In late 19th century Britain, the few very earliest automobiles that existed were required to be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag. The flag was eliminated in 1878, but the man remained, as did a speed limit of just 4 mph (6.4 km/h). However the “Locomotives on Highways Act” of 1896 allowed automobiles to travel unaccompanied and raised the speed limit to 14 mph (22.5 km/h)! On November 14 of that year a group of early motorists drove from London to Brighton, on England’s south coast, in what is known as the Emancipation Run. That event was commemorated for the first time in 1927 and is re-enacted every year for cars built before 1905. This year three generations of the Langton family contributed to a successful entry in what has become known as one of the greatest tests of man and machine, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run (LBVCR)
The Langton entry, a 1903 Rambler, is an American car built by an English bicycle manufacturer. This particular model somehow found its way to outback Western Australia, where it was discovered in very a dilapidated condition, some fifty years ago. It was recovered and restored (some very interesting 8mm film footage of the making of the wheels still exists), by another Englishman, Eric Langton; the first generation of the Langtons in the story. Eric, former captain of the English speedway team and a skilled machinist and engineer, had experience in the restoration and running of veteran cars, having entered the London-to-Brighton run himself. Prior to his moving to Australia, Eric, with his brother Oliver, himself also a speedway rider as well as a renowned collector and respected member of the Veteran Car Club (VCC) in Britain, had worked on the restoration of the famous U44. That car, named for its registration, U44, is one of several Rolls Royce prototypes built in 1904 and today has the distinction of being the oldest remaining Rolls Royce and the only one eligible to enter the London-to-Brighton. It fetched £3.5 million auction in 2007 (attended by yours truly).
The Rambler was a regular on rallies of the Veteran Car Club of Western Australia, of which Eric was a founder, however saw less use as the popularity of such old cars waned in the club. The car eventually passed into the care of Eric’s son, Simon, the second generation, who had worked with Eric to run the car more frequently in Eric’s final years. Simon also set about some bodywork modifications to bring the car more in line with similar models in more original condition. However, Simon’s great achievement with respect to the Rambler has been to have it shipped from Australia to the UK to enter the 2011 LBVCR.
The car arrived via sea and was transported to London where the final preparations – mostly polishing the brasswork – were made by Simon, his wife, daughters, son-in-law and son-in-law to be, and at the last moment, myself, his son. Hence, three generations.
The events started on Friday, with an automobilia auction at Bonhams, followed by a welcoming cocktail party for international entrants. Early Saturday morning the car was transported to Hyde Park, and then driven, under its own power, to Regent Street for the Concours d’Elegance. Regent Street was closed completely to allow the public to come past and see some amazingly well presented examples of automotive history, many of which had come from around the world to be there. The Rambler received a lot of attention, however her arrival at Regent Street did give some hints of how the weekend was going to progress. Approaching Piccadilly Circus the engine stopped. She was ignominiously pushed across the intersection and into Regent Street, where it was eventually discovered that the spark plug was the culprit, so the spare was fitted and she took her place in the line up.
After a splendid lunch in the RAC club, Pall Mall, it was time to leave Regent Street and return to Hyde Park where the cars would spend the night. This route was tricky, given the late Saturday afternoon traffic, and was not well indicated. A small detour, due to misunderstanding where to go, started to reveal another problem the Rambler would serve up over the weekend. The clutch, necessary for engaging high gear, started to slip and the car had no drive. Thus, in low gear, she was nursed into the parking area at Hyde Park. That night, Team Langton left the car and went to bed uncertain if she would even make it to the start in the morning, and whether all the effort had been for nought.
Around six o’clock Sunday morning, Team Langton took the cover off the Rambler, ran the final checks and started the engine. She burst into life and Simon took his place behind the wheel. The moment of truth. Yes! There was a clutch! She would start the event, but Brighton was still a big question mark.
The scene alongside the Serpentine in Hyde Park was amazing. So many elegant cars; about 500 entrants. Also a surprising number of people, so early on a Sunday; participants, families, supporters, spectators and marshals. At the appointed hour, 7:42, the Rambler pulled out with the rest of her section toward the official start. Shortly thereafter she was there, first on the line, as the marshal waved the flag and invited the next group to start their journey. Out through Hyde Park Corner, down Constitution Hill, around Buckingham Palace, along Birdcage Walk and over Westminster Bridge, the first part of the journey is probably the most spectacular. As well as all the famous landmarks, there were many marshals to make the going easier and the cars are still quite grouped together. It is quite exciting being able to share the experience with other participants, in another car, just feet away. Westminster Bridge was lined with photographers, getting amazing shots of the cars in action, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. However, more than the photographers, it was great to see the spectators. People who had come out early, even in their pyjamas, to see the cars pass. All of them had a look of awe and bewilderment on their faces, almost always accompanied by a big smile at seeing such an inspiring collection of mobile antiques, automotive history, whizzing past. This was true of the whole day. The whole day. Even late in the afternoon when the cars were few and spaced well apart, there were many people along the route waving and shouting encouragement.
Not long after crossing the Thames and starting along the A23 to Brighton, the engine stopped. Once again it proved to be the spark plug. Of the two being carried, only one of them seemed able to do the job for any length of time, so it would become a question of cleaning up that one as required, rather than being able to swap it for the spare. The traffic on the early part of the run was a bit of a problem. The first part included many marshals and police, who often stopped the other traffic to allow the veterans to pass, however the traffic was still quite heavy once the entrants had been left to their own devices. Some very useful advice offered by a pair of seasoned LBVCR participants over lunch on Saturday, “Just keep going!”, was taken to heart as one’s approach to the Highway Code became rather flexible at certain junctures.
The same advice was not so well heeded by the Rambler. Stoppages became fairly frequent and frustratingly more serious. Later starters, admittedly more modern cars, were starting to overtake. Eventually, the stream of veteran cars on the road grew thinner and thinner. The Team Langton supporters were under instructions to meet at Crawley, the official stop point. It was decide not to stop at Croydon as the schedule was slipping and car had just recovered from one of many breakdowns. Just before Crawley, Simon decided to strip down the carburetor. The car was obviously running too rich and it was hoped that resetting the carb’ would help. It didn’t really, but she was soon underway again and the arrived, quite belatedly, in Crawley.
The official stop for Team Langton was little more than a lavatory break and the Rambler was off again. And running strongly. A long straight section meant that after leaving the town centre she over took several other veterans. The support team, following in a modern car slightly later, could not believe that they had not already passed the Rambler at one stage, so quick was the going. She was eventually measured at 38 mph (61 km/h) – a bit hair-raising in a car without seatbelts, a roof, windscreen or doors!
Although perhaps two thirds of the route had been completed, the next part included two rather famous hills. Famous for ending the rallies of many a London-to-Brighton hopeful. These hills were closed to traffic in one direction, so that veterans could be marshalled up the lefthand side, giving plenty of space for modern vehicles to pass on the right. Once the hills were in sight, Simon would apply the accelerator and start adjusting the timing, aiming to get as far up the hill as possible in high gear, before having to drop into low. With just two speeds, it is very much a case of all or nothing; low is painfully slow, whereas high is too fast in most traffic, especially when one is nursing a temperamental clutch. Clutch problems were on-going throughout the run, especially where many changes of gear and acceleration were required. It was eventually diagnosed as a heat issue. When used a lot, the clutch would overheat and start to slip. This could be resolved, quite effectively it was discovered, by dowsing it in water from time to time. So it was dowsed. Often.
The first hill the Rambler cleared under her own power, with little trouble. At least half of it had to be done in low gear, and with the engine working hard and so little forward motion to move air through the boiler (like a primitive radiator, with no pressurisation) she was boiling away at the top of the hill. Once there, however, the car stopped again. If there remained any water left in the boiler, it was not apparent. The clutch had also ceased to grip. The expected water supply at the top was not to be found. Fortunately two spectators on hand were able to come to the rescue, one of which sets up his campervan at the same spot every year and he and his wife watch the cars struggle over the crest. A few bottles of water and a change of spark plug later, the Rambler was on her way again.
The next hill was not the famous second marshalled hill, but presented greater problems for the Rambler than the other two. Arriving at the hill, the lefthand lane was occupied by a line cars moving along slowly behind a veteran up ahead. The righthand lane was completely clear and, with the advice of our luncheon companions in mind, it was an open invitation. Passing many cars, the Rambler powered up the hill in high gear and made good fist of it, until a number of cars descending the hill made it necessary to filter into the lefthand lane. Now in a line of slow moving cars, low gear selected, the Rambler conked-out again. She was restarted and this time Simon took her up alone, in the hope that without the weight of a co-driver it would be a bit easier. At the top of the hill, co-driver back in place, the Rambler carried on, until she didn’t, which for a while seemed as though it might be the last time.
At the side of the road, all of Team Langton’s supporters on hand, the Rambler stubbornly refused to start. With the trailer right there, surrender was a tempting option. Everything that had halted her in her tracks prior to this point was checked again, but to no avail. Brighton was close too. An observation that, given the progress out of Crawley, capitulation at that point should have been unthinkable prompted one last effort. The car had been running off a modern motorcycle battery, which ought to have been far preferable to the old-fashioned, NiFe-cell battery that is normally used. The NiFe battery was there as a spare, but as it had done the Regent Street run and was not considered overly reliable, it was not thought up to the job. However unthinkable it may have been that the motorcycle battery was letting the team down, it was swapped for the old NiFe battery. And the Rambler sprang into life!
Time was getting short. The many delays meant that Team Langton had been en route for several hours already and few more stops could be afforded in order to reach Brighton in time to record an official finish. At 38 mph, they motored towards that second dreaded hill. At a good clip the Rambler powered up the hill, overtaking slower veterans and even one that was being towed by the local four-wheel-drive club. Of course, eventually it was necessary to select low gear, and then to shed the co-driver, in an effort to maximise her chances of cresting the hill. It would prove to be not enough. However the top was in sight and it did not seem worth waiting for the towing crews to arrive. Fortunately the Rambler was spared that humiliation, as she is not such a heavy car, and with a little effort applied to her posterior by the co-driver, and a spectator, then another, she was over the brow of the hill. On the level once again, Simon cranked the starting handle for the last time on the event.
From that point it was downhill all the way to Brighton. The Rambler raced passed part of her support crew, who had pulled up at the roadside in case further assistance was required. It was not. The lead was well and truly being gotten out as she rejoined the A23 where it widens into three lanes. Pulling into Preston Park was accompanied by congratulatory applause and admiring looks from marshals and spectators. It might have been confused for the official finish, however another two miles of trafficked Brighton streets still remained before reaching the official finish in Madeira Drive. It was by then 3:30 and Team Langton were quietly confident of making the finish before the official close time, even if it required more physical human effort than that of the petrol-driven variety.
As the finish line drew closer, Team Langton was also there amongst the crowds to see the Rambler pull into Madeira Drive and cross the official finish line, before the 4:30 deadline. So, as against the odds as it so often seemed, the Rambler and Team Langton had conquered this momentous event, that had for so long been part of Langton mythology. One car, one family, three generations, 9000 miles of sea and 60 miles of the Queen’s highway traversed.
In return for this feat, Team Langton received a medal, the reverse of which contains one of the best examples of British hypobole one could hope to find (see photo), especially after nearly eight hours on the road, for a trip that can be done in a modern car in under 90 minutes. However the real reward is not medals or trophies, official times or professional photos, admiring spectators or congratulatory pats on back. It is having done it. It is a unique experience and worth the effort. Possible made more enjoyable by all of the difficulties and so much sweeter for finishing officially.
Enormous thanks and congratulations to Simon for his hard work, all but single handedly, in maintaining and preparing the car, shipping it, completing the entry, organising large amounts of the agenda and giving the rest of us, myself especially given my privileged position as co-driver and spark plug manager, the opportunity to be a part of it. He has done Eric proud.
The Rambler will now be returning to Australia. As attractive as the idea of keeping her in the UK for another year is, she has done what she came to do and it has cost her. She will need some tender loving care once she is back again Down Under, but she has earned it and, at 108 years old, under whatever circumstances, deserves every respect as London-to-Brighton finisher.
Team Langton is:
Nicola Langton (and Andrew Lincoln)
Joanna Langton (and Alan Farrell)
Alice Langton-Farrell (cameo)
P.S.: The order and location of these events may not have been exactly as described. It was a long day – let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story!
UPDATE: It has recently been discovered that another Rambler of the same age did not complete the event, making the sense of achievement even greater. Furthermore, an x-ray has revealed that, as the result of a mishap with the car’s starting handle, Simon actually completed the event with a broken wrist!