I’m not much of a Sunday morning person. As a matter of fact, I tend to view Sunday morning as a theoretical concept that exists largely to prevent the clocks from getting messed up and to give churchgoers a time when they can worship without disturbing awful heathens such as myself. So waking at six today was, as you might imagine, something of a wrench.
Making things worse was the fact that I’d only got in at about 4. I’d been at a Halloween party hosted by Becky B, who is an excellent host and also – if you follow the link on the right – a fine purveyor of bloggery in her own right. As it was a literary-themed party, I went as Fantomas. Partly because, you know, any excuse for a top hat and tailcoat.
On the way back I made the mistake of falling asleep on the bus, and when I woke up my bag had been stolen. Fortunately I am incredibly paranoid about having my bag stolen, so there was nothing of great monetary value in there. However, the bag itself was a leaving present from my old job and it contained my sketchpad, my trusty A-Z and my favourite cravat, so they only got things of sentimental value. They could have taken my coat, hat or cane, any of which would have been worth a lot more in monetary terms. In conclusion, should I ever find the fucker who stole my bag, I will eat them and telephone their mother to let them know what is happening. I’m really quite upset.
That aside, today was the day of the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. This is an event held on the first Sunday of every November, first run in 1896 to celebrate the end of the Locomotive Act. This had limited self-propelled vehicles to a walking pace (down to 2mph in built-up areas) and – prior to an 1878 amendment – demanded that all such vehicles be preceded by a man with a red flag. This was the origin of the Act’s popular nickname, the Red Flag Act. The London to Brighton Run was originally known as the Emancipation Run, and opened with the symbolic destruction of a red flag.
The event is now run by the Veteran Car Club (of which Yr. Humble Chronicler used to be a member) and sponsored by Tindle Newspapers. It starts from Hyde Park and ends on Madeira Drive in Brighton. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a race. For a start, I believe racing on public highways is illegal in this country, and doing so in vehicles this old would be downright suicidal. The rules also stipulate that no vehicle built after 1905 may partake, although it’s not unknown for petrolhead spectators to show up in later classics.
These days, the event serves as a sort of eccentric commemoration of the pioneering days of motoring. It’s commonly attended by celebrities of the motoring world – I think just about every Top Gear presenter ever has taken part, and racing drivers are common participants. Various organisations, such as King’s College, the VCC, the Royal Automobile Club and motoring manufacturers also tend to put their own vehicles in, although the bulk are privately owned vehicles that have either been passed down the generations or rescued and restored. Period dress is not obligatory, but it’s certainly popular.
I’d say that it’s a typically British event, except it’s not. Vehicles and drivers come from literally all over the world. They encompass a wide range of backgrounds and age groups. Generally, it’s a splendidly cosmopolitan affair where people from right across the planet can get together and celebrate their mildly odd passion. I mean that in a good way, I’d love to take part myself.
The event even has its own film, the 1953 comedy Genevieve, starring John Gregson and the ever-marvellous Kenneth More. I mention this largely because Genevieve, the title vehicle, still does the run, as you can see to the left.
One thing you realise from watching this event is how much things have changed since those early days. Cars, when you get down to it, are usually built to a fairly standard format. Four wheels, engine at the front, either two or four seats in the middle. No such standardisation back before 1905. Some of the cars look like little more than farm carts or gigs with engines strapped on. Some have passengers seated in front of the driver. Some have passengers sitting facing the driver, with the steering wheel mounted amidships (the “sociable” layout, as it was known). There was the dos-a-dos, with the passengers facing backwards. There were the buckboards, flimsy-looking two-seaters that look only a step up from a skateboard. Tiny little things for one and great stagecoach-looking things. Manufacturers you’ve never heard of, home-built one-offs, kit cars and early examples from the great companies of today.
They weren’t even sure how these should be powered. Petrol won out (although in those days it had to be bought at the chemist), but steam and electricity were also popular modes of propulsion. Indeed, compared to the smoking, chuffing, rattling petrol vehicles of the day, the smooth and surprisingly clean-running steam car looks light years ahead.
My favourite vehicle in the show would have to be the unique Salveson seen on the right. My comments about steam being clean and smooth don’t quite apply to this steam car, which is coal-fired and requires a fireman and a separate coal tender. It’s a magnificently steampunk-looking contraption that puts me in mind of the Arkansas Chuggabug from Wacky Races.
Although I think I have special admiration for the young chap who was riding alongside the vehicles in Victorian costume, pedalling a Penny Farthing. Now that, friends, is dedication.