For many of us who grew up in the mid-Sussex area, The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run was an annual family event, that symbolised late autumn and very often involved many hours spent in freezing rain on the side of the A23. The event was one of my father’s great passions; he knew every car and come hell or high water, we cheered on intrepid drivers from our verge side vantage point as they battled the elements.
Years on, and you’ll still find him roadside at the beginning of November and I totally understand why. Although I may be biased because the London to Brighton Run is engrained into my very DNA (my grandfather would take a table in a pub in Handcross for a whole day to watch the runners), I also believe that the Run is one of our most iconic Sussex events: it’s quirky, it’s interesting, it’s challenging and rewarding and quite frankly, it’s utterly unique. So how did it all begin?
Emancipation and old crocks
Brighton developed from the modest (but growing) fishing village of Brighthelmstone mainly due to the efforts in the 18th century of two people – Dr Richard Russell of Lewes who published a treatise of the benefits of sea-bathing, and “Prinny”, the future Prince Regent and King George IV, who came to Brighton in 1783, fell in love with the place and created his exotic Royal Pavilions, still a major attraction today.
Various routes to Brighton from London were developed over the years from 1750 to 1850 (along with the reputation of Brighton for fun of various sorts) and the road that led there soon developed as a route for feats of endurance and competitive performances. In fact, over the years, the road to Brighton attracted walkers, cyclists, uni-cyclists, runners, people with bears (yes, you read that correctly), and other eccentrics, all hell-bent on getting down to the sea. The most important of these pilgrimages is now probably the annual “Emancipation Run” held on the first Sunday in November, formerly rather rudely described as “The Old Crocks Run”.
The origin of this Run was in 1896, when an Act of Parliament was passed to relieve the emerging band of motorists from some of the draconian restrictions imposed upon those “horseless carriages”. It is widely thought that this was to remove the requirement to have a man with a red flag walking in front but this was actually abolished sometime before. However, the Act did lift the oppressive speed limit of 4 mph (which was 2 mph in towns)!
A number of enthusiasts felt that this new freedom deserved to be celebrated by what they called an Emancipation Run to Brighton. About a dozen turned out that first year, including several of the pioneers of motor travel such as FW Simms, HJ Lawson and SR Edge (himself a former winning cyclist in Brighton). Most of them made the 52 miles (although one or two turned up at the finish hotel were suspected of putting their cars on the train to complete the journey). The Run was re-introduced after WWI and has been held every year since (apart from three during WWII and during the pandemic of 2020). However, veteran car owners worldwide still took to the roads local to them in 2020, on Sunday 1st November to commemorate the event and take part in RM Sotheby’s Virtual Veteran Car Run.
Cue Genevieve and qualification
In the 1950s, the Run gained publicity from the film Genevieve and the car of that name still takes part. The qualification for official entry is that the car must have been made before 31 December 1904 (which is the same cut-off date to qualify as a Veteran car). Those that come after 1905 being successively Edwardian (1905-18), Vintage (1919-30) or PVT / Classic (selected vehicles up to 1970).
The event has at times been organised by the Veteran Car Club, and the RAC with various sponsors, including Bonhams the auctioneers, and more recently RM Sotheby’s. Bonhams used to hold a Concours d’Elegance on the Saturday before and an auction sale for qualifying vehicles and other “vehicular exotica”.
The start of the Run in Hyde Park (just before 7 am on the Sunday) attracts between four and five hundred qualifying vehicles some coming from Europe and from as far away as the USA and Australia, most of whom get to the finish line on Madeira Drive on Brighton seafront by the cut off time of 3 pm, but with some straggling in later.
The route remained largely unchanged, along the A23 through Croydon, Redhill and Crawley although since WWII the section that was been covered by the runway at Gatwick has unsurprisingly been diverted. In 2017, because of road works coming out of London, the route was varied to go through Sutton and Reigate, rejoining the A23 at Gatwick but this was not without problems and involved a fatal accident on Reigate Hill.
The big day
The Run is still quite a spectacle, bearing in mind that to take part the vehicles must be well over 100 years old. Many of them are three-wheelers, some carry only the driver, and many are without any form of protection from the weather (which has at times been pretty cruel!).
The most frequently seen is probably De Dion Bouton (a company that also supplied engines for other makers) and from America, the curved-dash or buckboard Oldsmobile. Qualifying cars are often for sale with a confirmed entry to the Run and it’s been known for drivers to buy their vehicle on the Friday before the Sunday Run!
The atmosphere at dawn at the start is described as fantastic by those taking part but for novices, creeping out into the traffic of Hyde Park Corner can be a little daunting. The entry fee (when I last looked) was about £500 and to that must be added the cost of fuel including for a tender vehicle to bring the vehicle back from Brighton or in case of a breakdown. For some, there is the additional cost of one or two nights in London or Brighton.
The late Ron Shaw who ran a garage in Crawley keenly took part in almost every run from WWII until his death in the 1980s and many local petrol heads turn out to line the route on the big day to watch while some car clubs foregather at a chosen watering-hole. Morgan and Triumph owners do so at Staplefield Common and so even if you can’t take part you can still watch the cavalcade go by in what has become one of the major motoring events of the year. The 125th Anniversary of the Run is now scheduled to take place on Sunday 7 November 2021 and I can’t wait to be back on the roadside, come rain or shine, cheering them on.
For the best place to watch the London to Brighton run: Best Place to Watch the Veteran car Run.
And for more about Brighton, you might enjoy our 16 Things to do in Brighton post.