Whittlin’ Away at the Bucket List: Phil Weisenbarger and the Veteran Car Run

by Paula McKibben   The planets and stars finally aligned and Phil Weisenbarger got his trip to London to the Brighton Veteran Car Run in London in the late fall.
   It was all sort of magical. His whole family knew that he wanted to see this race, but he hadn’t been able to put it together yet. Then, at the beginning of October, his nephew in London called with a birthday gift: come to London to stay in his flat for a week, including the first Sunday in November when the run happens. It was already October. Could he make it happen?
   It was quite a race just getting ready to leave for the run, but with the help of AAA and C.I.E. Tours, they put together a two-week trip, one week in Ireland because some of Pam’s family was from there, another week in London for the run and, of course, the London accommodations were taken care of.
   The first stop was Ireland. Such green neither Pam nor Phil had ever seen before. It’s a bright, true green that Ohioans don’t get to experience.
   Ireland and Achill Island are the original home of the Kilbane family, relatives of Pam through an aunt who married a Kilbane. The family emigrated to the United States, settling in Cleveland. In Cleveland, Johnny Kilbane, second generation, earned the title of Featherweight Champion of the World in 1912. He later became a State Senator for Ohio and Clerk of Courts for Cleveland. There’s a sculpture of Johnny on Achill Island as well as in Cleveland. While visiting the home of part of her family, she also got to kiss the Blarney Stone. Phil declined.
   Also, while passing through the Dublin airport, Pam noticed a group of people wearing Bengal shirts and jackets, so she asked if they were from Ohio. They were, and they were on their way to London to watch the Bengals play the Redskins in Wembley stadium.
   Then, it was on to London and the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Of course, their first night in town, what should they pass but the Wembley stadium where the game between the Bengals and the Redskins was in progress.
   But, they hadn’t come to watch a football game. Phil’s nephew’s flat was perfect for their adventure. It was just three blocks from the underground and Sainsbury’s Grocery was just down the street. Fruit and flowers were available in stands at the underground, so they were good to go on food and lodging. But, most importantly, the flat was just two blocks from the Run.
   Phil has loved vintage cars, I mean, really old cars, forever. In 1957, his dad got him a1927 Hupmobile, but it still sits in the boxes in pieces – a little bigger job than he realized. He owns a Franklin, sits on the Board of the Franklin organization and is Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Franklin Museum at the Gilmor Car Museum, up the road from Kalamazoo at Hickory Corners. This Run was the ultimate treat for him.
   The first run of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run was in 1896 in celebration of the 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act. The first run, named the Emancipation Run, allowed cars to run on roads in towns at 14 miles per hour. Previous to this act, cars could run only at 2 mph through town and had to be preceded by a person waving a red flag.  As a result, each race today begins with the tearing in half of a red flag.
   In order to participate in the race, a car cannot be any older than 1905 and is not allowed to run any faster than 20 miles per hour (mph). The run always happens the first Sunday in November and follows the old A23 from London to Brighton. The run begins at sunrise, about 7 a.m., and those cars making the 54-mile trek by 4:30 p.m. earn a medal. The fastest car in the first run was a Léon Bollée going at almost 14 mph for a trip that lasted 3 hours and almost 45 minutes.
   According to Phil, this year there were 420 entries in the run, including 111 different makes: 32 percent from the U.S., 31 percent from the UK, 29 percent from France, and 6 percent from Germany.
   One hundred of these were invited to appear in the Regent Street Motor Show, a Concours d’Elegance show, a show only for the best of the best. Not unlike the car show held in Bluffton, the 100 cars lined Regent Street for people to browse. Pam wanted to get a picture of Phil next to an 1898 Peugeot. The owners overheard her and insisted that Phil sit inside the car. Absolutely, he did.
   Another impressive car was the De Dion Bouton with vis-à-vis seating, i.e., the driver and the passengers sat facing each other. A single stick, a tiller, was used for steering so there was no bulky steering wheel to separate the group.
   Also at this show sat Genevieve from the movie by the same name. This was a 1953 film that featured the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Phil has the movie, and now he has a picture of himself and Pam standing beside her.
   Phil was most fascinated with the 1896 Salvesen Steam car. It resembles a wagon with a steam boiler in the middle. Along the sides are benches facing outward for people to sit. On the very back is a step that the stoker rides on to keep the boiler steaming.
   The cars are incredible. These early cars look like carriages, trains, carts, wagons and surreys. They are air-cooled and water-cooled; steam, gasoline and electric; one cylinder to six cylinder engines. Though some cars are in their original condition, many are restored to their original colors, very bright colors: turquoise, cream, white, burgundy, light blue, cobalt blue, yellow, red and gray.
   Brands included names that we still hear like Daimler, Benz, Peugeot, Renault, Fiat, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Ford, Mercedes and names that have faded like White Knox, Covert, Krastin, Marot Gardon, Wolseley, Humberette, Delahaye, Crestomobile, DeDietrick, and Darracq – all of them made before 1905. However, Phil cautions, car companies don’t really dissolve. They are bought by other car companies, and the two become integrated.
   The day of the run, Phil and Pam positioned themselves at the Horse Guards Road, a place where the cars had to come nearly to a stop to make the turn. Here, they were able to talk to people in the cars as they slowed for the turn. They saw their friends from Maryland who hope to be part of the run next year riding in the backseat of a Ford.
   However, the run was made trickier by the fact that there were no barricades. These vintage cars were running on the roads alongside normal Sunday traffic. As a spectator, you are seeing these cars drive in places where they would have driven over a century ago. “Standing there on a public street and all of these things you have heard of and see 420 go by,” marveled Phil. He described the actual ride in some of the taller cars as being, “just up there, flying along.”
   The street scene is even accurate right down to the pollution. The cars didn’t have to meet any clean air requirements when they were built. Most of them were trailed by plumes of smoke or steam, and oil was everywhere.
   Unfortunately, visitors cannot really communicate what they experience at the Run by phones because their home cellphones could rack up roaming charges over $2000. Pam and Phil kept in touch with friends in London and at home using a tablet and email. Another option, of course, would be buying a local cell phone. Whatever, be aware that if you want to share what you see, you need to be prepared.
   There are many things to see and do in London. There is the Victoria and Albert Museum, The British Museum, numerous churches like Westminster Abbey and the changing of the guard. But a true auto aficionado would pass all of these up for the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.  As Phil says, “This was a dream.”