Stand by Brighton's historic pier on the first Sunday of November and you'll see a steady stream of vehicles arriving from London. But these aren't your normal day trippers, zooming the 60 miles to the coast at high speed in search of sun, sea and ice cream. Every one of the 550 cars pouring onto the city's beach-side Madeira Drive is at least 107 years old, a living museum piece enjoying one day of the year back on the open road.
This is Britain's Veteran Car Run. It's an annual celebration of the 1896 Act of Parliament that finally permitted "locomotives on the highway" (as cars were then called) to dispense with the rule that required flag-carrying assistants to walk 20 yards ahead of cars. It also raised their speed limits: Early autos were limited to a turtle-like 4 mph crawl in the countryside and a glacial 2 mph in towns. Under the new law, cars could reach the terrifying velocity of 14 mph.
Free at last
A hardy group of 33 motorists decided to celebrate the act with a so-called "Emancipation Run" from the Metropole Hotel in London to the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. In 1896, unpaved highways, steep hills and mechanical breakdowns took their toll: Just 14 cars made it all the way.
Even today, many of the car run's drivers do not reach Brighton unassisted. That's partly because its organizer, the Royal Automobile Club, now limits the event to vintage cars built before January 1, 1905.
Rick Pardoe, a 67 year-old retired engineer from Devon, has driven his 6-horsepower, open-top 1904 Gamage in seven Veteran Car Runs. "To run a small car from London to Brighton is an endurance test," he says. "The cars do not go very fast, they stop very slowly, and changing gear is particularly challenging. Stop lights are the bane of every veteran motorist."
On the plus side, the Run's quaint village lanes and narrow country roads give drivers the opportunity to wave at thousands of onlookers along the route.
"Just once, we had a balmy autumnal day and wore period costumes," Pardoe said. "Usually, my wife, Ann, will be sitting next to me in an ocean sailing kit, which she tested by sitting in the bath. But the enthusiasm of the spectators along the route makes it all worthwhile."
The Veteran Car Run is the oldest event in motoring history — and probably also the slowest, with some timeworn vehicles taking more than nine hours to huff and puff their way from Hyde Park to Brighton at an average speed of less than 7 mph.
No such sluggishness affects more recent London-to-Brighton automotive rallies. The biggest is the Mini Run, which has taken place every May since 1986 and now attracts well over 2,000 examples of Britain's iconic sports car.
Monty Watkins was editor of MiniWorld magazine for more than 14 years and often led the Mini Run down from London. "I would sometimes get into a convoy of over 100 Minis where passers-by would wave, smile and take photos," he remembers. "Occasionally a Mini would cruise past with a pair of buttocks hanging out the passenger window. Well, the weather in May can get hot."
From classics to the future
Now, you can find a collection of classic vehicles lined up on Madeira Drive on almost any weekend of the year. There is even a website dedicated to them. Morris Minors (a runabout previously designed by Mini guru Alec Issigonis), Jaguars, MGs, Peugeot 2CVs, VW camper vans, old trucks and military vehicles all have regular runs, while tens of thousands of motorbike riders don their leathers for the annual Brighton Burn-up, a run to the long-since-redeveloped Ace Cafe on the seafront.
Although some of the manufacturers featured in the runs are getting long in the tooth (the last Morris Minor was built in 1971), Monty Watkins doesn't think they're in any danger of dying out. "A run requires widespread pride of ownership that comes from building or restoring your own vehicle," he says. "Any Mini broken down on the run, for example, would instantly receive free expert help from other crews, most of whom would be carrying just the right spare part, water, fuel or oil."
In fact, new runs are still being born. Daimler's diminutive smart car earned its first London-to-Brighton Run recently, and two years ago the Royal Automobile Club launched its own high-tech re-boot. The Future Car Challenge features vehicles running on alternative fuels (electric, hybrid and fuel cell), and happens the day before the Veteran Car Run, on a route from Brighton back up to London. The club already has the oldest and the slowest motoring run in the world — now it wants the greenest, too.
The winner of the Future Car Challenge is the car that uses the least energy. Last year's overall winner, the all-electric T.27, achieved the equivalent of 290 mpg.
By Mark Harris