Bonhams London to Brighton Veteran Car Run – 400 Cars from Before 1905 Racing to the Seaside

Earlier today, for the first time in all the fifteen years that we’ve lived in London, we finally managed to watch the Bonhams London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. In the past we were either travelling abroad on the day or we were too lazy to get up before sunrise. The event is unique in that it only allows entries of pre-1905 automobiles. Every year it takes place on the first Sunday of November.

We started out from a location in the Mall opposite Buckingham Palace, no more than 10mins walk from Berkeley Square, then made our way across St James’s Park to Westminster Palace. The weather was perfect, cold but sunny. We were surprised not to see more people along the Mall cheering the drivers and passengers on. There were probably no more than 120 people lining the Mall when we arrived, just a small fraction of the number of drivers and passengers, with some cars carrying 6 or more people.

In typical British fashion some of the drivers and passengers were dressed way too lightly from a European perspective. Ms B and I were wearing many layers, scarves, beanies, while more than just a few of these brave adventurers were dressed in tweed suits or dresses with light overcoats, no scarves, no gloves, no hats… no one knows how they survived the arctic headwind.

The cars keep on coming and passing by you… it never seems to stop and goes on for 45 minutes or so, with a few cars coming much later following temporary breakdowns. The atmosphere is fabulous, a mix of upper-class splendour and some jokingly rowdy behaviour of petrolheads in their element, driving cars as fast as reasonably possible, usually around 30 to 50 km/h. There were not many women among the drivers, but a fair few among the passengers.

The world’s longest running motoring event has started over 120 years ago with the original ‘Emancipation Run’, which was held in 1896 to celebrate the recently passed Locomotives on Highways Act. This law raised the speed limit for ‘light locomotives’ from 4 to 14 mph and abolished the requirement that a man needed to walk ahead of the automobile waving a red flag.

In memory of that newly-gained freedom, the annual Run still commences with the symbolic tearing of the red flag, a pre-dawn ritual, which this year was performed by well-known TV personality and classic car enthusiast Alan Titchmarsh together with the chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, Ben Cussons. While Bonhams, one of the world’s oldest and largest auction houses of fine art and antiques, is the main sponsor of the event, the Automobile Club, which later on became the Royal Automobile Club, has been the custodian of the event since its beginning.

One of my business partners in my day job, a few years ago, was a member of the RAC, so we did most of our meetings there for a period of about two months. I still have very fond memories of the time. It’s such a magnificent ambience full of elegance and understated luxury. The vintage cars displayed in the lobby with full view of the lovely underground swimming pool change on a fortnightly basis or so and ranged from an ‘affordable’ (by the standards of most members, usually around £0.5mln) 1960 Aston Martin DB4 to a classic Ferrari GTO, which usually sets you back by a two-digit million pounds figure. The claret is being sold at cost, so comes at ridiculously cheap prices.

Just before sunrise, seven motorcycles and seven penny-farthings crossed the start line to kick off the Run. Then, precisely at sunrise, at 6:56am, the oldest cars, various Victorian veteran vehicles of the 19th century, followed the two-wheeled ones and made their way through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace, Whitehall and Parliament Square, and then over Lambeth Bridge. The Run is not a race, the target is simply to finish the 100km distance on time, even though it is generally considered cooler to be quick.

The first car to leave Hyde Park was a single-cylinder, 1.5bhp velo-bodied Benz from 1894, followed by the absolutely awesome 1896 Salvesen Steam Cart, basically a steam locomotive running on the road complete with a stoker shoveling coal into the boiler. They don’t build cars like that anymore. Back in the olden days motoring still involved pioneering spirit and adventure. The vast majority of cars was petrol powered, but there were further ones propelled by steam and even several electric cars, the latter clearly way ahead of their time.

In total, 120 different automobile makes were represented, ranging from the German Adler to the Yankees’ Yale. Some, like Fiat, Renault, Cadillac, Mercedes, and Vauxhall, still popular today, but the vast majority long since forgotten. In support of Movember, the event’s official charity partner, and possibly also to keep in line with the times when their vehicles were built, many crews sported moustaches.

In return for his efforts as a host of the event, Titchmarsh was given the keys to a 1902 Mors for the day and didn’t have to be asked twice to put the foot down on the pedal. By the official 4:30pm deadline, nearly 90% of the starters had made it to Brighton to claim one of the coveted finisher medals. Well done! We’ll be back again on 1st November 2020. 5 out of 5 in our book.

Looking for more fun things to do in and around London? Check out our posts about the Thames Rocket, The London Helicopter, the Emirates Airline Cable Car, and North London Skydiving.

For restaurant reviews you might want to have a look at our articles about Ekeberg, Oslo, Tapabento Trindade, Porto, Solar 31 da Calcada restaurant, Lisbon, and Imlauer Sky Bar & Restaurant, Salzburg.

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