Unrestorable: Genevieve is the patron saint of classic cars

According to historian David Burgess-Wise, in 1945, a landlord’s agent named Bill Bailey was poking around in an East London builder’s yard, adjacent to one of his properties. He whacked his shin on something buried in a hedge. Pulling back some branches, he discovered an automotive frame. It was one of 15 old cars in varying states of disrepair. “Genevieve” was among the cars dating from 1903 that were revealed. He told two friends who bought them all for £45, a bargain even then. They kept a 1903 Sunbeam and 1903 Argyll and sold the rest, including the Darracq 10/12hp.

Peter Venning bought the Darracq for £25. In 1949, Venning found a period-correct body, but his project stalled, and he sold the rolling chassis to auto dealer Norman Reeves for £35. Reeves rebuilt the Darracq, copying a borrowed square radiator from a 1904 “Flying 15” Darracq, instead of the original “O” shape. Named “Annie” the Darracq ran her first London to Brighton race later that year.

Henry Cornelius wanted to use English cars for a movie he was directing, but nobody would lend him any. Then Reeves offered Annie, renamed Genevieve for the film, and driven by John Gregson, who had to be taught to drive the car by co-star Dinah Sheridan. Reeves’s friend Frank Reese lent his Dutch-built Spyker for Kenneth More to pilot. Cornelius was allowed to film during the 1952 London to Brighton Run, though much of the movie was filmed elsewhere – with appropriate signposts! At the time, Genevieve was considered to be a 1905 model, as was the Spyker. Technically, neither was eligible for the London to Brighton run, but Genevieve was featured in the 1953 event, driven by that year’s Monte Carlo Rally winner “Maus” Gatsonides.

Anyone who remembers the 1953 British film “Genevieve”, about the two old friends racing their veteran cars on the 52-mile London to Brighton Run for pre-1904 vehicles, can probably hear Larry Adler’s wonderful harmonica soundtrack right now. The theme gathers speed as gracefully as these baroque conveyances accelerate, eventually humming musically along.

The London to Brighton Run was started in 1927 to celebrate the 1896 anniversary of the British speed limit being raised from four to 12 mph, and eliminating the need for a man walking in front. But collecting very old cars remained a fringe interest – confined in most peoples’ minds to eccentric uncles who re-fight the Battle of Waterloo at Christmas dinner, with salt and pepper shakers.

Thousands of fans turned out in appalling weather, and the classic car hobby took off in the wake of the movie. The film eventually enjoyed worldwide success, and Genevieve herself did too. Reeves kept the Darracq and in 1958, shipped her down to Australia for the Blue Mountain Rally. He later sold the car to New Zealand collector George Gilltrap, whose family kept her until 1989, when Western Australia collector Paul Terry bought her for a record £285,302 ($465,000).

Terry found Genevieve in a sorry state, and began a £40,000 ($65,000) restoration. At the time, Terry said, “We really only agonized over keeping the car as Genevieve for about five minutes. The car is simply far more important as Genevieve than as a 1905 Darracq. It’s the most important veteran car in the world.”  Accordingly, the car was restored to movie spec with the square Flying 15 radiator and hood, aluminum shell bucket seats and 12-spoke Ford Model T wheels. New gears were cut for the back axle and gearbox, and the cracked engine block was welded.

Terry had amassed enough parts to complete Genevieve as a 1904 model, but he elected to store them and rebuild her as filmed, requesting an exception to the London to Brighton rule. His appeal was denied, though he was given an exception for the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release, in 1993. Sadly Terry was unable to attend, as he was killed in a helicopter crash.

On Terry’s death, his collection was sold, and Genevieve returned to England. In 1993, Auctioneer Robert Brooks sold her to Evert Louwman’s Dutch National Motor Museum for £150,000 ($244,500). Now 112 years old, “Genevieve” still belongs to Louwman’s Museum.

Sensing perhaps that Genevieve was responsible for their continuing success, the Veteran Car Club finally relented regarding the two cars’ eligibility, and Genevieve and the Spyker were grandfathered in. For the past 20 years, Genevieve has competed regularly in the race she first ran 67 years ago, along with the Spyker, and they remain the biggest attractions in the annual Brighton Run.

Historian Burgess-Wise neatly summarizes Genevieve’s importance, “Genevieve represents a turning point in the appreciation of veteran cars, erroneous restoration or not, and she awakened the general public to the Brighton Run and all it stands for. If Genevieve had been restored to original, she would just be another little veteran Darracq. As it is, she is unique – she has been termed the mascot of the entire old car movement.”

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