes the nature of historic motoring.
While the drivers were conveyed by modern means to the finish line in Brighton, we shadowed the remaining entrants down through the Sussex lanes. I was astonished at the crowds: a street party atmosphere was evident at every roadside pub and more than a few private houses; it’s clear that many people love seeing these old cars taking to the roads once again. In Brighton it was the same story: Madeira Drive, despite being clad in protective fencing (such is the sorry state of the ornate and wonderful Grade 2 listed arches) was filled with onlookers, watching as the surviving veteran vehicles passed the finish line. I must stress vehicles rather than cars; two competitors completed the Run on a pair of bicycles: a Penny Farthing and a ‘boneshaker’. My hat goes off to them.
We later heard the tragic news that one of the veteran cars taking part in the event had been involved in a very serious accident. Our warmest and most sincere regards are with those affected by the incident.