For those still brave (or rich) enough to own a car in London, a Sunday drive down to the south coast makes for a nice excursion. Once you’re out of the city, the trip south through the leafy Sussex countryside is as pleasant as driving can be in this part of the world, and the first sight of the sparkling English Channel as you crest the South Downs is enough to bring on a smile. In two hours you can be sipping tea in a beachfront café or taking a bracing walk along the front. That is, of course, unless you choose a car that first drove on British roads well over a century ago. No, as I found out a few weeks ago, that version of the Sunday drive is a very different prospect.
Hagerty have been a sponsor of the Veteran Car Run, the longest-running car event in the world, for many years now. In 2017 I drove a ‘chase’ car containing a video team who captured Hagerty’s Marcus Atkinson and Edd China’s unsuccessful attempt to complete the London to Brighton run in a 1901 De Dion Bouton. That ended with the engine being dismantled by the side of a dual carriageway as I sat in the heated luxury of my VW Polo.
At least it had a heater. This year, I was to lose my status as a ‘Run virgin by adding ballast to a 1902 Wolseley entered by Bernard and Carole Williamson and owned by the Veteran Car Club. Not only did that lack a heater, but also a windscreen, roof, accelerator pedal… you get the point. Mind you, as we formed up in Hyde Park early on the morning of Sunday 4th November with the hundreds of other entrants, the general feeling was that we’d been blessed with very mild weather, making a heater an unnecessary luxury. I was almost lulled into leaving off one of the many layers of clothing I’d brought with me, but strongly advised otherwise by Carole. I’m glad to say I followed her advice.
We pulled up to the start line at our allotted time of 7.23am (the motoring journalist in me distraught that we’d just missed out on the most famous time in motorsport by one minute) and waited to be waved off. Surrounding us were a menagerie of machines, a belching, steaming mass of metal, all just about under control thanks to the absolute mastery of their drivers. A steam-powered vehicle shot past, looking for all the world like a road-going version of Stevenson’s Rocket, with a man in a tee shirt shovelling coal into the fire at the back. Unbound by the conventions that would soon constrain automotive designers, every combination of propulsion, passenger carriage, gearing and steering was on show. No jelly mould cars here: every wonderful contraption displayed a different early-20th century solution to the problem of propelling people at speed along a road in relative safety.
Finally, we set off and Carole had to remind me to wave at the substantial crowd who had made it out of their beds and out on to the roads to support us. Down Constitution Hill we trundled, along the Mall, then right, through Parliament Square and across Southwark Bridge. At every set of traffic lights, part of the menagerie would reconvene to the obvious disquiet of other unsuspecting motorists. Pedestrians too didn’t know how to react: children tended to smile and wave but many of their parents responded in typical London fashion by pretending it all wasn’t happening.
South through the London boroughs we chugged, the little Wolseley performing beautifully and speeding us along when the traffic allowed. Carole was right about one thing: I was grateful for the extra layer of clothing. Even on a dry and relatively mild day, clothed in most of my ski gear, the cold penetrated deep into my bones. I pulled a blanket over my knees and pulled the flaps down on the old Army-issue hat I’d brought. It wasn’t a strong look, but it did the job.
Then, not long before we crossed the M25, Bernard pulled over and offered Marcus a drive. He’d offered me the same earlier, but I’d laughed and didn’t even reply, so sure I was he was joking. Marcus had no such qualms, and quickly changed places with Bernard. On an incline, in the middle of nose-to-tail traffic, Marcus was dropped as surely into the deep end as if he’d just been pushed off of a ten-metre diving board. Driving the Wolseley – a job that Bernard had made look effortless – required the coordination of a professional juggler combined with the dexterity of a piano tuner. Accelerator and mixture are controlled by small levers on the steering column, pedals control brake and clutch, and a huge lever changes the gear. Doing everything in the right order whilst creeping out to join a queue of London traffic on a hill was a tall order, but despite a few alarming graunches and clunks, he managed it first time. Gripping tightly now to the sides of the car, I mentally prepared to leap off if all went wrong and found myself wondering how anyone survived using these vehicles regularly in the early days of motoring.
My lack of faith in Marcus was premature. In an impressively short time, he got the hang of driving the car and we made rapid progress. Once through Reigate and after a dash along some larger roads to Peas Pottage, we broke into the countryside and found ourselves in a much more agreeable environment. Winding A-roads swept down through Sussex, regularly punctuated with villages where huge street parties were in full swing, celebrating our arrival with mid-morning pints and steaming coffees which we viewed in chilly envy. Other classic cars were out in force: for a while we ran alongside an impressive Chevrolet Impala, and it dawned on me that the difference in age between this and the Wolseley was similar to that between the Impala and the other modern cars around us.
Finally, after a short but hair-raising stint on the A23, we reached the outskirts of Brighton. A winding route took us through the city until finally we reached the seafront, turned left onto the famous Madeira Drive, and crossed the finish line almost exactly seven hours after we set off. Celebrations, a steaming cup of mulled wine and a welcomed tub of chilli followed.
Personally, I think that my first London to Brighton Veteran Car Run couldn’t have gone better. Good weather, no major mechanical faults and the very pleasant company of Marcus and the Williamsons made it a great day. It was also an experience I’ll never forget, and unlike any other motoring event I’ve previously participated in. Will I do it again? To be honest, I’m not sure. Carole told me about the people who get ‘the bug’, appearing year after year. Indeed, the other competitors all seemed to know one another well, and the atmosphere was one of a very amiable group of friends. I enjoyed that, but I’m not sure I’ve been bitten; maybe I just like my heater too much.