Top Speed of….26 mph!

By Trish Utter

I was very lucky to fly to England to experience the 123rd, London to Brighton Veteran Car Run that is organized by the Royal Automobile Club, and sponsored by the auction house, Bonhams. Beautiful vintage cars blanketed the pond area of Hyde Park, where the famous 60 mile run to Brighton starts.

It was a chilly day by Florida standards as I could see my breath from the cold air. The many layers of clothing I was wearing made it difficult to move, but I was prepared for a day of driving in a vehicle with no windshield and no heat. We were lucky enough to have a top on the car which helped a little with rain, but the majority of vehicles did not have this luxury.

This trip would normally take about 2 hours in one of today’s vehicles, but I was riding in a 1904 Cadillac that was now on its 7th run. Over 400 vintage cars took part and all vehicles must date back before December 31st 1904. The RAC is extremely strict on this rule and will take between 6 to 12 months to scrutinize the vehicles authenticity. At least 90% of the car must be original. Once the RAC has determined the car to be pre-December 1904, it is then given a dating certificate.

These vehicles are more like horseless carriages than cars, and offer no comforts of a modern-day vehicle. Now are you thinking to yourself, “My 10 year old car has problems, I can’t imagine doing it in anything that old!”

The first London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, called the “Emancipation Run” took place on Saturday, November 14th, 1896, before the Red Flag Act was passed by Parliament to stop cars frightening other road users, such as horse drawn buggies, etc.

The event started as a celebration of the “repeal of the Red Flag Act”. The Red Flag Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1896 to prohibit cars form driving over the outrageous speed limit of, 4 mph in the countryside, and a whopping 2 mph in the city! Oh boy, you could walk faster! And on top of this, a man had to walk in front the vehicle waving a red flag. This flag was used to warn pedestrians and animals that a car was approaching…ha, ha! In 1904, Parliament repealed the Red Flag Act. And of course abolished the requirement of a man on foot with a red flag. It was because of the excitement of raising the speed limit that the creation of the London to Brighton Run was born. At the beginning of each run, in a ceremonial way, the red flag is happily, ripped apart and so the rally begins.

The reason why the Red Flag Act was repealed was because of the British car industry was being left behind due to the speed limit. The cars on the continent and over in America could travel at up to 50 mph!

Many participants dress in period costumes and most had done this rally year after year. I met one guy who was driving a car that had been handed down from generation to generation, it was great listening to all the stories of how his grandparents had done the same run in the same car. There were a few vintage motor bikes and one steam car that looked exhausting to drive, as one person drove while the other constantly fed the ever hungry engine with firewood. It was quite a sight. We drove past Buckingham Palace and I could just imagine myself back in the Edwardian era. If you loved watching, Downton Abbey you need to see this event as it will whisk you back in time to a romantic era.

So many participants do this event annually that they all know each other and cheer each other on… some even try to give the others the wrong directions in hopes they will not get to the finish line. It’s all in good fun. Local people line most of the 60 mile route and wave British flags. At points I drove past many cars that had broken down. This is the norm on a rally like this and quite a few cars never make it all the way to the finish line.

Along the route we all stopped for a break in Crawley, where we were served hot tea and fantastic British pastries and of course got to chat with others on the run about their vehicles.

One year the Queen entered, King George VI, Daimler in the 1971 run that was driven by HRH Prince Michael of Kent. Many celebrities have also driven in this rally.

I am used to modern sports cars with huge roaring engines, great stereos, plush interiors and heated seats, so I was very skeptical that I would enjoy sitting in an old car with no comforts and most importantly, no heat, but I was surprised at how exhilarating it was. I over heard one participant say that riding in one of these antique cars was like riding on top of a washing machine! For me part of the adrenaline rush was the fear factor of not having any seatbelts, airbags or reliable…..brakes, but somehow 26 mph felt more like 110mph, and I was having a blast.

We made it to the finish line at about 1pm, which is well before the designated finish time of 4:15pm, which was quite an accomplishment as the car had 5 passengers including the driver. We were greeted by a massive crowd and lots of paparazzi, and then presented with a medal. Even though our hands were cold and our noses were red, we were all thrilled with the exhilarating experience. As is the tradition, warm, mulled wine and chili and was served in the Bonhams tent, right by the sea and the Brighton pier. What a beautiful sight of antique cars in such a historic setting.

This event takes place on the first Sunday in November. If you are putting this on your bucket lists make sure you also go to Regent Street the day before the rally as the whole road is closed off for the Regent Street Motor Show that includes these vehicles and many others.