The London – Brighton Veteran Car Run

4th November 2007

Any socialist – or certainly any Labour Party Member old enough to remember when Labour stood for socialism – can tell you about the Red Flag. Characteristically, it is ‘deepest red’ and has (nowadays fashionable) organic credentials, too, being ‘stained with the blood of martyrs dead’. The tune it is sung to is popular at Christmas as ‘O Tannenbaum’ for German-speakers, but was better-known in England at Labour Party conferences until recent years. (My daughter’s birthday falling on Labour Day, I began to teach her to sing ‘the Red Flag’ when she was 6 years old, until her mother caught us.)

For the early English motorist, the Red Flag had different connotations. His (or less probably her) ‘Red Flag’ was the one which the Locomotive Act of 1865 had required to be carried in front of the vehicle by an attendant on foot, at no more than 4 miles-per-hour. While the requirement for the red flag was repealed in 1878, the need for a pedestrian to precede the vehicle – and the 4 m.p.h. speed limit (2 m.p.h. in towns) – remained, and warning banners remained commonplace before traction engines and steam rollers. Given the costs of early motor-cars, the need to import them and their relative lack of utility once imported, the early motorist was unlikely to have been a socialist, in any case.

The early English motorist was not popular with the country’s government and speed limits related to human walking pace did nothing to encourage British engineers to diversify to build cars. The few British motorists, who, like the Honourable Charles Rolls, flouted the notorious ‘Red Flag’ law, mostly did so in imported Continental conveyances, in Rolls’ case a 3,5 h.p. Peugeot. Thus the passing of the Locomotives on the Highway Act, raising the speed limit to 14 m.p.h. (local authorities could reduce this to 12 m.p.h.) and making the footman redundant was a reason for celebration: on 14th November, 1896, Lord Winchilsea ceremoniously burned a red flag and some 30 motorists departed from London for the South Coast at Brighton, about 60 miles distant. Of the 14 cars which arrived in Brighton, it is alleged that one made a pioneering Motor-Rail journey and was then bespattered with mud before joining the others! The journey was marred by bad weather, mud, and a child being knocked over on the way, but the Emancipation of the Motorist had been marked.

Since 1927 (with breaks for wartime and petrol rationing) a commemorative run for Veteran cars has taken place annually on the first Sunday in November. Whether in a pre-1905 car or not, autumn in England can make for unpleasant driving conditions: rain and cold are usual, freezing fog not uncommon. 2007 was much more satisfactory, with a pleasant start to the day as sun burnt off the early mist on Westminster Bridge.

The route of the London to Brighton Veterans run is not completely fixed: it has varied a little over the years, but on the whole it follows the original route of 1896 fairly closely and the bulk of entries complete it. This year the participating Motor Cars – deserving all the respect due to vehicles the youngest of which is 103 years old – left London’s

Hyde Park from dawn onwards, at short intervals, in pairs. Although the oldest leave first, within a few miles the order changes considerably. Performance varies widely, not only with age as might be expected, but with size, loading and many other factors. The original designers must, of course, have had different levels of performance in mind: one of the most modern, a 1904 Mercedes, is unashamedly a racing car, which by Streatham, barely 8 miles into the journey will have worked its way through a third of the field. Others have less hill-climbing ability, were designed with economy in mind or are simply less efficient. The designs vary considerably: with half-closed eyes and a little imagination the viewer can see true ‘horseless carriages’ with the engine under the floor but looking as though they lack only shafts, reins and a horse, cycle-cars resembling perambulators – the three-wheelers sometimes more similar to a modern push-chair. In many early cars, it is difficult to be certain which is the driver: a front passenger might, perhaps, be an early form of proximity detector (hopefully not a bumper), quite a few cars are of ‘vis-à-vis’ design, not unlike a railway compartment, and cannot offer the driver much of a view past his front-seat passengers (but must be good for the art of conversation). Where the conveyance is tiller-steered, which of the people in the front seat is the driver? Someone may have pedals, but the tiller seems to be shared. Dual control for the learner driver? The official finish in Brighton is 4 o’clock in the afternoon; most will manage to reach Madeira Drive between about 10 a.m. & 4 pm, a few will struggle in later, some will prove unequal to the struggle and retire.

On the way, there are some difficult sections The first major test comes after crossing the Thames over Westminster Bridge and passing through the fairly flat roads of Lambeth, past the Imperial War Museum (surely due for a politically correct re-naming?), through Brixton, to Brixton Hill. To the modern motorist, Brixton Hill seems fairly innocuous. The chief dangers come from buses pulling out unexpectedly, the infrequent but urgent armoured vans transporting prisoners in or out of Her Majesty’s Prison or from pharmacologically challenged pedestrians (we are in ganja territory). For the casual cyclist – those who don’t wear Lycra – or the Vintage or Veteran car driver, it is all too similar to the North Face of the Eiger. The first cessations of procession (presumably the plural of the Royce euphemism?) often occur here, while the period cyclists, many in period clothing as well as on period cycles, grit their teeth and stop waving to bystanders on the incline. Mounting an ‘ordinary’ (penny-farthing) is difficult enough on the flat; to re-start going up-hill with the added difficulty of high-geared front-wheel-drive is better contemplated than performed.

Motor cars can seem a little like dogs: different breeds, certainly, but with a suggestion of an underlying common ancestor. Many hounds are clearly wolves exploring their domestic side, other breeds diverge more from the original stock, so far that it is hard to believe that a Pekinese has any lupine lineage , resembling rather a mop which has lost its handle. Early cars, similarly, may seem easy to group and relate to each other… until an unexpected, unclassifiable one rattles past.

The breed of car which caught Henry Frederic Royce’s eye, was the Decauville. The electrical machinery business was perhaps in a quiet spell, perhaps Royce felt that the business had reached a natural limit, perhaps motoring had caught his imagination; for whatever reason, Royce waited until 1903 before buying his first car, a second-hand Decauville, with 2 cylinders, rated at 10 h.p. disassembled and rebuilt it to Royce engineering standards, then built something better – as he was later to say, taking the best there was and improving upon it. The 10 h.p. Decauville which took part in this year’s run (number 127) carried four with dignity; the early motor-car’s reputation for noise is not entirely just, as many are quiet when under way, although some are cacophonous at rest. The electric cars and the ‘steamers’ were eerily quiet, although one early steam car made a mockery of the London Clean Air Act, and we must not forget that electric cars merely produce their pollution elsewhere. (By contrast, we may consider the exhaust output of a working horse to be around a tonne of manure each month, with attendant disposal needs, while it would be interesting to compare the carbon dioxide breathed out per kilometre by a dray-horse with that of a lorry engaged in similar work.)

Croydon, Surrey, has undergone massive change since Royce attended the Croydon British School, indeed, from a distance it could be a low-rent Atlanta. A bypass now bisects it, but the Veterans were allowed through the old centre, now normally for pedestrians only. The thoughtful city fathers (or the Health’n’Safety zealots) provided barriers to separate Man from Machine, but the shops were shut (it being early on a Sunday) and the Men were few, although a couple who had slept in a doorway after becoming ‘over-refreshed’ the night before seemed a bit bewildered. Or possibly simply not yet sober.

Once past Purley, the Veterans are into relatively open country, at least by the standards of South-East England. The remaining miles to Brighton include some severe gradients to test brakes, gearboxes and the nerves of drivers (and passengers). While no-one would suggest that the journey is an easy one in a Veteran car today, consider how much more fraught it must have been in 1896, on rough roads without garage services, no back-up trailer, no mobile ‘phone and no A.A. roadside assistance.

So, what has changed in British motoring in the last hundred-and-eleven years? In 1896, motoring was undergoing a change from rich man’s hobby to a practical means of transport for the less well-heeled. Despite an actively obstructive Government, motoring was becoming popular, mostly in imported cars (there had been little incentive for an active local manufacturing industry), and the speed limit had been raised to 12 m.p.h. In 2007, driving is again becoming a pastime for the affluent: while in the 20th century motoring became available to the working man (& woman), governments in the U.K. have cynically exploited the motorist with ever-increasing taxation (and of late have taken the Green ‘moral high ground’ as effortlessly as they take the cash). Now, in central London, congestion-charged, parking-restricted, traffic-calmed motorists – again predominantly driving imported cars – average around 10 miles per hour. But there is no suggestion of re-introducing the Red Flag: New Labour doesn’t like even to sing about it any more.

Adam Kimberley