From London to the sea, by Knox and by golly
I tried to complete the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in 2007, but it was not to be. My horseless carriage—a borrowed 1904 Rambler—broke down outside Westminster Abbey, just a mile into our adventure. Century-old cars aren’t exactly known for their reliability. There would always be the next year, I figured.
As it turns out, “next year” took 12 years to arrive. But now, as of a few months ago, I can say that I have finally and officially completed the world’s longest-running motoring event. Wow, wow, and wow!
If you’re not familiar, the Run, as it’s called, began in 1896 as a celebration of the repeal of the unpopular Red Flag Act of 1865, which limited automobiles to 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in the city, or approximately the speed one might experience today on a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. The Run is not a race; it’s a 54-mile drive from Hyde Park in the center of London to the seaside town of Brighton. The goal is to finish, which many of the cars don’t, since they were all built prior to 1905.
The word “celebration” in that last paragraph is key to me, and one of the reasons that I wanted to make a second attempt. See, I think cars are more than just ever-evolving inventions built to ferry us from one place to another. I have always thought cars are fun. I like looking at them, driving them, talking about them, and tinkering with them. To me, they aren’t appliances. They are not something you only use for transportation; they are part of life’s journey. And simply arriving at the destination isn’t the only goal. I think you agree.
It was cool and gray the day of the Run. In other words, typical for London. But it wasn’t raining, which was good, because some of the drivers and passengers who take part dress in period costumes.
Our carriage that day was a maroon open-top 1903 Knox made in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had completed the Run dozens of times before (so hopes were high). Its starting instructions warn you to crank the engine carefully lest you “break an arm or injure oneself in other ways.” The Knox is an odd and wonderful contraption in that it has a passenger bench seat in front of the driver and is controlled not with a steering wheel but with a tiller, like a boat, and a hand throttle.
The day began in the predawn darkness of Hyde Park with the spectacle of 400 pre-1905 Knoxes, Waverleys, Daleys, Napoleons, Yales, Dürkopps, Maxims, Stars, Lamberts, Gladiators, Cadillacs, Renaults, Vauxhalls, and Mercedes coming to life, their oil lamps and candles dotting the gloom as their drivers ran through checklists to get the darned things started. The Run ended in the late afternoon at the sea in Brighton with hugs, drinks, and hearty congratulations all around.
Favorite memory: the locals who gathered outside quaint pubs in little towns to drink Sunday morning Bloody Marys and cheer us on as we chugged by. Breakdowns: zero. The Knox ran like a champ. Average speed: maybe 10 mph. Top speed: 26 mph, but that was downhill. Time to finish: five-and-a-half hours, give or take.
Condition of my driving soul: completely fulfilled! I hope to do it again next year. And I hope to see you there.
Until then, onward and upward.