Motoring’s distant past came face-to-face with its not-too-distant future in central London recently. The start of the famed London-Brighton run was joined by the alternatively fuelled vehicles of the RAC Future Car Challenge at the Regent Street Motor Show. The capital’s premier shopping thoroughfare was closed to traffic for the day to allow the event to take place, and it drew in plenty of curious passers-by as well as those in the know.
2011 was the 125th anniversary of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz’s pioneering cars, so German cars took centre stage. The highest profile entry was Nigel Mansell behind the wheel of a 1902 Mercedes Simplex, but the most historically significant was probably an 1886 Benz driven by none other than Carl’s great-granddaughter Jutta.
As always on the London-Brighton run, only pre-1905 vehicles were permitted, but some were more sophisticated than you’d think – such as the 9.25-litre Mercedes 60, capable of hitting a remarkable 80mph. And some of the veterans had more in common with the hi-tech eco machines of the Future Car Challenge than you’d expect. Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson Ernst turned out in a 1900 Lohner-Porsche – a petrol-electric hybrid with a four-cylinder engine driving electric motors at the front wheelhubs.
The challenge of keeping cars this old running for even short distances are enormous – and 66 of the 550-car entry didn’t even make the start on Sunday morning. But it really is the effort to take part that counts. Pictures in books and static displays in museums are one thing, but there’s no substitute for seeing a bygone age come to life in front of your eyes – something for which the London-Brighton entrants deserve our deep appreciation.
The creators of the Future Car Challenge vehicles deserve our appreciation too, for building cars to stay ahead of today’s increasingly terrifying fuel prices. Gordon Murray turned out in his diminutive T.25 electric urban runabout, and there was the now-familiar sight of Nissan LEAFs, Toyota Priuses (Prii?) and low-emission diesels from BMW and Volkswagen. However, my pick of the bunch was the Radical SRZero, a battery-powered version of the British trackday special and one-make racer. Horrendously impractical, of course, but at least its light weight translates into a comparatively long range of 250 miles. And you can pretend you’re in a sports prototype on the Mulsanne Straight every time you hit the motorway.
But there was also significant buzz around the Jaguar E-Type entered by German wind farm company Windreich. Looking no different from the many other E-Types assembled on Regent Street to mark the car’s 50th anniversary, this example had an engine bay stuffed full of batteries, as well as a lightweight aluminium body. Its creator Tobias Aichele admitted the range was a modest 120 miles or so, and that the figure suffered if you drove enthusiastically, but it was still gratifying to see a classic twist on the battery-powered theme. Further evidence of small-scale ingenuity amongst the big manufacturer offerings came from Neil Hutchinson’s electric MG-F (one way to avoid K-Series head gasket failure, I suppose) and Eindhoven University’s electric VW Lupo.
In some ways, the cars of the London-Brighton run and those of the Future Car Challenge have a lot in common. Walking past the rows of veteran runners, it was fascinating to see the huge variety of solutions that were tried out in the early days before the accepted personal motor car ‘formula’ was arrived at. Some were mired in a past of horse-drawn carriages, others foreshadowed aspects of style and practicality that have become commonplace. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, a similar process seems to be taking place as the industry tries out a host of possibilities for life after the internal combusion engine. Will a single successful formula be settled on, as before? Or are there many equally effective solutions for a post-fossil-fuel car? These questions play on the mind of every R&D engineer and chief executive in the car industry these days – and you can’t help but be fascinated by their attempts to answer them.
Text and photos // Stephen Errity