London to Brighton VCR
Privilege, Pleasure & Rain
November arrived and the unseasonably good weather continued, dry and warm right up to the moment some 450 veteran cars made their way south on the sixty mile test this country has enjoyed for many decades. I was privileged to have been offered a fantastic opportunity to take part inside a 1903 Darracq, property of the Haynes International Motor Museum in Yeovil.
My intrepid pilots were Chris Haynes and his great friend Jim Grant, all three of us Veteran Car Run (VCR) virgins, the car though had seen and done it all before. The London to Brighton VCR is steeped in history and organised to celebrate the 1896 Act of Parliament that increased the 4mph speed to 14mph and removed the need for some poor soul waving a red flag to precede automobiles. This parliamentary decision reversed the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1865 which although primarily aimed at traction engines did quite substantial damage to the fledgling automobile industry at home. With the rest of the world forging ahead developing and building vehicles, virtually no cars were built in Britain from the early 1870s until 1895 putting our engineers very much on the back foot. France, Germany and the USA faced no such problems hence many of the pre 1905 veterans are foreign built. Our Darracq hails from a factory just outside Paris from where the marque was exporting cars across Europe; our 1903 Type L 8 HP Rear Entrance Tonneau was co-incidentally first UK registered in Brighton to a Gordon Scott in October 1904. The Darracq was found in a West Bromwich scrap yard in 1954 where it was purchased by veteran enthusiast Phillip Southall for £15.00 and it remained with his family until 1996 when the Haynes Museum became custodians.
At 5.30am on Sunday 2nd November I enjoyed the 15 minute walk through mainly deserted London streets from my rather unattractive Paddington hotel to meet the car inside Victoria Gate, Hyde Park. My travelling companions looked splendid in their tweed and ‘plus fours’ and our back up team of Simon and Janine Taylor had already unloaded our steed in preparation of the 7.30 depart time. A few cranks of the starting handle and Simon forced the single cylinder engine into life and we headed for the Serpentine and our line up point at sector 7. Superbly well drilled the marshals called the cars up to the start and it was here that we were given an enthusiastic send off by Edd China of the Wheeler Dealers TV programme who knows the Darracq well having driven the car in last year’s VCR. I can’t tell you how exciting this moment was, lined up with dozens of veterans and waved off by a huge enthusiastic crowd. As the flag dropped Chris increased the revs as we jumped away, only sixty miles to go. The 2014 event had the honour of following a route last used in 1976; leaving Hyde Park, under Wellington Arch, along Constitution Hill and down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. Passed Horse Guards Parade and onto Parliament Square. Sitting at the lights across from Big Ben at 7.40am on that Sunday morning was a very special moment, pure pleasure as the Darracq crossed Westminster Bridge lined with well-wishers and photographers; a long line of veterans snaked south, many shapes and sizes of machines using petrol, steam or electric propulsion to get to Madeira Drive on Brighton sea front.
A few cars had issues as early as the start line and some had to stop just south of the Thames. The journey would most certainly see most vehicles face a breakdown or two but for all it would definitely be a test of endurance. I was just thrilled to be part of a great team whilst fulfilling a dream of travelling in a true veteran, so much so I didn’t notice the issues Chris was having selecting 3rd (top) gear. This issue would ‘cost us dear’; with only 1st and 2nd we could maintain no more than 10mph with less on inclines but we were still moving and trying to select 3rd caused a loss of momentum and some awful grinding noises. General Sunday morning traffic was also beginning to hamper our progress and the crowds through South London were growing, waving flags and clapping us on; a feeling of pride swelled as we acknowledged them. Just outside Streatham the Darracq slowed and without warning the engine stopped, perfect timing as the rain set in whilst we struggled with a spark plug change. Twenty minutes and we were on our way again but this set back was just a precursor to a series of stoppages; each one attended by either our own rescue crew or the RAC patrolmen whom had volunteered to assist the veterans. Their bright orange vans were normally with us within minutes, getting us to a place of safety before delving into the heart of our 110 year old machine.
We pushed on towards Croydon but by this stage we were dropping to the rear of the field as the rain fell in torrents and the damp found its way into the Darracq’ s basic 6 volt electrics causing a series of breakdowns. Would we even reach the M25 let alone Brighton by the 4.30pm deadline? My two companions had no doubts and projected total confidence whilst driving with great skill, maintaining the ‘advance-retard’ whilst holding the unstable gear control in 2nd and turning a very heavy steering wheel. Our situation was looking very bleak and the clock by now was very much against us so any opportunity to make up time was taken; bus lane usage and filtering along the outside of traffic became the norm, we did whatever it took to keep moving. The A23 opened out into a dual carriageway just as the heavens opened in the worst possible way, all three of us were totally soaked as we approached the M25. Huge puddles built up as the road flooded so it was just a question of time before we ground to a halt, standing in an epic downpour, this time it would take the RAC’s Dave and Gary plus our own Simon to force the Darracq engine into life; we lost nearly an hour. Water was drained from the distributor, electrics dried, fried points cleaned and lots of spray used but at 12.30pm we crossed the M25 five hours after we left Hyde Park.
The gearbox had become noisier than ‘cats making kittens’ and maintaining second gear now required physically holding the lever in position, so when the next inevitable failure occurred Simon took the opportunity to try and improve the situation. Checking the oil required removing the wooden floor; this revealed that the floor had been bulking the gear change mechanism so when refitted adjustments were made to rectify this. With all three gears now working we headed for Gatwick at a blistering pace; down-hill sections were taken at enough speed to cause the brakes to smell, they were definitely being over worked. We were probably the last car on the road as we approached the rest stop at Crawley when some friendly rivalry struck up with an Australian entry. We caught and passed them in a flash but their experience showed as they had the papers ready to be checked in, we didn’t, so they left the check point before us. Only long term breakdowns and retirees were behind us again but on the exit of Crawley a daring move at a roundabout saw the Aussies relegated back a place; they would not give up and the battle continued waved on by the ‘hardy souls’ roadside who had also braved the terrible weather and stuck with it. As we passed American Wayne Corrini, star of Chasing Classic Cars TV programme and faced the first of the Surrey Hills we started to believe our finish was possible.
As the revs began to drop and the car promised to stall in 1st gear Jim and I jumped out leaving Chris to ‘chug’ to the summit of Hammer Hill, we ‘plodded’ up behind having failed the fitness test and I could hardly breathe by the time we took our seats again. The ‘Aussies’ had a younger and most likely fitter crew which enabled them to gain ground but Chris was soon flying through the country side on route to Sussex; we could still do this. As we crossed the county border someone flicked the rain switch again from annoying drizzle to vision impairing downpour, Chris however pushed on, his tweed suit acting like a giant sponge, gloves soaked through to cold hands; I could only commend these tough Somerset boys. As we approached the final natural obstacle known as Clayton Hill the final deluge took its toll and the engine stopped, this time it would not restart as it had done many times during the day. Simon and three of the RAC’s finest did what they could but as darkness fell and the rain showed no sign of relenting we cheered the Australians and Wayne Corrini’s Ford onto the finish.
We did reach the line at Preston Park, Brighton but in our rescue 4x4 with the Darracq on a trailer, all disappointed certainly but really very proud to have been part of this amazing adventure. The papers would be full of celebrities crossing the line on Madeira Drive and full credit to them but scores of cars would not enjoy that feeling, stranded at the roadside with cold, wet and numb fingers desperately chasing the spark that will send them a bit further up the road. The London-Brighton Veteran run; totally unique and so very British, a privilege to have been part of and a pleasure I enjoyed in the company of some really fantastic folk. As for rain I have seen enough until the next 1st Sunday in November when I would dearly love to watch the Union Jack wave away hundreds of motoring pioneers on yet another trip to the seaside.
High hopes and no rain dawn by the Serpentine in London
Nearly 7.40am passing Big Ben and across Westminster Bridge
South of the Thames and in comes the rain
One of many breakdowns the RAC man was straight into action as the first downpour struck
We overtook Wayne Corrini in his Ford but he would pass us back at our next breakdown
With just a few miles to go the Durracq stopped for the last time but our team was still smiling. Thanks to Chris, Jim & Simon plus the RAC help we recieved; a great adventure
Bonham's Christmas Card 2014
Vintage Runner-The Drivers Eye-View
The Veteran Car Run is a global event with vehicles and drivers coming from all over the world to travel the sixty miles on a cold November morning. One person who could be forgiven for feeling the temperature more than most is David Arrigo from Malta. David has completed the journey to Brighton before in his 1904 Cadillac Model B and before the event he told me of the cars history. After leaving the factory in Ohio on the 15th July 1904 the Model B was shipped directly to Malta and was the given the number plate ‘A2’ being the second car on the island. The purchaser with an amazing title ‘The Most Noble Mary D’Amica Sciberras Inguanez 21st Baroness of Diar-El-Bniet & Bucana’ lived in the silent city of Mdina. It seems that the car was put in the rear of a carriage house from 1907 and remained there untouched for sixty years. David purchased the Cadillac from great niece of the Baroness in 1968 and after restoration entered the VCR in 1972 and 1974. Issued with start number 334 and a start time of 7.48am David had total faith in the 8.5hp 1.6L single cylinder engine that is located under the driver’s seat. With its two speed gearbox keeping the Model B near to the 20mph maximum speed limit would be his aim. The Cadillac was shipped over two weeks prior to the event and Fairbourne Carriages sourced a replacement wheel and carried out the preparation. David spent a couple of days with them testing and it was worth the effort as he described the car as faultless when arriving at Brighton. With three passengers, wife Felixa, her daughter Davina and husband Simon the hills of the South Downs slowed the Model B to a first gear crawl at times but thankfully not requiring any assistance. David told me ‘It is a fantastic event and a real pleasure to be part of and I am already planning to return next year’.