Organized by the Royal Automobile Club and sponsored by RM Sotheby’s, Britain’s Veteran Car Run made its way from London to Brighton earlier this month, marking 125 years since the famous “Emancipation Run” that inspired it all. Today, the Run is the largest and most significant event honoring veteran cars in the world.
In 1896, car owners took to the streets to celebrate the passing of the Locomotives of Highways Act of 1896, which integrated motorized vehicles into modern life by bringing up speed limits and allowing drivers to proceed freely on national roads. Though the yearly event had fizzled out by 1903, the run was revived in 1927 persisting to this day with gusto and uniquely British fanfare. Every November, participants gather alongside onlookers in London’s Hyde Park, which has been the run’s official starting point for nearly a century. What is usually a wet and cloudy affair (it is London, after all), was unexpectedly pleasant this year; the sunny morning gave a warm welcome to those who had been looking forward to the event’s return since 2019. When I arrived at the start, there was already a small crowd buzzing with excited chatter as vehicle owners got their rides ready.
It’s important to note that while there are plenty of early birds at the starting point, the Veteran Car Run is by no means a race, and there is no record of what time each car arrives in Brighton. The goal of the ride is to flaunt a slice of Britain’s history as the vehicles transport you back in time, to an era when Britain’s capital still echoed with the sound of hooves on cobblestones. The audience’s awe at a 19th century Cadillac rolling by in pristine condition must be akin to the way Londoners first felt watching that same vehicle outpace a horse drawn carriage. It’s no surprise that many drivers and onlookers arrive decked out in late Victorian wear, adding to the time capsule effect. The Run is limited to cars built before 1905, allowing true relics to exist in their element for a day as they complete the sixty mile drive to Brighton. Vehicle makers streamlined technological advancements between 1890 and 1905, meaning there is huge variety between models from that fifteen-year period; the Run is one of very few events where you can see steam engine cars sharing the road with motorized carriages. The vehicles merge with regular traffic on their way out of London, which poses unique challenges for drivers. While the sight of antiques alongside commuting sedans is one in a million, the veteran cars aren’t always easy to maneuver; navigating modern British roadways with well over a hundred years under the hood makes sixty miles seem much longer than it really is.
The day before the main event usually sees a host of related activities to get the adrenaline pumping, including the brand new RM Sotheby’s London Sale Auction, the Regent Street Motor Show, and a Participant’s Reception. The Regent Street Motor Show draws auto aficionados locally and from abroad, showcasing not only 19th century models, but also vintage and cutting edge contemporary cars.
The morning festivities on Serpentine Road soon gave way to the first wave of participants taking off towards Brighton, and spirits were high. These days, the route south out of Hyde Park splits into two to avoid unnecessary congestion, but becomes one again before the finish line. The cars pass Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey early on, making for great photo opportunities that blend eras.
Mechanical and towing help is available along the way; most drivers also have tender vehicles, or small support crews that take an alternate route in case the stars of the show need technical assistance on the fly. While the ride sees mostly classic regulars that fans wait for each year, new participants are always welcome, and this year was no different. A forest green Haynes Apperson dating back to 1903 turned heads during its first time at the event. The car had been shipped to Europe from the United States, ending up in the hands of a collector after the cross- continental journey. This year’s lineup included models from well known 19th century British car producers, as well as renowned French, German, and American brands.
As the last of the drivers crossed the start line around 8:00 am, I traveled to Brighton, arriving around the first participating vehicles. Madeira Drive was the perfect seaside destination for the sixty mile run; only an hour away from the capital, the salty air still felt removed enough to make the run a journey for each vehicle. Just as in Hyde Park, people were gathering at the finish line to greet the first arrivals; though the run is not a race, the fastest drivers still got the chance to bask in celebratory applause. Streaming in one by one, the classic cars were followed by motorcycles and finally bicycles, also from before 1905. By early afternoon, Madeira Drive was transformed into a seafront teetering on the brink of the 20th century, as drivers exchanged congratulations and spectators admired the cars up close.
Though everyone was technically a winner, friendly competition fueled the atmosphere at the finish line, and it was clear that the run was sorely missed after last year’s unprecedented cancellation. For many of the vehicles, traversing sixty miles was nothing short of a miracle.
I left with the sense that the Veteran Car Run was, in fact, a veteran event, and that given its history, it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.