London To Brighton Is The Route For Hundreds Of Century-Old Cars In This Horseless Rally
Photography by Will Broadhead
“The Horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” Had Horace Rackham, Henry Ford’s lawyer, listened to that advice he would have died a much poorer man. The folly of such a quote is almost unimaginable these days, almost as unimaginable as the rudimentary engineering of the first Horseless Carriages that took to the road in the century that preceded the arrival of the Model T.
Indeed, were it not for the strength of our love affair with the car, these first automobiles may have passed into history, the marques and whispers of a bygone age. They still have strong supporters today, a dedicated group of enthusiasts for which the preservation of such vehicles is a lifelong adventure. The continued renaissance of events associated with the early days of motorized carriages is because of their persistent effort.
Wanting to be a part of that atmosphere if only for a day, I found myself on a crisp November morning walking the streets of London to witness the fruits of these enthusiastic labors of love. The Sunday just passed marked 121 years since the first running of the Royal Automobile Club London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, a pre-1906 rally.
The concept of 121 years of motoring is something I find difficult to grasp at 6am on a Sunday morning, not least under the clear cold skies of the capital, skies that have watched this event since its inception. Such is the strength of the support for these machines that there is a record entry of over 600, although a number closer to 400 cars will make the start, 60 of which were built in the 1800s.
Arriving, I am greeted by a scene that is like something out of a Dickens novel, or a Kipling poem; a resplendent collection of weird and wonderful engineering solutions to supersede the horse. The cars begin to arrive in the dim light of dawn, lining up for the start on Serpentine Drive. There are three-wheels, four-wheels, internal combustion engines, steam engines, solid tires, wooden spokes, and brakes that look less useful than putting your feet on the floor.
Manufacturers from across Europe and America are strongly represented in addition to other areas of the world, and some have gone on to become household names: Cadillac, Benz, Fiat, and Vauxhall. Others have disappeared into memory but evoke feelings of recognition and wonderment such as Sunbeam and Darracq. The excitement in the milling crowds is positively buoyant, and mixed in with the oil smoke and steam that sits just above our heads on this cold morning, one is prepared to witness some truly pioneering engineering in action, and I sense a great collective spirit between the drivers in their period dress and the gathered crowd.
As the sky starts to change color in the direction of Buckingham Palace, the cold dawn retreats to reveal a wonderfully sunny fall day. There is still a tremendous chill in the air though and I can only imagine how the adventurous entrants are going to fare on the 60-mile run to Brighton in their mostly open steeds.
With some motors barely registering a couple of horsepower to their name, and the challenges of Burgess and Clayton Hill to come, this is a journey that not all will complete. The trial of navigating the route is made all the more difficult by the antiquated controls, steering mechanisms that are more akin to the tiller on a boat than a wheel, and all manner of complex systems for setting engine speed, fuel mixture, and gearing, often on the fly. Perhaps the climate is the least of their inconveniences then?
The machines start off in order of age, with an 1895 Peugeot leading the fleet away. It’s a fabulous sight as car after car begins to emerge from the Queen Elizabeth Gate, underneath Wellington Arch and advancing up Constitution Hill, onwards to Buckingham Palace and the Mall. This is a decadent beginning to the rally, but it’s one that all of the entrants and their machines deserve. As the sun continues to rise, the participants are bathed in beautiful morning light against the backdrop of London’s iconic buildings and the autumn colors of its parks. They press onward, past Horse Guards Parade and the houses of Parliament, and then out of London and onto the route proper.
The later cars are more recognizable in their layouts than their ancestors, but these “modern” cars still only put out between 10 and 20hp; this is likely to be a long day. As the last of the machines passes by the Guards Memorial it is not lost on me that at the time these cars were built, this monument did not exist, a startling reminder of just how much the world has changed since the first running of this rally.
Sadly, my mode of transport is not as extraordinary as that of the entrants, but as I lie in ambush for the cars at Clayton Hill, I am certainly thankful for its modern heating systems. Slowly the machines start to appear, one by one at first and then in larger groups. They share the steep gradient with cyclists who are also looking to challenge themselves against the climb – the latter are often the faster up the incline! Though it’s funny to think of it this way, the Hill is a stern test of these cars, and results in some vehicles needing assistance from passengers who are jettisoned to either save weight or push. I even witnessed one driver set the throttle of his machine and join his passenger in shoving it up the slope!
For those that make it, there is then a short run into Brighton itself, and the rewarding vista of the beachfront finish, watched over by Brighton’s famous pier. Around 300 or so complete the run, with many vehicles arriving after sundown. Such is the spirit of their pilots.
As I run the day back through my mind one thing keeps coming to the front; this is not a novelty event. Behind the guise of the dress-up fun and pomp and ceremony of the start, this is a hard slog. These people that maintain, fix, and restore these machines are every bit as dedicated as those that have gone before them. In many ways, as they fight amongst the modern traffic systems and vastly over-populated roads of this part of the country, they are forging new paths with century-old technology, and in doing so, they are in a sense preserving the origins of every car since.