London to Brighton in an 1899 Fiat

AutoClassics drives an 1899 Fiat on the famous London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. It proved to be challenging but entertaining...

London to Brighton in an 1899 Fiat

‘You’ve got a 40% chance of making it to Brighton,’ says Doug Hill, manager and chief engineer at the National Motor Museum. Hmmm, that’s a worry, because Doug has known this car since the early 1970s when it first arrived at the UK’s best-known motoring museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire (and he was just starting out there as an apprentice).

Still, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run was ever thus, even back in 1896 when it was run for the first time to celebrate the changing of the law for light vehicles, increasing the speed limit for motor cars from 4mph to 14mph.

In more recent times the cars, all pre-1905, are often on their only outing of the year, having to deal with ever more difficult traffic conditions, and they have until just 4.30pm – by which time the light is fading – to arrive on Brighton’s famous Madeira Drive.

Our veteran is an 1899 Fiat, one of the first 12 cars made by the Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino company, and one of the earliest on the run, meaning that it will be let across the start in the very first batch. It’s had two previous attempts at the London to Brighton: once it failed to leave the start, the other it broke before Croydon, less than ten miles in.

When the Fiat was handed over to the museum 40-odd years ago it was privately owned, and had previously been used to power a saw bench in Wales. Ownership later passed to Fiat on the understanding that the car would remain at Beaulieu. Its exact date of manufacture isn’t known, but Fiat do know that it’s the earliest in the UK, and one of only six 1899 Fiats still in existence. They’ve recently had it back in Turin to make and fit a hood but otherwise are happy to leave it at the museum.

Our start time from Hyde Park is 7.06am – ahead of us are just 25 other cars, including six powered tricycles and the infamous Salvesen steam cart. Doug, senior engineer Ian Stanfield, and Mary and Rupert Montagu from the museum are also running cars, and museum engineer Michael Gillett is assigned to us (‘us’ being me and Motor1 colleague Sam Burnett) to look after the little Fiat.

Boy are we grateful for that. These early cars are tricky, with quirks that must be learnt and worked around. The Fiat is relatively simple, its design defying logic in places but demonstrating early automotive ingenuity in others. It has a rear-mounted 697cc horizontal two-cylinder engine, producing 3.5hp at 1000rpm, with a three-speed gearbox (no reverse), simple cart spring suspension, pneumatic tyres on wooden wheels, tiller steering, hand throttle, hand-operated rear brakes and a pedal-operated transmission brake, and a conventional pedal clutch.

There’s also a pin that can be dropped through a gap in the floor to act as a ratchet on the exposed flywheel teeth below, to prevent the car rolling back on a steep hill. As Stan points out, it’s a great idea if you have time to use it… Oh, and with the seating position, the short wheelbase and fierce clutch, it is possible to lift the front wheels with injudicious use of the clutch on a very steep hill.

Anyway, ignoring that fear for now, the starting procedure goes like this: open the engine hatch, jiggle the valve on top of the surface carburettor until fuel floods out, pull out the brass ignition advance control in the cockpit to fully retard the ignition (‘it’s not a case of if it breaks your wrist if you forget to do that, it’s a case of when it breaks your wrist,’ warns Stan), flick the brass ignition switch to ‘on’ and crank the engine, keeping thumbs tucked away to avoid injury. It's better to have a helper in the cockpit to operate the wooden lever on the steering column that controls the throttle.

The little Fiat bursts into life, jiggling and vibrating noisily. Engine lid down, push the ignition advance right in, climb onboard the now-shaking-all-over machine, get the revs as low as possible without allowing the engine to stall by juggling throttle and clutch, which pulls downs the revs a little when operated, press down the clutch, and slowly and gently ease the column-mounted gearlever from neutral, past second into first, praying to the god of meshing cogs that it won’t bang into gear.

Now with left hand on the tiller, right hand has the tricky job of letting off the brake and operating the hand throttle as you let up the clutch, which has a movement at the pedal of, oh, about an inch maximum and the capability of surprising violence, and (all being well) you should be off.

Then it’s quickly into second. I say ‘quickly’ but there’s a pause needed as the revs drop (if you’re lucky) and then clutch in, lever forward gently into second, clutch up and revs increase on the throttle and progress continues, as long as you’ve not spent too long changing gear, in which case you’ll have lost so much speed that you’ll probably need first again…

So anyway, this all starts in Hyde Park, as we trundle past the many cars and participants with later start times than us, right to the front of the queue. This year there were 401, several in the hands of new owners, including Duncan Pittaway in that Salvesen steam cart, who’d bought cars and entry into the run two days before at the Bonhams auction.

Michael rides with us towards the start. This little car, with its miniscule wheelbase, can seat four, though don’t be expecting it to tackle hills fully-loaded, and expect a wild ride, because two passengers sit up front facing the driver (known as vis-à-vis), and therefore blocking the driver’s view of the road.

We pull up in our allotted starting slot and Michael jumps down to check the engine – then immediately shouts for it to be switched off. Oh no. The engine doesn’t have an oil pump, but it does have a little brass tank sat on top of the crankcase, containing a rotating shaft with a series of tiny scoops. As the shaft rotates, each scoop picks up a dash of engine oil and tips it into the crankcase in the general direction of a crankshaft bearing. It’s simple but works brilliantly, as long as the metal belt driving the shaft is in place.

But the metal belt driving the shaft is no longer in place.

We’re minutes off our start time, but Michael fishes out a length of flexible metal rod from his rucksack and sets about making a new belt. He does it, we head off for the start, only a few minutes late, Michael running behind. A handful of cars are ahead of us, we’re waved past them because of our earlier start number, and we’re about to head across the start, acknowledging the waves of the hundreds of spectators when Michael shouts again and we stop just a metre from the startline. The re-made belt has broken.

Half an hour later, we finally get across the startline, to huge cheers. Out of Hyde Park, but the traffic lights are on red, and Michael catches us up, huffing and puffing, lifts the engine lid and shouts to switch off again. All we can do is drive across the lights and pull over, to be joined by one of the RAC support vans within seconds – a welcome theme of the following few hours as it turns out.

Another half an hour goes by, as Michael tries new ways of fashioning the drive belt. Doug passes in the Daimler, handing over a length of sturdier looking flexible rod as he goes by, and Stan pulls in behind us in one of the two museum De Dions. Michael and Stan work together and, at 8.30am, we finally get to drive past Buckingham Palace and down The Mall.

It’s not without trauma: the engine is reluctant to drop its revs, so every gearchange is clunky, especially the big jump from second to top. Stan has warned us sternly that a bad change will break off the sprags on top gear, killing the gearbox. We try so hard, dreading every change, gritting teeth every time, but the little car is fighting us. And Stan has now caught us up in the traffic! We know he can see and hear every fluffed change.

We pass a few cars, some already stranded by the side of the road, but mostly we get passed by much larger, faster, newer veterans. Some owners wave, others are lost in deep concentration – and equally deep, voluminous Victorian-style clothing – as they chuff past. Some are loaded with passengers; adults, kids, dogs... Others are solo affairs. Every car is a little different in style, layout, seating arrangement and most of all mechanical design. The steam cars are always the smoothest, gently chuffing past as owners eye boiler pressure gauges with trepidation.

As we head through Clapham and Balham in south London the traffic slows us down – and we’re only capable of a 20mph top speed anyway – necessitating more nervewracking gearchanges and hill starts. Thankfully the transmission brake in particular works well, though it’s starting to stick slightly, but the handbrake doesn’t seem to do a lot.

A quick stop in a car park to check things over, Stan pulling in behind us and another veteran following too, making a lot of noise. It pulls away again, there’s a huge bang and large chunks of metal fall onto the tarmac below the transmission, followed by a stream of oil. That one won’t be going much further.

Our oil feed drive belt is still intact, and all seems well with the car, despite its ordeal through the traffic. There’s a generous radiator up front, a large coolant tank under the main seat, which provides warmth to the passenger’s backside (the driver relies on pure fear for heating, we found), and a chain-driven water pump alongside the engine, so cooling doesn’t appear to be a problem.

The high idle speed is a problem, but there’s little we can do about it – it could be down to the crude carburettor, or the atmospheric inlet valves, which are simply drawn open by the vacuum created with each downward stroke of the piston. It’s possible they’re causing a runaway cycle of induction. Ignition had previously been a problem but a modification by the museum workshop a few weeks ago seems to have fixed that.

The traffic crawl has gobbled through the fuel, after less than ten miles. We replenish the tank under the front seat with a gallon or so of unleaded. So that will be about seven miles to the gallon. We’re also running more than two hours later than planned. This is shortly to get much worse…

We head off, Sam taking his first driving stint. He hates the clutch (and hence traffic) but is master of the change into top gear, managing much smoother shifts than me. But only a mile or so down the road we hit traffic again, and I swap back into the driver’s seat. The traffic gets worse, and by the time we’re on the steep dual carriageway alongside Banstead Common it’s solid. News is that there are emergency repairs to a gas main at the top of the hill; most of the veterans have got through before the traffic built up, but not us…

We’ve been followed for some of the journey by Fiat PR Krystyna Perry, mechanic Michael riding shotgun. They manage to manoeuvre ahead of us and we use their new Fiat Tipo to tow the veteran Fiat up the hill through the interminable traffic rather than killing the clutch. But it’s another hour lost.

Through that then, but we’re still inside the M25! We start to get what passes for some speed on the flat – let me tell you, perched that high with a tiller to steer, it feels fast anyway – but as we crawl up the hill into Lower Kingswood the Clerk of the Course flags us down and pulls us into the side of the road.

I’m wondering what we’ve done wrong before he explains that the route ahead is closed due to an accident, and that he’s holding the veterans back because the only diversion crosses a fast junction on the A23. We soon find out that the accident involves a veteran, a 1902 Benz, and two of its four occupants have been airlifted to hospital. It’s a rare occurrence for the London to Brighton, and deeply sobering.

The rest of the stragglers gather behind us, but after another hour we all head off in convoy, Clerk of the Course and RAC rescue vans doing their best to keep us all together. Stan has reappeared, having rebuilt the De Dion’s engine by the roadside in the meantime, but we’re soon back in a jam, worse than the previous one, as traffic on the busy A24 backs up and blocks the roundabout above Junction 8 of the M25. We resort to towing, with Michael telling ridiculous jokes and regaling us with stories from his days as gardener to Rob Walker (yes, that Rob Walker, of private racing team and Stirling Moss fame). Spirits lift.

Over the roundabout, a police motorcyclist waves us through to Gatton Bottom, blocked to non-London to Brighton traffic, grimacing at the abuse he’s receiving from other motorists. Gatton Bottom hill is steep but the Fiat’s brakes keep it in check. There’s no engine braking because the Fiat freewheels in top gear. At one point Krystyna clocks us at a dizzying 25mph. It felt much faster.

The organisers have set up a control at the A23 junction, and efficiently wave us across, so we head to Reigate to rejoin the planned route, through the town centre (with a fuel top-up and checkover outside a busy bus stop) and onto Crawley. The halfway point! Marshals are busy packing up and removing London to Brighton banners. It’s 2pm…

Onto a busy stretch, Sam driving again, and suddenly the engine stalls. I glance at Sam, in a ‘what have you done?’ kind of way, but he shrugs his innocence. As I’m trying – but failing – to restart the engine, Michael runs up out of nowhere shouting to stop. Only then do I notice the fuel pouring out from under the car – a fractured fuel pipe!

We’ve no suitably sized fuel hose but, incredibly, Michael manages to repair the brass hose, soldering on a new union with a blowtorch conjured from his rucksack. We get back underway but agree that our run is done, and that we’ll head for nearby Pease Pottage services, where apprentice mechanic Emily Leese is waiting with the National Motor Museum trailers.

Stan finishes there too but brings news that Doug’s Daimler has made it to Brighton. Mary, in the other De Dion, has also had to throw in the towel at Pease Pottage, knowing that she couldn’t make it into Brighton before darkness struck.

Are we disappointed? A little bit. Are we tired? After eight hours of intense concentration (and vibration), yes we are. Did we enjoy it? We did – way beyond expectation and despite the disappointments of traffic and the shock of the Benz accident.

The little Fiat has done admirably, and has travelled significantly further than it’s ever travelled in one journey in its known history. The Fiat crew are pleased it’s got this far, the museum crew are happy that it’s proved itself against the odds. With less time lost in the traffic, I reckon we’d have made it to Brighton.

Regardless, it's an amazing event that we've been privileged to take part in. If you can get even a ride one year, even if it's 'just' in one of the classic buses then be sure to do it. Oh, and in case you're wondering, 315 of the 401 starters finished the run. Not bad!

Thanks to Fiat, The National Motor Museum, the Veteran Car Club and the Royal Automobile Club. For more on the run, click here.