There has to be an exceptionally good reason for me to be anywhere but under the duvet at 7.00am on a Saturday morning, but the Brighton-to-London Future cars run was one of the few.
I was offered the chance to drive Mercedes’ fuel-cell powered B-Class F-Cell on the 57-mile run from the south coast to Pall Mall in central London. The Merc was one of 64 alternatively fuelled cars on the run, a spread of vehicles that ran from production models such as the Golf BlueMotion and Focus Econetic, to Tesla roadsters, electric taxis, Gordon Murray’s tiny T.25, Nissan’s Leaf and Tata’s battery-powered Indica.
I’ve driven the B-Class F-Cell before, but there’s no need to get used to it, because it barely differs from the production B-Class. Just slot the gearlever and we were off. The rev counter has been replaced by a meter which shows both fuel use and energy recovery. So the key was to keep the needle as close to zero as possible, and get it to swing down into energy recovery as often as possible.
Heading north up the A23 I was, like the other drivers, keen to keep acceleration to a minimum and we soon had a queue of cars behind us, even at this early hour. Switching to rural roads helped, but I found I couldn’t achieve much in the way of regeneration because the F-Cell doesn’t have an automatic coasting mode, so lifting off the accelerator tends to result in rapid slowing.
The Saturday morning traffic between Croydon and Brixton was terrible, but, thanks to my extra-light pedalling, the on-board fuel monitor had clicked below the magic ‘1kg of hydrogen per 100km’ which Mercedes’ fuel cell guru Reinhold Schamm had told me would be optimal.
The run, including a 20min stop (and quick chat with the Mayor of Crawley) took over four hours, but we finished at Pall Mall with just 0.97kg of Hydrogen split into electricity and water. The F-Cell was quiet and comfortable (though it steamed up a bit with the climate control turned off) and felt completely production ready.
Amazingly, we won the Fuel Cell class, beating the Honda FCX and Toyota Highlander SUV. Reinhold Schamm was beside himself with joy, so the RAC trophy will be in the fuel cell engineers’ Stuttgart meeting room by the time you read this.
The future cars and veteran cars were lined up together in Regent Street, which made for an arresting sight. At the end of the event I wandered off on foot and ran across a 1895 Benz Victoria, which the owner and mechanic were attempting to re-start in the middle of Piccadilly. The 4hp, one-cylinder car was eventually coaxed into shuddering life and it shot off down the bus lane.
To step out of such an advanced 2010 Mercedes only to immediately encounter its 115-year-old direct predecessor capped an extraordinary day and was a graphic reminder of the billions of unsung man hours that have gone into securing the great freedom of personal transport.