x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Made after 1905? Sorry, this UK rally is not for you

The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is the oldest motor race in the world, featuring the oldest cars in the world.

A troubled 1904 Lacoste et Battmann veteran car, right, is passed by a 1904 Cadillac on Westminster Bridge in London during the London to Brighton veteran car run on Nov. 6. AP Photo
A troubled 1904 Lacoste et Battmann veteran car, right, is passed by a 1904 Cadillac on Westminster Bridge in London during the London to Brighton veteran car run on Nov. 6. AP Photo

Throngs of people lined the Victorian promenade clapping and cheering as another car turned into the parade; spurred on by the rapturous welcome and the finishing line in sight, the driver wiped his goggles clean with a leather glove. Beyond the promenade, the pebbles and crashing waves of the sea, heads turned on the famous pier as day-trippers rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves, for though they knew the time from their watches, they had temporarily forgotten what century it was.

The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, celebrating its 115th anniversary this year, is a motoring event from a bygone age, a slice of nostalgia every bit as tantalising as the teacake served on the gilt-iron terrace of a beachside Georgian hotel.

With entry restricted to cars made before 1905, this isn't just a car race but a motoring museum, meandering its way from the capital to the south coast of England, at speeds sometimes in excess of 25kph. At a mere 87km it may not be the longest car race in the world but it is the longest running. Held since 1927, it has claimed a special place in the affections of motoring enthusiasts and the public at large. It is to the English autumn what the boat race is to the spring, a peculiar and peculiarly English event with its roots firmly in the past.

The origins of the race go back to 1896. Far from being merely a jolly jaunt to the seaside for those who could afford a car in that era, it marked what is probably the most significant, but least well known, rule change in the history of motoring. That first race was nicknamed the "Emancipation run" and celebrated the removal of the requirement for every car to follow 20 metres behind someone waving a red flag. As you can imagine, this safety measure was not only an imposition but an embarrassment for drivers seeking to show off their ever-more-powerful machines. With the red flag no longer required and the speed limit raised from a pedestrian 6.5kph to a positively cantering 22.5kph, the joys of the road could be fully explored.

For those unaware that the race is taking place, it makes for a charming and eccentric diversion from their day-trip to the beach but, for enthusiasts such as Elaine Wilson, from Brighton, this annual event is the highlight of the year.

"I've been coming every year since I was a girl. It is a thrilling spectacle and a piece of history," she says.

As a 1902 Oldsmobile bumbles past, she observes: "These cars are the origins of what we all drive now, though there appears little in common. They are heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next like an oil painting."

The race starts in Hyde Park at exactly 7.02am, the official time of the sun rising. More than 550 cars had their carburettors and ignitions adjusted and, with a couple of lusty turns of the starting handles, set off for the sea. All but the 50 that failed to cross the starting line, that is. After all, in motoring terms, these cars are like fossils.

Four hours later, having passed along country roads lined with waving enthusiasts, who cheer heartily while keeping their hands warm with piping hot flasks of coffee, the leaders cross the finish line for what is, in its own way, as great a feat as completing Le Mans. For these cars are all more than 100 years old, making them the mechanical equivalent of an elderly person completing a marathon.

Another enthralled spectator, Graham Brown, 54, from Sussex, finds beauty in the cars' history.

"Cars of this age were little more than horseless carriages," he says. "They were a new, exciting invention and, when they drove into the countryside, they would cause jaws to drop, as most people wouldn't have seen a car before. They weren't just making a journey along a road but a journey into the future."

Though the cars that take part are all manufactured in the short period between 1893 and 1905, the range of styles, sizes and speeds is remarkable. The Victorian cars are rudimentary, often small and lacking doors. Some are even steam-powered.

This year the first ever Porsche took part, albeit a replica of an electric hybrid car designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1900, several decades before he designed the Volkswagen Beetle. But after the turn of the century the rate of progress in vehicle design was extraordinary and the later cars, such as an eight-seater Mercedes, were powerful, luxurious tourers, capable of more than 80kph. Other familiar marques such as Fiat and Renault could be spotted alongside major manufacturers of the era, such as Darracq, Panhard and De Dion-Bouton, that have long since been forgotten in the motoring lexicon.

With today's heavily congested roads and suburban driveways now crammed with SUVs and MPVs, it is easy to forget that cars were once a rarity, a toy reserved for only the richest of the rich. Jonathan Woodhead, from York, finished the race third in his 1900 16hp French-built Panhard and had joined the crowds to cheer in the rest. Dressed in a very fetching period brown top hat and ankle-length tweed overcoat, he explains that his car cost £1,400 (Dh8,250) when new, the equivalent of about Dh4.7 million in today's money.

"These were the ultimate status symbols," Woodhead says. "Though these vehicles were out of the reach of most, people forget that this was the very peak of the motoring industry. There were far more manufacturers in Europe than there are today.

"Driving one requires a completely different approach to a modern car. For a start, the braking really is very poor, even at low speeds you have to predict when you may need to stop. But once you get the technique, it is an unforgettable experience."

More than a quarter of the cars taking part come from overseas and Italian, Finnish and American flags flutter past as we cheer.

For drivers and spectators alike it is a memorable morning. Given that many of the cars are, if not priceless, then certainly irreplaceable, it is testament to the enthusiasm of their owners that they are still to be seen on the road, where they can give so much more joy than attracting dust in a museum. The enthusiasm of the passengers is infectious and I'm sure many, like me, will vow to arrive in a car themselves next year.

But there are certainly cheaper pastimes. A car built in the 1900s can be acquired for about Dh220,000, with early 1890s models fetching closer to Dh800,000 at auction; though, rumour has it that a discrete enquiry could claim a lift for Dh1,800. It's far more expensive than the train but in such a car the journey would not just take you to the sea, it would transport you to another era.