Back to the earliest days of motoring
Dark clouds hung low over London as morning broke on 2nd November. Rain lashed down on Pall Mall’s Regency porticos and sent a shiver down the champion of Trafalgar. Emerging from the gloom, cold, wet and feeling ever so slightly pissed-off from within his waterlogged overcoat, ViaRETRO’s intrepid reporter pressed on grimly in the name of duty and dedication to strange old cars.
The decision to arrive at Regent Street an hour before its opening time had its share of advantages and disadvantages. Londoners, it seems, are a slothful lot when they don’t have to go to work, and the city was amazingly – beautifully, I might say – deserted and the usual overcrowding didn’t really become apparent until eleven o’clock. On the other hand, the sun was still low behind the Georgian terraces and the weather was at its very worst, so I will apologise for the grainy quality of my photographs. Although I would be hanging around Regent Street all day, work commitments meant that I had to take all my pictures first thing.
The displays at the Regent Street Motor Show are by invite only and change annually according to the themes being celebrated. This year just opted to celebrate multiple anniversaries, and I’m afraid to say was somewhat weaker for it. Past years have featured clubs chosen seemingly without any particular reason, such as the Talbot and Piper clubs, which presented cars not usually seen.
Two of the anniversaries celebrated at Regent Street this year have been quite widely acknowledged, those being 60 years of the Mini and 50 years of the Ford Capri. Accordingly, displays were provided by the RAF Mini Club and the Mansfield & Notts. Capri Club, which seemed strange considering that other Capri clubs are much more local to London. Regrettably, it was clear from these that not everyone shares my notions of good taste, with flip-flop paint, wide arches and deep-dish Minilites making their presence felt.
The Mini display could not really be called representative of the model, since it did not demonstrate its various ages. Five 1990s Minis featured, along with two modified pick-ups and a 1972 road-and-race example in full Mini Miglia trim. This last one has had the engine improved to the tune of 270bhp by Rob Walker Performance Engineering and seemed to be a credible racer. The only appearance of a Mk. I Mini was a 1965 example with Union Jack paint, complete with the slightly embarrassing claim to fame that it starred in that film about the Spice Girls.
The Capri club provided better variety, with two Mk. Is, two Mk. IIs and two Mk. IIIs on show. Without doubt, the nicest were the two standard examples of a 1969 Mk. I 2000GT and a 1982 two-litre Mk. III, both very tidily presented in an attractive silvery blue. I might also mention the 1984 2.0S with a Mk. II grille, RS alloys and a Turbo Tail spoiler! While this might fall into the questionable taste category, there is the (contentious) argument that it’s historically important as an accurate representation of a 1980s Essex boy-racer car. It just needs a ‘Darren’ and ‘Tracy’ sun strip…
Also celebrating its 50th anniversary is the Triumph TR6, of which only three were present. Most interesting among these was the US-specification example, identifiable by being left hand-drive and having a bumper designed to accommodate an American-shape number plate. Quite surprisingly, anniversary four was the Middlebridge Scimitar at 30, an anniversary that I expect most people will have overlooked, not least because it’s effectively the same as a Reliant Scimitar, just built by a company in Nottingham which acquired the manufacturing rights in 1987. Either way, five were in attendance, which I thought was quite impressive considering that only 78 were made over two years before Middlebridge went into receivership. It’s a shame really, as they must have been one of the best-looking new cars available circa 1990. Princess Anne had one, y’know.
Finally, Regent Street also commemorated 60 years of the Austin-Healey 3000, my personal favourite of the anniversary cars. Only two 3000s turned up, but they were bolstered by a 1954 100M and a 1956 100/6. There was an also an immaculate 1973 Bond Bug stuck out on its own for no obvious reason, and this was one of the nicest cars on display.
There was more still to come, as the event sponsors also provide their own displays which they rotate year on year. You probably never realised that there was a commercial variant of the Isetta, but the RAC used a fleet to attend breakdowns in London, where their size was an obvious advantage. They were simply standard Isettas with a toolbox affixed behind the rear window. A 1961 Norton ES2 with a roadside service sidecar was also exhibited.
Harrods remains a staunch supporter, presenting three of the electric vehicles with which it is closely associated. The oldest of these was the 1901 Waverley runabout, which was registered in this country in 1904 and apparently still makes small deliveries to the London palaces. Harrods started importing Chicago-built Walker electric vans in 1913, and it acquired the 1910 Model K exhibited in 1919. These models were retired in the 1930s and, amazingly, Harrods replaced them with vans of its own design and construction. The Harrods Model EVM and the shop still runs four. Admirably, the Regent Street example also acted as support vehicle for the Waverley on the London to Brighton Run. Other commercial vehicles to be found were a 1915 Ford Model T hearse and a 1937 Fordson fire engine.
The Silverstone Classic presents four different racing cars each year, and this year brought a 2012 Porsche 997 GT3 RSR of doubtful classic status, a 1965 Mini Cooper S (which did more for the Mini by itself than the other nine Minis altogether) and two Grand Prix cars: a 1978 Arrows FA1 and a 1960 BRM P48. The Arrows was driven to a number of fourth- and fifth-place finishes by Ricardo Patrese throughout 1978 and ’79, until a court case found in favour of Shadow’s Don Nichols, who judged it to be a replica of the Shadow DN9. The four FA1s were handed to Nichols and dismantled, but FA1/1 was rebuilt by enthusiasts who purchased it from him. The BRM, from the twilight of Grand Prix’s golden years, was raced in the 1960 season by Graham Hill and then Dan Gurney.
Further up, the launch of the new Le Mans ’66 film was being promoted by a pair of GT40s which, disappointingly, were replicas, and a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 which, not disappointingly, was genuine. However, for all that the Ferrari was beautiful, I must confess a preference for the Yankee cars with Illinois Route 66. They just have that attitude, you know? A vivid orange 1970 Mustang Mach 1 and a patina-finish ’54 Chevy 3100 were brought along by the Gasoline Ally [sic] Speed Shop and a clearly Bullitt-inspired ’68 Mustang fastback by Clive Sutton. Also featured was a 1975 Dodge Monaco Bluesmobile replica, which accompanied the Blues Brothers tribute act and a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX. The late ’40s to early ’50s was arguably the classiest period for American car design, and that was perfectly apparent in the ’54 Chevy Bel Air.
Of course, the main attraction at Regent Street is the showcase of around a quarter of the pre-1905 cars that leave for Brighton the next day, which numbered 418 this year. Today, a cheap car is a plasticky jelly-mould while an expensive car is a larger jelly-mould with some extra pointless gimmicks thrown in. In 1900, a cheap ‘car’ was a single-horsepower tricycle, while an expensive one was a great, chugging monster with stately formal limousine bodywork, buttoned leather upholstery and gleaming brasswork. There was even a motorcycle, since, as of last year, the Veteran Car Run now allows a handful of period motorcycles to run alongside the cars. It was the wonderfully-named Dreadnought from 1903, built by the equally well-named Harold ‘Oily’ Karslake.
An interesting cause for reflection is fancy-dress, a subject which was discussed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, period dress was banned from Veteran car rallies under the idiotic pretence that it appeared clownish and detracted from the serious nature of the hobby. By the same non-reasoning, a period costume exhibition could issue a ban on arriving in a historic vehicle because it appeared clownish and detracted from the serious matter of period costume… Anyway, a survey conducted in 1958 by The Veteran & Vintage Magazine found that 58 per cent of people were in favour of allowing period dress at rallies, but 100 per cent of people opposed fancy dress.
Today, we found ourselves in a time where not only do some people don false moustaches and Biggles caps, but they are also encouraged to stick ‘carstaches’ on their cars thanks to a recent partnership with the Movember charity organisation. I whole-heartedly support the run working with such a worthy cause as Movember, but it is my opinion that moustaches on cars do look stupid (especially when attached upside-down) and attitudes have been relaxed rather too far.
An ever-present sight among the cars is the 1903 Panhard et Levassor 10hp with Labourdette tonneau body (209) that has been in the same family since new. It was bought as a 21st birthday present for the first owner by his father and painted in 1904 in the family livery colours of green and black. The family, which has prominent associations with British transport, has kept it running throughout its whole life and first took it from London to Brighton in 1955.
An 1896 Raynaud (004), a unique example, aroused my curiosity. RAC founder Freddie Simms is credited with the invention of the bumper on the Simms-Welbeck car of 1903, but this large vis-à-vis had what appeared to be a single absorbent cylinder in the style of a railway buffer below its central headlight. That could be an interesting discussion for us historians.
A perennial favourite is the 1896 Salvesen steam cart (005), which was built by a member of the Salvesen shipping family for use on his private estate in Scotland. It was bought two years ago by a well-known figure in Vintage Sports-Car Club circles, who has stripped it down and rebuilt it over the past year to a standard of perfection. It is powered by an underfloor horizontal twin cylinder engine, with a rear-mounted coal-fired boiler and chain-drive to the rear wheels.
This year’s oldest entry was an 1894 Benz Velo (001) of 1½hp that had travelled from Germany, which motored along with a most endearing popping and banging. A personal favourite, however, was an 18hp Martini from 1903 (402) with quite exciting two-seat racing bodywork. Anyone thinking Monteverdi was the only Swiss marque had better think again, because Martini was there long beforehand. Sadly, there was no information displayed with the car, but I would like to think it has some impressive provenance.
Besides the cars, I will divert, if I may, to the subject of cameras. I met a wonderful lady called Emma Brown, who has recently started to take tintype photographs with a replica Victorian camera. Each photograph was quite a major undertaking since the low light meant an exposure of 1½ to two minutes, and stray pedestrians had to be kept away from the subject cars for the duration. Her tintype work is fantastic, and I think it’s only right that I recommend a visit to www.emmabrownphotography.com
Sadly, I expect everyone will be aware from the widespread media coverage it received that the Veteran Car Run suffered a tragic accident when a foreign entrant took a wrong turn onto the M23 motorway and was killed when his car collided with a lorry. Regrettably, mainstream media outlets have jumped at the chance to promote ignorant opinions unfairly blaming the organisers of the event. Besides several factual errors of a generally academic nature common to all publications, the Daily Mail, demonstrating its usual commitment to truth and justice, has published an article headed ‘Friends of the man killed… slam safety record at event’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper somehow chose to represent the words of one man (not involved with the run) as those of ‘friends’ plural. Meanwhile, an eyewitness, who also had precisely nothing to do with the run, has been quoted universally. Both condemned the lack of signage and stewards present.
I would like to make it clear that the Veteran Car Run is organised to the highest standards of professionalism by people who care deeply about the hobby and the people involved with it. Additional signage and marshals are to be found at frequent intervals and key junctions along the route. All drivers have detailed instructions for the route and receive a briefing on the Saturday.
Firstly, since the accident occurred on the M23, it did not happen on the run, and every precaution that can reasonably be taken to ensure that participants adhere to the allotted route is taken. What happened was tragic but it was also totally unpredictable, and to imply negligence on behalf of the organisers is as offensive as it is ludicrous. I would not be so crass or foolish as to speculate on why the car left the route, but I can be sure that the organisers do not need to be made the object of media vilification or humiliation to ensure that the same error is not made again. Regardless of subject matter, giving credence to ignorance can only possibly have damaging consequences.
My condolences go to the man’s family and friends and my best wishes to his passenger, who remains in hospital. I look forward to all future runs, which I hope will be safe and enjoyable for everyone, as is usual.