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London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

Marlies Morsink

Over 500 cars built before 1905 trundled across Westminster Bridge on Sunday morning, taking part in the 107th annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

Though hailed as one of the biggest spectator events in the UK, the Run was hard pressed to draw anything resembling a crowd this year as the rain pelted down. At 7.45am only a handful of people had taken up their positions on the bridge, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep into pockets, awaiting relics of a bygone era.

Not to be outdone by the eccentric commitment of those driving the cars (some of whom were decked out in period costume), these spectators exhibited a true fondness for the event. Many had been coming to watch the Run since they were children. While one or two lived within walking distance, others had travelled from as far a field as Essex and Kent.

In 1896 the motoring industry in the UK was in its infancy, and organisers of the first Run reminded participants "that motor cars are on trial in England and that any rashness or carelessness might injure the industry in this country". That was the year the speed limit was raised from 4mph to 14mph, and the law was abolished requiring cars to be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag.

Early Peugeots, Renaults, Daimlers and Benzs, Fords, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs – as well as brands known only to aficionados, like Leon Bollee, De Dion Bouton, Darracq, Panhard et Levassor, Humberette – are a sight to behold. They come in all shapes and sizes, like a collection of contraptions out of Dr. Zeuss.

Some do not even have steering wheels, the guidance mechanism more akin to the right and left handles you'd find on a toboggan, or alternatively, to the rudder of a ship.

Very few have windows, let alone roofs, and the sight of drivers already soaked to the bone and facing several more hours of exposure to the elements, cheerfully returning the waves of their supporters, was a lesson in character.

The movie Genevieve was released in 1953 and voted Top Comedy of Coronation Year. Genevieve, the star car, was built in 1904 and has been honoured as ‘the mascot of the old car movement'. David Burgess-Wise of Aston magazine credits the film with making the Brighton Run the world's biggest motoring event.

After an extended sojourn in Australia and following a detailed restoration, the twin-cylinder 10/12 hp Darracq is once again a trusty stalwart of the Run, a car parents were pointing out to their children this damp Sunday with excited cries of "Look! There goes Genevieve!"

The goal of the Run is to complete the 59 mile trip and cross the finishing line in Brighton before 4.30pm, while not exceeding 20mph.

This year there were participants from the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong, as well as Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Austria.

• Next Spring, shots from the 2003 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run will provide the backdrop to a 45 minute compilation programme of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. Michael Aspel will present interviews with drivers and passengers, while Antiques Roadshow expert, Hilary Kay, having travelled from London to Brighton in a vintage car, will be investigating the stories behind the historic vehicles and viewing artifacts from the world of motoring between 1896 and 1904.

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