What does it mean to be British these days? Paul Cowland attempts to find out, on the wettest Veteran Car Run in living memory.
I don’t want to inject doom and gloom into what’s supposed to be a light-hearted column, but being British hasn’t been the easiest ride, of late.
We’ve lost a beloved monarch, our Prime Ministers seem to have the shelf life of milk, and upon the world stage, our currency now has the value of Monopoly money. And as for whether leaving Europe was a good or bad idea… In short, we’re an Island Nation that perhaps isn’t firing on all of its civic cylinders.
We were once a population that made do and mended. Because we had to. We kept calm and carried on, and no matter what fell down around us, we carried ourselves with dignity and impeccable manners. And there was tea. Lots of tea.
But fear not, dear reader, because having spent my last weekend, on the 126th running of the Veteran Car Run from London to Brighton, I can assure you, that all of those values, and more, are very much in evidence amongst the hardy, humourous and hospitable folk that choose to recreate the path of their pioneering petrolhead progenitors. Well, I say petrol. There were also some wonderful steam and electric cars in evidence. Alternative fuels in the late 1800s? You’d better believe it.
But first, a quick history lesson on what the superbly entitled ‘Emancipation Run’ actually is. I have written at length on this amazing event before, but the elevator pitch for this historic and pleasingly eccentric motoring trial all boils down to one fateful day in November 1896, when a well-heeled and clearly persuasive group of motoring pioneers were successful in having the rather draconian speed limit of 4mph for ‘light locomotives’ raised to a frankly dizzying 14. If that wasn’t enough, they also did away with the man that used to have to walk in front of all motor vehicles, waving a red flag to warn pedestrians of the impending mechanical mass heading their way. To celebrate, they created the template for all good club cruises to follow. Grab a few mates, fill your hampers, flasks and tanks to ‘11’ – and blast down the seaside for a couple of mucky postcards and a perambulation upon the pier. Funny how nothing has changed really, isn’t it?
Since that wonderful Genesis moment for our scene, all the key ingredients have been preserved in aspic. Under the orderly auspices of the Veteran Car Club and the Royal Automobile Club, each year over 350 cars, motorcycles and pushbikes are invited to ride and drive in the tyre tracks of those plucky ladies and gents. If you have a pre-1905 Veteran conveyance, and enjoy meeting likeminded souls, then what are you waiting for? One of the most incredible motoring experiences on the planet awaits.
I’d been lucky enough to drive a small part of the final leg in last year’s run, from Crawley to Brighton’s Madeira Drive finish. Having managed to not to break Hagerty’s own 1903 Knox during that time, I’d clearly endeared myself to Mark Roper, Managing Director, and he was kind enough to invite me back for the full route this year. However, the breaking of my London to Brighton duck, in 2021, had been under the rather false pretences of tourist-board approved levels of sunshine and unseasonably high temperatures. For 2022? You’d have been better off bringing a rubber duck.
At Hyde Park at dawn, the starting point for the London to Brighton, it was clear that however many fingers had been crossed the night before in the hope of precipitative clemency hadn’t been enough. The phrase ‘biblical weather’ gets bandied about a lot to describe when the deluge that greets you feels like the end of the world, but I feel it was somewhat underselling things here. When you start your drive with puddles up to the edge of your wooden wheels, you know that no matter how many layers you’ve got on, they aren’t going to cut it. Roper and I felt like we’d dressed for hill-walking when the memo demanded a wet suit. Undeterred, we raised the Knox’s petite little roof, later to be dubbed the ‘rain catcher’ for its uncanny ability to funnel rain directly into our faces and laps, and pressed on regardless – with a stiff upper lip, and a soaking wet lower half.
As we cruised down The Mall, a few facts were brought into sharp focus. The first was that we had, in apparel terms, definitely both brought a knife to a meteorological gun fight. The second was that this rain was forecast until nightfall. But what would the Edwardians do? They’d have thought of the King and pressed on regardless. So we did too.
Before we’d even reached the end of the road, our trousers were soaked through, our gloves weighed about 10 kilos each, and that teeny, tiny roof, now holding what appeared to be 300 litres of water and its associated weight, wanted to collapse itself down should we even glance askew at a raised manhole cover.
Despite this, the Knox was firing on all, er, one cylinder. Freshly returned from a rejuvenating sojourn at Gregg May’s Autohistoric workshop, our near-120 year old, 6.5 horsepower steed was clearly revelling in the cool, damp air and slippy conditions. Whatever grumbling noises may have been emanating from the two nuts behind the tiller, every other component was firing, rotating, cooling and driving as if we’d just taken her off the showroom floor in 1903. Just think about that for a moment. A car, perfectly performing its design brief, well over a century after it was built.
Sadly, many of our contemporaries weren’t so lucky, the water playing havoc with brakes, coils, magnetos and wiring for many cars. The tough little Knox dutifully – and faultlessly – kept calm, and carried on. Even though many competitors were clearly struggling with the conditions, and many key components were obviously wetter than they’d like them to be, nothing seemed to dampen anyone’s spirits. A cheery wave as we went by, even if that was from under the car as key gearbox elements were being reinserted, tells you everything you need to know about the kind of people that own and drive these cars. Nothing phases them. Nothing is unfixable. I bet even the swearing was polite.
Our halfway stop in Crawley saw the world’s most etiquette-embellished queue for tea, of course, more joyous chat about the atrocious weather and everybody checking in on each other to make sure each car and driver had what was needed for the next leg. Automotive casualties were bandaged up and sent out in a manner that felt like a commanding officer in a scene from an old black and white war movie. ‘You’ve lost a wheel, Smythe? Well, you’ve got three others. Just carry on, there’s a good chap.’
As we literally wrung out our clothes, topped our tanks and enjoyed the bonhomie with our fellow drivers, Mark and I had a good feeling about the last leg. The Knox may be of American, rather than Swiss descent, but its 2.5-litre, single cylinder motor was becoming almost metronomic in its reliability. Firing on the first turn of the cranking handle, our little East-coast Easy Rider decided that it was going to be the salve to our saturated situation. We could do nothing about the weather, but when you’ve got a faultless car beneath you, what does a little rain matter? We effortlessly chugged the last 30 miles or so into Brighton, marvelling at the sheer efficiency of the machinery beneath us. Knox’s of this type may be known as ‘Old Porcupines’ due to their bizarre, spiky Aircooled piston cooling jacket, but the old girl had decided to be far from prickly on the home straight. A testament to those that built her, and indeed, the talented team that keep her going.
Wherever we drove, even through the worst of the weather, people lined the streets, waving their flags, flashing broad smiles and clearly revelling in the magic that these wonderful machines bring to the roads. Selfless volunteer marshals, many hundreds of them, cheerily directed us through steep hills and coned road sections, keeping us safe and out of the way of faster moving modern traffic. With their ponchos and picnics, they spurred all of us on in the most British way possible. Seeing them standing there, in perhaps the wettest day in living memory for this event, yet so full of joy, made me realise that us Brits are still very much in love with the allure of classic, vintage and veteran cars. Sorry, Greta.
Crossing the line to similar reverie and a very welcome cup of steaming hot tea underlined what we’d encountered throughout our adventure. Since the cold, damp dawn start, all that we’d experienced throughout the day were impeccable manners, engineering genius, fabrication wizardry, utter calmness, the drive and determination to get to the finish and a celebration of all that’s made this little country great over the years. This talented inhabitants of this sceptered Isle still clearly have the ingenuity of Brunel, the wit of Dickens and the intellect of Darwin. All very necessary traits when you’re trying to hustle a 130 year old consumer durable through 65 miles of driving rain, it turns out, and because of that, over 300 machines made it down to Brighton under their own steam. A couple of them, quite literally.
It may have taken a day driving a transatlantic car, in a field full of Aussies, Europeans and Americans to realise it, but driving (or should that be sailing) through the Veteran Car Run this year really does define what’s truly great about Great Britain.