Currently reading: Vets in practice: London to Brighton in a 1904 Lanchester
The annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run celebrates the ‘Emancipation’ of the motor car in 1896. We join the pioneers for a ride to the south coast

We are surrounded by elegance. Ladies in Edwardian dresses, gentlemen in tweed. Only Duncan Pittaway is letting the side down. Yes, he is wearing a shirt and tie but the man is absolutely filthy. Dirty face, black hands, shirt no longer white. But then he has spent most of the day shovelling coal into the firebox of his 1896 Salvesen steam car. “We have to stop every 12 miles for water,” explains Pittaway, “which we pinch from fire hydrants.” Which is true because I’ve seen him watering his machine as we’ve rumbled past in our 1904 Lanchester.

I can’t believe I haven’t taken part in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run before. I haven’t even watched the start in Hyde Park or the finish in Brighton. Many friends and colleagues have done so, including our man Cropley. I made the same mistake with strawberries: wouldn’t touch the things when I was little, but then discovered in my teens that they’re the tastiest things in the world and have consumed great quantities ever since.

What I have done many times (as has Cropley) is ride in the Pioneer Run for old motorcycles. The bikes have to be pre-1915, but these are youngsters compared with the cars’ 1904 cut-off date. The other difference is that the bikes start from Epsom rather than central London. Both, however, involve getting up really early.

2 London to bright

So at 7.00am, the field is waved off by celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh. I’ve already spotted a few motoring deities, including Prodrive founder David Richards, suitably tweeded-up, and a few friends from the car industry. One is Tim Jackson, who retired as boss of Renault’s PR department a few years ago. A total enthusiast, Tim has bought himself a De Dion-Bouton. Mechanical issues have dogged the machine but he’s hoping a new gearbox will get him to Brighton this year.

As explained, I am riding on a 1904 Lanchester. I know virtually nothing about veteran cars, not least because they’ve never interested me much. That is about to change. Our driver is David Manchester, a career man in the motor trade who now runs his own consultancy. In the back we have David Bond, MD of classic car insurer Footman James, and a man from A Lange & Söhne, which is an upmarket timepiece manufacturer and one of the sponsors of the event.

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Presumably, Manchester’s career has involved making bold decisions without too much thumb twiddling. This ability to make quick judgments is prevalent in his driving. As we head south through Brixton, Streatham and out towards Surrey, we tangle with early morning traffic, most of which fail to appreciate that we have minimal braking and that the steering is via a tiller, which makes modern EPAS steering feel rather good. I’ll quiz Manchester about the controls when he is less busy.

7 Brihgt wfw

Oh dear, there’s my pal Tim on the pavement with various bits of De Dion-Bouton exposed. I think he’s about to kick the machine. He’s not the only one experiencing difficulties. Since we left Hyde Park, we have seen numerous machines on the side of the road. Our Lanchester is hammering along, its driver showing heroic commitment.

I hadn’t realised how big the crowds would be. Out in the open (and not going too fast), you can acknowledge the cheers with a polite good morning and sometimes they’ll ask how old your machine is. Once we’re on quieter roads in Surrey and Sussex, we see classic cars parked everywhere: a bunch of Lotus Seven owners in a village hall car park, a pride of Moggies outside a pub and random classics parked up on verges. It’s just wonderful.

One can converse not only with onlookers but also fellow ‘runners’. We’re at traffic lights (the archenemy of the veteran motorist due to fragile clutches and engines liable to overheat) next to a three-wheeler. It’s a 1903 Humber Olympia tandem being driven by Martin Tacon. “My father bought it in 1950,” he shouts, “and it’s done the run since 1952.” Tacon’s young son is in the chair in front and no doubt will one day be the Humber’s third-generation driver.

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5 Lon2 bright

Interestingly, the participants in the old bike run tend to be fairly ancient but this event seems to attract a wide range of ages; not just as passengers but as drivers. Both sexes, too. We spot two young men in purple striped blazers wearing top hats. These turn out to be students from Imperial College, London. Their 1902 James & Browne has been owned by the college since 1934 and each year a team of students prepare it and act as support crew, with one lucky bugger getting to drive. This year it’s Barty Pitt’s turn: “I did last year but I only got as far as Brixton before the crankcase exploded, so I’ve been allowed to have another go.”

Just outside Brighton, we run through a hailstorm and as Manchester is driving in his usual press-on style, we get a bit of a bead blasting. The traffic in Brighton is terrible and not for the first time we stall. The Lanchester has to be push-started and three of us isn’t enough. It’s never hard to find volunteers. This time a lady abandons her two kids in their pram and gives us a shove. Thank you, madam.

We roll down Madeira Drive and over the finish line to join a line-up of fabulous cars and equally fabulous people. Pittaway’s steamer is still belching and dribbling water. A gauge next to the boiler has its needle past a red line: I presume it is a pressure gauge and that I am about to be blown over to France, but fortunately Pittaway is on the case and lets out some pressure.

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Strawberries and the London to Brighton veteran car run. Two of my favourite things.

Our Lanchester

Our machine is part of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust’s collection. Why? Because Lanchester went bust before the first war and then became part of Daimler after a buyout in 1931.

At our stop-off point at Gatwick, JDHT’s Eric Baptiste and Scott Barber top up the Lanchester’s fuel, oil and water.

“This is an extremely advanced design,” says Baptiste. “It has the first engine that featured a pressurised oil system. It runs at 40psi, which is not far off a modern car’s pressure. It’s a four-cylinder 2.5-litre unit with overhead valves with a camshaft either side of the cylinders. It’s a crossflow design.”

The next piece of information has my hair standing on end. “It’s fast, too,” says Baptiste, “We’ve clocked it at 65mph.”


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runnerbean 24 November 2019

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