Veteran cars. Nice in their way but would you buy one? Bonhams’ catalogue the other day had Lord Llangattock’s elegant 1902 Panhard Levassor at an estimated £550,000 to £650,000. You need a lot of cash-in-hand to shell out so much for something to drive on the London to Brighton. Don’t misunderstand me; I like the London-Brighton. I did it in 1992 and fared better than Prince Michael that year - but only just. He failed to finish but the Benz I borrowed from Stuttgart got a finisher's plaque, passing the pylons at Brighton with five minutes to spare. I was cold and wet but the experience helped understand a little why people do it. I had a minder and an entourage of back-up so it was easy enough, yet the driving needed concentration. Doing 12½ mph could be scary. Uphill was painfully slow. Downhill alarmingly fast.
Somewhere near Cuckfield I was unable to shift down to get engine braking. The transmission brake was never very good and it seemed to get in the way of the gearchange lever, so we were suddenly quite out of control. At breakneck (literally) speed we passed a bunch of policemen and cheering bystanders who little realised I was hurtling to disaster in a double-fronted shop. Happily Herr Benz's steering and stability was up to the job, so we teetered across mini roundabouts and went on our way, but it was an anxious moment. Braking was indifferent in the dry, precarious in the wet, and almost non-existent when hot. An accident on a Veteran with no seat belt, no crush zone, no airbag and a long way down if you fall out was not to be countenanced.
The right pedal on the Benz was the brake, the middle one a combination of gearchange lever and transmission brake, the left one did something obscure I never discovered. A handbrake of sorts acted directly on the rear tyres and my minder pointedly told me it was a parking brake only. You changed gear by preselecting 1 2 or 3 (there is also a reverse - this was one of the first cars ever to have one), then engage it by a lever on the vertical control column. Steering was by tiller - logical in an era when only horses or boats were ever steered. A pointer shows which way you are about to proceed and final drive to the back axle is by chain.
The ride turned out surprisingly smooth with two lots of front springs, a small transverse leaf and two fore and aft elliptics. The single cylinder engine could be retarded to teuf-teuf astonishingly slowly and I stalled it only once. It produced great pulling power at idling speed almost from rest, like a steam engine. A tidy flap at the back provided access to engine and lubrication points, which had to be attended regularly. Cooling is by gilled-tube radiator, notably good that boiled a couple of times on long climbs. With no fan and certainly no rush of cooling air, it was a wonder it didn't more often. The fuel is pure refined spirit - pioneer motorists bought it at chemist's shops.
The charm of a Veteran, which so thrilled pioneers of 110 years ago, is that it represents such a triumph over being stationary. It scarcely matters how well it goes - the clever thing is that it goes at all. If I had a spare half million – I just might.
Top: Ruth and Eric at the start, Hyde Park, early morning. 2) Joanna started the Run in the Benz. 3) Charlotte rides towards Brighton. 4) Joanna inside a wolf fur in the backup Benz - it was a cold day. 5) Anne, Charlotte, Jane and Joanna at the start.