Carini: Eyeing redemption at the London-Brighton run

RM Sotheby's/Courtesy the Royal Automobile Club

Recently I got to thinking about the canceled events I truly missed last year. In normal times, I’m everywhere on weekends to attend concours, rallies, tours, you name it. A year ago, one event I had tentative plans to try again was the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

London-Brighton is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. The November event celebrates the 1896 repeal of oppressive motor vehicle regulations. I’d thought about participating for years until 2014, when I finally decided to do it. My buddy Ralph, always up for a good auto adventure, signed on to be my co-pilot. We just needed an eligible car, which meant one built prior to 1905.

After our attempts to buy a 1904 Ford Model A at auction failed that spring, a mutual friend offered us his 1903 Model A. “It’s done the London to Brighton run twice,” he told us.

After little more than a test drive that summer, I had the two-cylinder, four-passenger Model A delivered as soon as we arrived at our London hotel in late October. With temperatures in the 70s, the festivities began with a Saturday car show on Regent Street, which showcased about 100 veteran cars. For the run on Sunday, the temperature dropped into the 40s and it rained. The Ford had no weather equipment, so we used an umbrella, raincoats, and plastic garbage bags in our futile attempts to stay dry. We arrived at Hyde Park before sunrise, and soon 300 cars were lined up for the 7 a.m. start. The cars were released on the route oldest to youngest; our 1903 build date put us roughly in the middle of the pack for this great adventure.

Armed with a route map and hoping to follow other cars, I tried to figure out how long 54 miles would take in a car barely faster than a brisk walk. Ambling through London was fantastic, however, particularly as we passed Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the houses of Parliament.

Things went south from there.

1903 Ford Model A front three-quarter red
1903 Ford Model A National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

About 4 miles into the run, the Ford lost a cylinder. We pulled over to diagnose the problem. The spark was weak due to a failing charging system, and one spark plug was fouled. We figured out how to bypass the charging system, but the battery was already dead. One gentleman stopped and offered to help, and when we told him we needed a battery, he promised to be back in 10 minutes, then scurried off. Soon he appeared with the battery from his vintage Mini—and he refused payment. A Royal Automobile Club (RAC) serviceman also stopped, and he put the original battery on a charger in his van while we continued. Still, as we encountered hills, the Ford struggled.

Soon, with our weakening battery, the rear spark plug fouled again. After I crawled under the car to pull and replace the plug, we got going again, but the Ford started to overheat in traffic. As fluid spilled everywhere and rain pelted down upon us, the clutch started to slip. By then it was already 1 p.m. The run officially ended at 3 p.m., and we were barely halfway into the trip. We continued to struggle up hills and we pushed when necessary, but with 10 miles and 40 minutes to go, the battery gave out again. Thankfully, the RAC truck with our original battery met us in minutes, so we made the swap, topped the radiator with water, and carried on. But it was not to be.

The car slowed as we descended an incline, just 4 miles from the finish in Brighton, so we pulled into a parking lot at the Jack & Jill Inn, where I crawled under the car in the mud. With coolant pouring all over me, I realized we’d blown a head gasket and our run was over. As fate would have it, from where I lay, I could see the pub’s OPEN sign, and I resolved to retreat to its warm embrace and drink to defeat.

Ralph and I faced plenty of challenges that day and were cold and wet the whole time, but as we sat there, we were already plotting our next attempt of the world’s oldest motoring event. With any luck, we’ll start and finish in 2021.

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