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What's it like to drive a 118-year-old veteran car?

De Dion Bouton Vis à Vis for DT Motoring. Picture to illustrate an article by Andrew English about a 1901 De Dion Bouton Vis à Vis Type G. Picture shows Andrew English and De Dion Bouton restorer Nick Penney on board the Vis à Vis. Picture date 23/09/2019
Scary might be the first word that springs to mind as English gets to grips with the 1901 De Dion-Bouton's tiller steering Credit: Andrew Crowley

This 1901 De Dion-Bouton will be on the road to the coast tomorrow for the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. So what is it really like to drive such a venerable car on public roads?

Nick Penney’s words barely evoke what must be his growing sense of alarm as this 118-year-old De Dion-Bouton Type G tears off downhill. “Lever forward into top gear, off the brake pedal. Good, oooh, steady on, gently now, slooow…” he advises, as we head towards a row of expensive parked cars, with yours truly at the tiller (no steering wheel, you see).

Actually tiller steering is the least intimidating part of piloting this 4.5HP, 498.5cc, single-cylinder beastie dating from 1901. Its top speed is quoted at 22mph, but on any sort of slope its 26-inch diameter wire wheels spin up like Catherine Wheels and the effect of stamping on the floor pedal to partially close the exhaust valve and activate the tiny rear shoe-brake is noticeable, but not efficacious.

The engine roars, terrifyingly. Penney leans across, treads on pedals and flicks levers whose functions I knew 10 minutes ago but seem to have now forgotten. What’s mainly running through my mind is that with a kerb weight of 420kg, I make up an additional 20 per cent of this spindly little car’s weight. We’ll leave a sizeable dent in whatever we hit and I tense my stomach muscles ready for the tiller’s seemingly inevitable bruising contact.

Of course, we do eventually slow and when we finally come to a halt I fail to keep the engine running with my inept flailing around with handbrake/gear lever, fuel mixture, ignition advance/retard, accelerator/ exhaust restrictor and tiller, all on the same column – you modern motorists have it easy.

Well, I think I’ve lost it, but somewhere from under the seat comes a plaintive, “Tonk. Tonk-tonk, tonkety-tonk…” 

The De Dion-Bouton seats four, with the front passengers facing the rear, hence the rudimentary bodywork being known as vis-à-vis (face to face) Credit: Andrew Crowley

The idle stabilises. Phew. We’re alive, the car is in one piece, life is good; breathe...

This car was built two years before the Wright Brothers had made their inaugural flight, 13 years before the opening salvoes of the First World War and Queen Victoria could well have been alive when it was delivered to its first owner, although, as its current owner says: “The early history of this car is pretty obscure.”

We know that it was badly damaged by fire-bombing in Norwich during the Second World War and after the conflict its owner Ralph Barker gave the wreckage to self-taught engineer Hugh Smith, who lived in Holt, Norfolk. He commenced a painstaking rebuild and completed the car at the end of the Seventies – it was blessed in Holt Parish Church in July 1980.

The buttoned-leather rear seat lifts to reveal the engine and transmission Credit: Andrew Crowley

When Smith died the car was auctioned and ended up in a Japanese museum, before it was returned to the UK in 1999 and sold at auction to its current owner in 2000.

So how do you drive one of these infernal devices the 54 miles between Hyde Park in central London and Madeira Drive on the seafront at Brighton? Moreover, why would you? The answer to the second is the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, first held in 1896 as a celebration of the effective repeal of various hated Locomotive Acts which had restricted motor cars to speeds of less than 4mph and to have an escort on foot carrying a red flag.

The London to Brighton Run was revived in 1927 and has been held virtually every year since. Not only is it the world’s oldest motoring event, but it’s also the largest gathering of pre-1905 veteran cars – vehicles have to have been built before then to qualify for entry. Perhaps its most famous depiction is the 1953 film Genevieve, in which John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth Moore and Kay Kendall do the Brighton run in the eponymous 1904 Darracq along with a 1905 Spyker and then race back to London.

The 500cc, single-cylinder engine musters less than 5bhp but is actually more advanced in operation that it may appear Credit: Andrew Crowley

Today the struggle to the sea is perhaps even more challenging, coaxing recalcitrant machinery, often in the worst weather (it takes place on the nearest Sunday to November 1), through fearsome London traffic, up Brixton Hill and then through the Weald of Sussex and over the Downs. Get there by 4.30pm and you’ll have been cheered by enthusiastic crowds and as you trundle to your allotted parking space you’ll receive a medal and maybe a glass of mulled wine. 

Many more, including myself on numerous occasions, trail in after dark, cold and wet, barely celebrated and critically in need of a pie and a pint – and at least 364 days before attempting again.

De Dion-Bouton was in the earliest days of motoring briefly the world’s largest car maker and its models might be likened to the Ford Focus of their day; simple, tough and reliable. The company was formed in 1883 after Marquis Jules-Albert de Dion saw a model locomotive in a shop and asked the toy’s makers, Georges Bouton and his brother-in-law Charles Tépardoux, to make another. At first the company made steam-powered cars but by 1889 Bouton became more convinced that internal combustion was the way forward.

This car would have cost about 200 guineas in 1901 - that's the equivalent of £25,500 today Credit: Andrew Crowley

This car, a rear-engined, two-speed device, has rudimentary bodywork known as vis-à-vis (face to face). The suspension is a thing of wonder, a combination of longitudinal and transverse leaf springs with the famous De Dion axle tube at the rear. 

The engine is pretty advanced for its years, with coil and points ignition, a poppet exhaust valve operated by a camshaft and an atmospheric inlet valve which opens with the suction from the combustion chamber. It’s water-cooled with a pump and has a total loss oiling system which requires replenishing every 15 miles. There are brakes on each of the rear wheels and the transmission, although closing the throttle (which reduces the exhaust valve lift) provides a decent amount of slowing as well.

In 1901 it would have cost about 200 guineas (£25,500 in today’s values), with extras including a hood at 16 guineas (£2,000), an English-built body for five guineas (£604) and leather wings for 11 guineas (£1,330).

Passengers are likely to be encouraged to get out and push on even the slightest incline Credit: Andrew Crowley

And it knows its way down to Brighton, too, having made many runs over the years, although not thus far in the hands of its current owner, falling victim to faults with its fiendish expanding-clutch transmission.

“The distinctive feature of this gear is that it is almost impossible to wear it out and that the movement for changing speed is practically fool-proof,” gushed the De Dion-Bouton advertising of the period. All well and good, but it can still work its way out of adjustment with alacrity and Penney has wired up the screw adjusters so that the old car can hopefully complete a successful run today.

Driving is a combination of sympathy, anticipation, skill and plain brass neck. I well recall driving a 1904 Vauxhall in the Brighton Run many years ago and seeing a plucky young policewoman diving for cover as we drove up the pavement on snarled-up Brixton Hill, the first significant gradient the Edwardian cars encounter en route to the coast. I also recall spectators divested of hairgrips, string, spare petrol and chewing gum as we tried to fix the old car at the side of the road.

Spare a thought for the drivers of these veteran cars: on this De Dion, the handbrake, gear lever, fuel mixture, ignition advance/retard, accelerator, exhaust restrictor, not forgetting the steering tiller, are all mounted on the same column Credit: Andrew Crowley

This 1901 De Dion-Bouton doesn’t produce a lot of power and the optimistic 22mph top speed will only be attained with the most complementary following zephyr and perhaps a downward slope. Not that you notice as you’re so busy on the myriad levers, not to mention the tiller. It’s also surprisingly comfortable, with a soft ride and lovely buttoned-leather-upholstered seats.

Even on the most modest slopes, passengers will find themselves politely encouraged to get out and push. There is one thing they won’t find themselves being asked to do, however. Red flags need not be carried…

If you see it on the road to Brighton tomorrow, give it a cheer; at 118 years old, it’s earned some respect. 

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