On the road to Brighton

The Fowler family in Knutsford and the Bithells from Prestbury have one thing in common. They are devotees of veteran cars. Last November both families set off from London’s Hyde Park to chug the 60-miles to Brighton as they took part in the longest-running, and most famous, motoring event in the world – The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Barry Hookreports.

The Bithell Family


At sunrise in London’s Hyde Park on the 4 November, David Bithell picked up the starting handle and cranked up the 1903 Renault Landaulette. He had high hopes that the car’s 10hp, 2-cylinder engine would get him and the family to Brighton before lighting-up time.

He and his wife Doreen, with their sons Michael and Charles and the grandchildren and a nephew who came down fromScotland, were supporting Peter Watters Westbrook, Doreen’s brother, who is the owner of the car. This is a family affair.

The hobby in fact started on Doreen’s side of the family when her father, Philip Watters Westbrook, bought the Renault in 1953.

“He entered each year in the Brighton Run and the whole family was involved. I had to take time off school and there was huge relief when we reachedBrighton,” recalls Doreen. “I suppose the family has now entered the car over 30 times and has completed the journey on all but one occasion.”

Doreen’s brother, Peter, took over the car when their father died in 1967. “Peter completed three Brighton Runs before emigrating toCanada. He still owns the car but left it inEnglandwhere Frank Smith of Alderley Edge took over the job of keeping it running.”

At the time, Frank was president of the Veteran Car Club (VCC) but after he died, Peter Watters Westbrook instructed his nephew, Michael Bithell (son of David and Doreen) to supervise the car’s maintenance and renovation. That was in 1992.

A major task was to rebuild the car’s wheels – not an easy or cheap job as the car has unusual spring spokes in each wheel – a unique feature unknown in any other make of car. Remember, this car was built in the days before pneumatic tyres. Sprung spokes in the wheels was as close as it came to providing some form of suspension.

New castings for the rims were required but many parts (there are 301 parts in each wheel!) are original from 1904 including the springs themselves.

“The wheel restoration took over 1,600-hours in addition to the time taken to prepare drawings and make sub-contract parts,” reports Michael Bithell.

“With any car of this age you are bound to encounter problems when trying to maintain it to its original specification. On a test run in 1996 the cylinder head cracked which put the car off the road for 6 months. A few years later an exhaust valve broke resulting in a backfire that blew off the exhaust.”

On that occasion the RAC was able to fashion a new one from an old oil can and the journey toBrightonwas completed before the stipulated closing time.

Since then, however, Catharine (as the car is known) has successfully completed regular Brighton Runs, two VCC events in Buxton and Arundel, a Renault Fréres event (Staines) and Michael and Caroline Bithell’s wedding in Prestbury.

Peter, from Canada, still heads the family each year for the Run and this year will be no exception.

“The Brighton Run really is a family affair with our two sons, Michael and Charles and our grandchildren all contributing,” added Doreen. Last year, for first time, Peter’s wife Claudette came over fromCanadato join in the family fun.

“Usually we take the car toLondonon a trailer on the Friday, escorted by support cars. Having parked the Renault securely inLondon, one of us will then take the trailer toBrightonready to receive Catharine after the Run on the Sunday.

“Simply getting the car to theHyde Parkstarting point takes a tremendous amount of organising,” admits David, “but, once we start the Run, we then all take turns in driving her.

“Yes, there is a lot of fettling, polishing and burnishing to be done but we all enjoy the event tremendously, especially the grandchildren. Our hope is that one day they too will be able to drive Catharine and preserve the family’s involvement with this remarkable ‘old lady’.”

It is a similar family affair in Knutsford where the Fowlers – Rodney and his wife Jennifer and grown-up children Helen and James – all look forward to the annualLondonto Brighton Run.

Rodney’s initiation in to veteran cars came as a result of his father, Gordon, being inspired by the film Genevieve*.

“He acquired his first veteran – a 1914 Manchester-built Belsize – literally with the toss of a coin,” recalls Rodney. “That was in 1954 when my father and I and another couple both arrived to buy the car in response to an advert in Motor Sport magazine.

“The vendor, not wanting an unseemly auction, was not sure what to do. The girl friend of the other interested party suggested that we toss for it.

“A coin was produced and that was how the family became veteran car enthusiasts.”

The Belsize is still in the Fowler family, now owned by Rodney’s sister.

But it was be Rodney’s Georges Richard veteran car that the family took down for the London-Brighton run.

Built in France by Georges Richard in 1900 with what is known as a dog cart body (the dogs can be carried in a ventilated space under the body), the 9hp 2-cylinder car was, by 1904, owned by a Mr Ellis of Oswestry and used for ‘trade purposes’.

In 1949 after languishing unused for 35-years in the yard of an engineering shop, Jim Crossman (who later became president of the VCC) found the car hidden under a pile of metal swarf.

The owner would not allow anyone to uncover the car as ‘it would make a mess’, so it was declared ‘too far gone’.

In fact, the oily swarf had protected the metal work and the wooden bodywork from too much decay and Jim bought the remains for £5.00, towed it home and set about getting it back into running order with an entry for its firstLondon- Brighton Run in 1949.

Rodney then bought the car in 1982. “It remains very original but as bits drop off and other parts wear out, they are replaced with parts which are manufactured authentically to match the original.”

A past-president of the VCC, Rodney says it is the thrill of maintaining and keeping these historical artefacts in working order that is the attraction. “It is surprising how the interest is passed on through generations of whole families. That is critical if these old vehicles, and the knowledge and skill to maintain them, are to be preserved as part of motoring’s heritage.”

It is certainly the case in the Fowler family, where daughter Helen is married to Alex Peacop whose father runs theMouldsworthMotorMuseum, nearChester. Keenly supported by Helen, Alex races a 1932 Fraser Nash Super Sports.

“I have been on the London-Brighton run many, many times,” recalls Rodney, “starting as a child with my father and I am looking forward to next month’s event with the same enthusiasm just as I did all those years ago.”

“I remember my first London-Brighton run in the Georges Richard in 1983. The car had been in a museum for 8-years and we struggled all day, but we got there.”

“We usually make a long weekend of the London-Brighton run. We’ll perhaps visit the Bonham auction on the Friday and take part in the parade in Regent Street on Saturday. There you have the opportunity to meet and talk to other drivers and owners. It all ends with a ball on the Sunday before we return to Cheshire on Monday.”

For Rodney, who runs R.M. Fowler Ltd of Knutsford, a main distributor for a major manufacturer of precision linear motion equipment, he has grown-up with veteran cars. He and his wife, Jennifer, have rallied all over the world. This year they have completed four rallies including one inFrancein a 1912 Iris, another of his car collection.

The maximum average speed permitted on the journey to Brighton is 20mph, so you can see it is not a race. Rather it is an endurance. Completing the 60-miles to Brighton without a breakdown is, for these veteran cars, all that is hoped for.

*Genevieve  is a classic British film comedy made in 1953 starring Kenneth More, John Gregson, Kay Kendall and Dinah Sheridan and portrays the antics of two couples who decide to enter the London-Brighton run.

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