This year’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run again lived up to high expectations; broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh and writer Adam Hay-Nicholls – both Royal Automobile Club members – travelled with the Motoring Committee chairman in a 1903 Daimler.
Words by Adam Hay-Nicholls
Dawn has yet to break when the first engines are hand-cranked. One by one, nearly 400 pre-1906 veteran cars putter and stutter towards the start line of the London to Brighton Run. White clouds puff from their exhausts as the competitors take their places. Leaning against No.259, a 1903 Daimler Tonneau Tourer, is a familiar face from television screens, and his green fingers are about to get oily.
Alan Titchmarsh and I are passengers in this ancient automobile, driven by the chair of the Royal Automobile Club’s motoring committee, Peter Read. He’s an old hand at the Run, but for both Alan and myself it’s the first time and a proud tick on the bucket list.
“In fact, it was only really on the list in my dreams,” remarks Alan, “I never even thought such an adventure was a possibility”. He has dressed spiffily for the occasion, looking every bit the pioneer motorist, wrapped in an Edwardian-style beige rain-cloak and a green woollen Peter Christian suit. His brown leather driving gloves, which go up to the elbow, protect against the wind.
The flag drops and we’re off. Phut-phut-phut and clatter-clatter-clatter, we cross over the top of Hyde Park Corner, down Constitution Hill and up The Mall, Buckingham Palace in our vibrating mirrors. “Good morning ma’am,” nods Alan, a frequent visitor to Her Majesty’s garden. Early risers are out soaking up the spectacle. On this most regal of roads it gives us a chance to perfect our nonchalant waves.
Before we even reach Admiralty Arch, some participants have pulled over and are shaking their heads as they stare at steaming engines. The challenge of the Emancipation Run grows greater each time it’s held. It represents a more graceful age, though, and this is the attraction for Titchmarsh. “My heroes are drivers like the Bentley Boys more than modern motor racers, when it was about style and spirit as much as the trophies. It was about enjoying life – the ride. I find vintage cars to be incredibly romantic. I’m a sucker for old episodes of Poirot because I love seeing those cars from the 1920s.”
Our Daimler is the oldest automobile either of us have travelled in, but Alan is no stranger to pre-war British cars. The first classic he bought was a flat-nosed 1928 Morris Cowley. Now he’s become a Bentley Boy in his own right; he owns a splendid 1929 Bentley 4 ½ Litre called Bessie, named after his late mother. He’s also got a 1963 fixed-head Series 1 E-Type Jag. Alan says part of the enjoyment of classics is not feeling the need to put one’s foot down. For him, the longer the journey the better. That said, a well-maintained E-type doesn’t hang around in the speed stakes.
Our 1903 machine is a different proposition. Peter’s not about to execute some Top Gear-style doughnuts in front of the Cenotaph. The route splits at Parliament Square. We’d been chasing down Yasmin Le Bon’s motor but she carries on towards Lambeth Bridge as we steer left and take the original route of the Run across Westminster Bridge and down the A23. Much of the route through South London is unrecognizable from 100 years ago, but we spot a faded Bovril sign still shading the brickwork of a Victorian end terrace.
There is certainly an art to driving these cars, not least the importance of looking far ahead. The brakes are not a match for a modern car’s, and we have a couple of hairy moments where quick reactions and heavy engine braking are required. BMW drivers, in particular, earn Peter’s ire, yet we passengers remain resolutely calm and confident in Peter’s skills. It’s not his first time driving this car. And it’s able to slow better than some. At one point a veteran car behind us has its anchors fail almost completely, avoiding the snarled traffic ahead by taking a full-pelt left turn as if it was on rails. A man halfway over the zebra crossing has to leap out of the way. We count the Daimler’s refinement and technical superiority a blessing.
The Brighton Run is not and has never been a race, but who are they kidding? We want to finish first and, especially, we wish to beat club chairman, Ben Cussons, in the RAC’s handsome blue 1901 Mors. With our 14 horsepower, we have a 4hp advantage and Peter uses it around the outside of turns like an Edwardian Max Verstappen. Occasionally the chairman slips past in the other lane when our path is blocked, but the Daimler had a definite speed advantage. We are running close to 50mph! We spear down the inside of the Mors at a roundabout, take the place back and firmly shut the door. Alan roars with delight. “That was my Terry Thomas moment,” he says, almost apologetically.
The closer we get to crossing the M25 the bigger the throngs of well-wishers gets. Some are out in their finery to celebrate the retro-fest, wearing black tie and stoking barbeques in their front gardens. We spot one or two chains of office around collars; the mayors of these enclaves are all out in force. A lady in Coulsdon is the first to scream “Oh my God, it’s Alan Titchmarsh!” “Quick,” whispers Alan, “we’ve been spotted”. There will be plenty more appreciation for writer-broadcaster as we continue south.
I’d feel short-changed if we arrived in Brighton without incident, and sure enough a technical gremlin makes an appearance as we chutter through Horley. Smoke billows from the Daimler’s bonnet. Investigations prove there’s an airlock in a pipe which has caused it to overheat. It’s all hands on deck and we’re back on the road after half an hour’s spannering. At this point, Alan gives us a passable impression of Bing Crosby, singing a ditty from High Society. “Have you heard about dear Blanche; got run down in an avalanche. Don’t worry, she’s a game girl you know. Got up and finished fourth”. Our chances of finishing top four are now rather dashed, but we’re still making good time. The Daimler is back on song, a game girl no doubt. The ride is nothing but comfortable, apart from the very occasional grinding of gears. Alan’s groupies are out in force in Crawley, Handcross, Staplefield and Cuckfield and soon we are bearing down on our destination. “I courted a girl in Brighton,” says Alan, wistfully. “Got her in the end, and I married her”. He and Alison have been wedded 43 years.
A couple of years ago, Alan wrote a bestselling novel called Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, with the tagline ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey’, which very much sums up our feelings as we arrive at Brighton’s seafront wishing we had many more miles ahead. Alan is accosted after the finish line by vintage cockney girl group, The Charlalas, who are singing turn-of-the-century tunes acapella. Alan is serenaded with “All the ladies love a gardener.”
The horticulturalist is already harbouring thoughts of getting behind the wheel himself next year. “This has been such a unique experience, delightful fun, and you really have to hand it to those early pioneers; the people who designed and built these cars, and the gentlemen who drove them down the lanes and dirt roads in those early days”. What a privilege it has been for us all to re-live those exceptional times.