On This Day In Automotive History: November 14th 1896 – Lawson and the Motor Car Club organised the first London to Brighton run

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Lawson and the Motor Car Club organised the first London to Brighton run, the “Emancipation Run”, which was held on 14 November 1896 to celebrate the relaxation of the Red Flag Act, which eased the way for the start of the development of the British motor industry.

The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is the longest-running motoring event in the world. The first run was in 1896, and it has taken place most years since its initial revival in 1927. To qualify, the cars must have been built before 1905. It is also the world’s largest gathering of veteran cars – 443 started in 2005, 484 in 2009, compared to 37 starters in 1927, 51 starters in 1930 and 131 in 1938.

The first run took place on 14 November 1896, a wet Saturday. Organised by Harry J. Lawson, and named “The Emancipation Run”, it was a celebration of the recently passed Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which had replaced the restrictive Locomotive Acts of 1861, 1865 and 1878 and increased the speed limit to 14 mph (23 km/h). Since 1878 the speed limit had been 4 mph (6 km/h) in the country and 2 mph (3 km/h) in the town and an escort had been required to walk 20 yards (20 m) ahead of the vehicle. The 1865 act had required the escort to carry a red flag at a distance of 60 yards (50 m).

The event started with a breakfast at the Charing Cross Hotel, which included the symbolic tearing in two by Lord Winchelsea of a red flag. The competitors gathered outside the Metropole Hotel, with the cars accompanied by a “flying escort” – estimated by one witness as “probably 10,000” – of pedal cyclists, recreational cycling having become popular with the English in the final decades of the 19th century.

A total of 33 motorists set off from London for the coast and 17 arrived in Brighton. The first of the cars set off from London at 10:30 am and the first arrival in Brighton, by a Duryea Motor Wagon, beating the next closest Brighton arrivals by more than an hour. Two Duryea cars participated in the run, marking the first appearance of American motor vehicles in Europe.

The run was not staged again until 1927, and then annually run from 1927 until the onset of the Second World War. Owing to petrol rationing, the event was cancelled until 1947. With all this considered, it is the world’s longest running motoring event. Since 1930, the event has been controlled by the Royal Automobile Club.

The 1953 comedy movie Genevieve is set during one of these runs.

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