Original publication on Petrolicious.
What It’s Like To Drive Hundred-Year-Old Cars From London To The Beaches Of Brighton
With winter well and truly here now, I thought it would be the perfect time to recount a journey I took during one of the last days of slightly-less-frigid weather: the London to Brighton run. Earlier in November, I rode along for the 60-some mile drive from the city to the beaches of Brighton, and though I tend to be swayed more by the sports and racing machinery that came a few decades after these types of cars, it was a journey I won’t soon forget; one of those god-awfully early mornings that are actually worth waking up for. This was my experience:
The light of the full moon cuts through the fog-covered streets of London. It is the first Sunday of the month, and the early birds are already assembling on the streets, preparing their cars. Noises of one-cylinder engines don’t so much fill the atmosphere as much as they contribute little bursts of tuck-tuck-tuck, engines struggling to start are mixed with the attendant laughter.
I’ve awoken to my harsh alarm at 4:30 in the morning, slugging some espresso while contemplating how many layers of clothing I’ll need to make the walk to my car somewhat bearable. A quick step outside comes next to confirm the cold I know is out there, and of course I feel utterly frozen after only one minute outdoors. I step back inside, boil some water for another round of tea for the team and decide to don every piece of clothing in my suitcase.
Feeling fairly well prepared in my ensemble, we take a cab towards Hyde Park. At a hotel close by we get out and are welcomed by the precious and delicate-looking cars which are going to bring us safe and sound to Brighton—at least that’s what we are hoping for! From here we get the cars prepared, hop on—not in—and take off to Hyde Park proper for the starting line-up.
A magical atmosphere is created in the carbide headlamps of these hundred-year- old cars shining through the dark morning in London. Everyone is in race mode (albeit with sometimes just a single horsepower!): who is first within their group at the line-up? Who gets to enjoy the first coffee and bacon roll at this early start?
Everyone is as enthusiastic and competitive as if they were in their Ferrari 312s at Monaco even though they’re likely sitting on a motors with power figures you can count on one hand! It’s hard not to get caught up in all of it, it seems novel and goofy and somehow very serious all the same. But make no mistake, everyone here is in it for the right reasons: it’s just plain fun.
Having arrived in Hyde Park, I end up rushing with my bacon roll in one hand and camera in the other, toward the starting line, passing by hundreds of truly historical cars on my way. At around 6AM, just about in line with the sunrise, the red flag is burned, and the first cars are on their way.
At this point I wonder, again, what the heck I’ve gotten myself into? Why have I volunteered to submit myself to this kind of weather and this kind of pace? Well simply because it is one hell an experience, and of course this is where it all started, this is truly the birth of motoring. So whatever my preferences may be, I felt obligated in some way to gain a bit more perspective on the beginning of it all.
Back in 1896, the 14th of November 1896 to be exact, a revolution began, and an era of freedom was established. That day is being annually celebrated as the Emancipation Run, which celebrated the raising of the speed limit from 4mph to 14 mph, and the passing into law of the Locomotives on the Highway Act.
Why the red flag I mentioned earlier? An early law, from 1878, required a man on foot to carry a red flag in front of the “dangerous” automobiles to warn horses, pedestrians, and everything else of its approach. A man on foot obviously limited the speeds to what he could accomplish on his own two feet, which completely missed the point of the automobile being a faster form of transport from points A to B.
Our car is one of the earliest of the lot with its accumulated 114 years of age, and this car seems like a beast in size and noise compared to some of the competitors. I have the honor of being the co-pilot in a 1903 Winton from the Louwman Museum (an astounding collection spanning the late 1800s to the modern day, my visit to which you can find here), driven by James Wood. Pang Pang, and off we go with a group of around 15 other cars. I was excited and speechless and shivering all at once, though it was hard to tell if the shaking was from the cold or the anticipation—it was likely both. Driving through the streets of London, passing Parliament and Big Ben all while admiring the color scheme presented to us by the sunrise paired with the beautiful noise and smell of these veteran cars, I feel a true sense of traveling from the past into the future.
We catch up quickly to the slower cars, and surely we must have surprised a few of them with our 4.3-liter engine causing a remarkable racket loud. I am surprised we aren’t setting off more car alarms with our commotion. The Winton is a powerful machine for its era, and we are flying up the hills where other cars are struggling and often needing to be pushed by the passengers and other helpers along the way. The dual clutch, constant-mesh gears seem to be helping us while being stuck in traffic too, and we make our way steadily, slowly from time to time, to Brighton.
Over 460 veteran vehicles have registered this year in total, and most of them have managed to arrive in Brighton by the end of the day, although there were a lot of struggles this year due to road works on the new map layout. Many of the vehicles struggled during the traffic jams due to overheated engines as well; the engines back in the day relied heavily on mechanically-driven fans, and therefore only achieved cooling through velocity of the car, the opposite of which was experienced on several of the slower hills clogged with traffic.
Arriving in Brighton created the most phenomenal feeling for us though, one of true achievement and joy, to say the very least. I invite everyone to save the date for next year (every year it’s the first Sunday in November) to come and watch the early morning start in Hyde Park, or the afternoon arrival in Brighton, or find a way to ride along like I did. I can say that this was really the most memorable event I have been to all year, and I am forever grateful for having been invited along.
I would like to thank Mr. Evert Louwman, Quirina Louwman, and James Wood for the special invitation. This family is the epitome of car enthusiasts, having not only been participating in the Veteran Car Run for 40 years, but also the Mille Miglia, the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed, and many, many other classic car races and events. 1934 seems to be the date when it all started for them, as it was the year when Mr. P. W. Louwman, the father to Mr. Evert Louwman, had bought his first Dodge. Not only was this the beginning of one collector’s journey, but of a family legacy tied tightly to the appreciation and use of the automobile. The cars in the collection are used at events for fun of course, but more so to enthuse people about the Museum and driving in general.
Tragically, an accident during the run resulted in the loss of the life of Mr. David Corry, who was an avid enthusiast, a beloved father, and a friend to many. He will be greatly missed by many, and though I did not know him personally, it was clear that he was one of the good ones. My heart goes out to his loved ones.