London to Brighton by 6hp Dedion.
Last year a chap called from Australia touting a 6hp DeDion Bouton that he had found in a barn. Apparently the car was shipped down under in 1903, hit a stump in about 1910 & was unceremoniously shunted into a barn where it lay undisturbed until recently. The Australian vendor had got it running (barely as it turned out) & restored its cosmetics beautifully to exactly the same specification as new, copying the original pin lines etc on top of the new paint. The original horsehair seat stuffing was also retained & covered over with new leather as the old was past saving.
I immediately agreed to buy the car as I have always fancied doing the London to Brighton run, having often followed it whilst riding my Motorcycle. After agreeing the deal, I was rash enough to mention it to a client who has been seeking a suitable london to Brighton entrant for some time. Needless to say he bought it on the spot leaving me as having been the proud owner for less then a day. Such are the trials & tribulations of being a classic car dealer.
The Dedion is a very rare model Type “J” Poulaire rear entrance tonneau with seating for four. (Optomistically as it happens.) It is the first car made by Dedion after they came to the conclusion that the engine would be better mounted in the front rather then under the rear passengers bottoms! This being the only known survivor makes it something of a rarity & consequently quite a bit more valuable then some of the more common types. Bear in mind that this car stems from the infancy of motoring when many new things were being tried & the various manufactures were puzzling over what was the optimum format for success. They were asking questions such as: Is a steering wheel ideal, or should we stick to a tiller? Are these newfangled brakes going to catch on, or should we bother to keep fitting them? Should we equip the car with an accelerator or a decelerator? (The latter in the case of the DeDion.) The engine runs at full power all the time & a pedal on the floor functions as the decelerator where one might normally expect to find the clutch.
Initially we planned our foray as a foursome, but at the last minute the main man had to drop out leaving myself & two of his friends as the protagonists. Prior to the run we had the car fettled by Veteran specialist Nigel Parrot who, as it turns out needed to get quite a lot done to the car in order to make it London to Brighton ready & stand a chance of surviving the rigours that lay ahead. The benefit of going to Parrot is that no matter how badly a car has been messed about & no matter how many ghastly bodges have been inflicted upon it over centuries, he has the expertise to fix it & the understanding & experience of how the car should be. In the case of the Dedion this included manufacturing completely new drive shafts to replace the worn out ones found in situ. Parrot has a superb in-house engineering shop allowing him to fabricate anything you can imagine including such complex items as the internal sleeves used on Daimler sleeve valve engines. No mean feat in itself.
After Nigels’ fettling a day of instruction was held at his place where several hills lurk nearby closely approximating those we would face on the run. The new owner had asked if a modern electric start could be fitted by Parrot. We lied to him & told him it was possible to fit one but not in the time remaining as we regard it as a crime to so alter such a wonderful machine. Having been baptised & versed in the dark arts of hand cranking the beast to life, the owner now concurs with our opinion. The starting procedure for the uninitiated is as follows: Turn on fuel tap at base of tank. Open bonnet & flood Caburetor. Ensure Ignition switch is set to A & not M. (Marche & Arrete.) Pull the engine through three revolutions to get a decent mixture in the cylinder. Retard ignition on hand lever. Set mixture to about half. Put ignition switch to M (Marche.) Give one last almighty tug on the starting handle & she bursts into life every time. Hastily dash round to drivers side to set engine limiter to a non destructive set of revs whilst advancing ignition to the sweet spot.
Starting procedures assimilated, we all took turns to go for brief spins under Mr Parrots expert tutelage including chuffing ever more slowly up the test hills. With only 6hp to motivate the car it is essential to get every single iota of power available from the engine. Thus it is a constant matter of massaging the advance/retard & mixture levers to their fullest advantage taking into consideration the engine speed, gradient, load aboard & upcoming road hazards. I say load aboard as on steep hills as one grinds ever closer to a halt it is prudent to off load passengers one at a time & make them walk up the hill whilst you as the lucky driver stagger to the top. More on the technique of dismount later.
Being made the involuntary Master of Ceremonies for our london to Brighton entry on the run I presciently booked a room at the Hilton hotel on Park Lane directly opposite the start line. On Saturday Morning I marshalled my minions & had the car delivered on a trailer to the Hilton. I there met one James Froomberg who was to be part of our coterie for the run; A true bon vivant he showed up in cape & period hat with a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth. We immediately fired the car up & determined to put a few miles on it by way of a test prior to the event. This involved a loop through Hyde Park & then through Mayfair to Regent street where a concours d’ elegance was held through the morning & early afternoon. Having got to Regent Street & enjoyed looking at the other hardy souls gathered there, I am ashamed to say that Froomberg & I became bored. We duly fired the Dedion up & charted a course for the RAC club on the Mall where, if tickets supplied to us by the organisers were to be believed, a free lunch could be had. We pulled up in some style on double yellows right outside the doors of the RAC & left a delighted doorman to fend off traffic wardens & answer questions to the general public as to the age of the car etc.
Lunch taken, we again took to the wheel & spent an hour or two chuffing round the better parts of town including Knightsbridge & Belgravia with our final resting place being under the Hilton Hotel where the car was sufficiently narrow to be squeezed between two bollards & parked in a place where clearly no car was meant to be parked to await my attentions in the morning. Prior to leaving we took time to replenish fuel, oil & water ready for the main event.
Rather then fight the crush of 500 or so other runners trying to unload & line up their cars, I set my alarm for four am, groggily staggered down to the car in my dressing gown, fired it up & motored round to the start line where I was the first entrant to appear leaving a set of bemused looking coppers in my wake. I quick stroll back to the Hilton & into bed until a 6:30 reveille heralded the start of the day.
With all preparations done I met Froomberg & our other co driver Alwyn in plenty of time to walk the line of 500 or so other pre 1905 vehicles & admire the wide range of hopeful contraptions in the line up. Various wives, daughters & family members were there to see us off. All too quickly our start time was called & off we went with myself at the wheel in a batch of 10 other cars. We felt very smug & well prepared having gone to the lengths we had gone to , but our bubble was swiftly burst due to conking out on Bird Cage walk not a mile from the start. The engine still had good compression so it was a case of either no fuel or no spark. Plug removed, earthed & engine cranked over quickly confirmed the presence of a bright strong spark. Thus the next task was to strip the carb & blow though the fuel lines with compressed air to check for & find the obstruction. An RAC chap showed up almost instantly & provided the compressed air followed shortly by Parrot, a late starter who follows the run along in his own contraption, a bit like a mother hen taking her young under her wing. With a combination of Parrots expertese & the RAC’s compressed air we were quickly running again & able to arrange a repeal of sods law.
Thence over Westminster bridge, the car perceptibly increasing in urge as the engine warmed & optimum settings were found, progress being made at about 15 MPH in an ever southerly direction. At this juncture the run resembles a scene from the wacky races with cars constantly coming past & being passed. One has to experience the run to appreciate the wonderful camraderie of the various eccentrics & curmudgens engaged in the event, brows being mopped & fevered maniac gleams exuding from their eyes. Streatham high street was cordoned off due to becoming a crime scene from the previous nights revels, meaning for a detour which included an unscheduled steep hill. Still at the wheel, I briefed my passengers to prepare for a running dismount as the gradient took its toll. Froomberg jumped like a goat & landed sure footed with some aplomb! Alwyn, on the other hand missed his footing & ended up clinging on for life or death as we staggered on up the hill. I was faced with the choice or running him over or stopping altogether with the difficulties of a hill start to contemplate. Needless to say I chose the former option & stopped at the top of the hill to reload my charges, (one somewhat bruised from the experience) & change drivers. Thence on through Croydon & to a cafe just south of there where a full English for the three of us restored morale, if not morals & set us up for the rest of the day. Just prior to stopping we passed a disconsolate looking Jerry Wadman from Sussex Sports cars peering intently into the innards of a stationary 1880′s vintage Benz patent motor wagen. About 30% of entrants fail to make it to Brighton.
Crawley was next on the Agenda with Alwyn at the wheel, where we pulled in & stopped for a coffee at the first official rest stop. We spent some time ministering to a fellow German entrant (der motor ist Kaput) & customer whom’s steed had expired & was refusing to start despite us ascertaining that both spark & fuel were present. The malady turned out to be a stuck inlet valve which once cleared allowed them to complete the run.
South of Crawley our spirits rose & we really started to enjoy the run with an ever greater feeling that we were going to finish. It was wonderful to drive into the Sussex countryside following a route traced by thousands of intrepid drivers over the last century, rich in motoring lore & redolent of untold stories. Crowds lined the route at every turn waving & encouraging us on. By craft & slight of hand I managed to be again at the wheel for the two step hills that one must negotiate before the long down slope to Brighton, thus obviating me of the need to get out & walk. On these subsequent occasions Alwyn took the lead from Froomberg & alighted with no troubles at all. A palpable sense of achievement assailed us us we entered the gates of Brighton & motored down to the Madeira Drive finish around 3pm. During the day we gave a running commentary on our progress, lack thereof & trials & tribulations to the cars owner who was in the final throes of tying up a deal to sell a major UK PLC. The Buyers, Sellers & legal team were regaled in their boardroom with constant updates of our progress which I understand imparted a little levity to their day.
Looking back upon the experience, I can say that anyone involved in any part of the classic, vintage or veteran car scene should make it a life goal to complete the event at least once in their life time. It was an enriching event & something I will remember ’til the day I die. Days one remembers all ones life tend to be remarkable in that they are usually either very very good or very very bad. Now then……which kind was this???