Like Henley Regatta or Remembrance Sunday, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is enshrined in the British psyche. It is not a race, but see below, and the Veteran Car Club gets cross if you call the cars old crocks. Yet any idea that it celebrates the abolition of the so-called Red Flag Act is pure fiction. Locomotives on Highways Acts of Parliament from 1861 did mandate a man with a red flag to walk ahead, but an amendment of 1878 made it largely optional. It was left to local authorities to apply the rule and not many did.
In the end the Act that prompted the Emancipation Run on Saturday 14th November 1896 raised the speed limit to a dizzy 14mph. It didn’t last. Parliament reduced it to 12mph before the Act came into force, but a red flag was symbolically destroyed by Lord Winchilsea at the start. It went from the Metropole Hotel in Northumberland Avenue to the Metropole Hotel in Brighton and some 58 vehicles were entered but around 25 dropped out beforehand. There is no consensus on how many made it to the finish, or even how they got there.
This year’s London to Brighton will drive past Buckingham Palace. Over 400 veteran cars made before 1905 will leave Hyde Park as dawn breaks at 06.56 on 2 November, and for only the second time since 1962 they will make their way under Wellington Arch, down the gentle slope of Constitution Hill, round the Victoria Memorial (above) then along The Mall’s red asphalt before turning into Horse Guards Road. Then they turn left into Parliament Square, past Big Ben and over Westminster Bridge. It was a route used in the early years of the run, and again in 1996 to mark its centenary.
Despite nervous safety campaigners the organisers of that first Emancipation Run had achieved their ends, although they cautioned, “Owners and drivers (to) remember that motor cars are on trial in England and that any rashness or carelessness might injure the industry in this country.” It was three months too late, alas, for Mrs Bridget O’Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon who has the melancholy distinction of being the first fatal road accident victim of a motor car. A Roger-Benz driven by Arthur Edsell cracked her skull on the terrace of the Crystal Palace. Apparently Edsell’s vision was obscured by a car in front and Mrs O’Driscoll, in a state of panic according to the inquest, stood still in the path of the approaching vehicle.
My 1992 drive to Brighton on, rather than in, an 1893 Benz Ideal, showed that even 12 mph could be scary. Uphill could be painfully slow but downhill alarmingly fast. Skinny tyres, direct steering and brakes shaky in the dry but downright dangerous when wet, could have upset a tall, light vehicle’s equilibrium. There was every likelihood that even a small accident could be turned into a big one.
This year 433 entries – up from 389 in 2013 – have been received by the Royal Automobile Club for the Bonhams London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Tradition dictates that it takes place, come rain or shine, on the first Sunday of November and motorists being what they are some competitive element was bound to intrude. The 2014 Run will have a Regularity Time Trial. Drivers will try to match a nominated ‘bogey’ time for a 13-mile section between Crawley and Burgess Hill. Let’s hope no Mrs O’Driscolls stand in the way.