When motoring was an adventure for the privileged and wealthy few

A bygone world of peaked-capped servants and berugged passengers
A bygone world of peaked-capped servants and berugged passengers

Some 440 veteran cars braved the elements to cover 60 miles from Hyde Park to Madeira Drive.

Some 440 veteran cars braved the elements on Sunday to cover the 60 miles from Hyde Park to Madeira Drive. The event commemorates 1896, when the requirement for motor vehicles to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag was abolished, and the speed limit was raised to 12 mph. To celebrate, in November that year, 33 cars set off from London - just 14 of which made it to the Metropole at Brighton. The Run has been held annually since 1930, with cars of 1905 and earlier being eligible.

My great-grandfather was an early motoring enthusiast. According to family tradition, when taking delivery of his first Daimler, he was unfazed by the fact he had not previously driven. Ordering everyone on board, he handed his wife the manual and set off for the Sussex coast. Apparently all went well, though another story speaks of the brakes once failing on Duncton hill and everyone leaping for their lives.

I have been leafing through his copy of the British Motor Tourist’s ABC for 1905. Within its gilt-edged pages (“crests and leather covers to order”), one enters a bygone world of peaked-capped servants and berugged passengers, of privilege and primitive technology.

Most of the book comprises an alphabetical guide to towns, giving mileages, market days, and the addresses of mechanics and spirit stores. Whereas in 1896 there had been no garage facilities in Brighton, with those 14 cars being stored overnight at Dupont’s stables in Waterloo Street, by 1905 the Grand Hotel had “garage, pits and spirit”, and there were motor repairers in King’s Road, Gloucester Road, and Upper St James’s Street. There were three agents for Carless’ petrol, with Dunlop tyres available at the Old Ship Hotel. There was also a garage in George Street, Hove.

Motor Tourist's ABC advert opp titleUsers being presumed to be of sporting inclination, there are lists of hunting centres, racing fixtures, golf courses and yacht clubs. The maps show a sparse web of highways, and there is much talk of gradients and roads “unsuitable for motors”.

There is period flavour in the introductory “Hints to Motor Tourists”: “Spare inner tubes should be packed in suitable bags dusted with french chalk … Detachable non-skidding devices should be attached before entering towns and other areas where bad roads are to be apprehended, and removed when the danger zone has been passed … To avoid misty goggles in wet weather, rub the outer surfaces with soap and then wipe clean with a dry handkerchief … In frosty weather never forget to let the water out of the radiators, even although a stoppage of an hour or two only may be contemplated.” Densimeter readings for petrol at various temperatures are provided, and there is advice on the repair of pneumatic tyres.

Motor Tourist's ABC advert2By an act of 1903, the speed limit had been raised to 20 mph (10 mph in built-up areas). Penalties for speeding or having obscured number plates ranged from £10 for a first offence, £20 for a second, to £50 or three months’ imprisonment for a third - large sums in those days when the average weekly wage was just over £1. An automobilist was liable to pay an annual tax of 15 shillings for his chauffeur (whose life was valued by the insurance companies at a standard £100; the car itself, however, at £250). A car could be shipped from London to Hamburg for £1.

Motoring at that date was still a sport and an adventure for the wealthy rather than an everyday activity for the many. For all the punctures, dust, recalcitrant hills, and prejudicial legislation, one can envy, I think, those high-seated, bewhiskered figures in their capes and furs.