The 1896 run from London to Brighton signaled the legal start of motoring in Great Britain. Excitement had been building since the amendment to the Light Locomotive Act earlier in 1896. I have found two interesting accounts of that inspirational day.
The 1896 amendment, raising the speed limit to approximately twelve miles per hour, went into effect on November 14, 1896. Thousands arrived to watch cars legally travel down public roads.
London to Brighton, 1896.
In Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, Charles Jarrott provides a first-hand account of the historic run from London to Brighton. According to Jarrott, “for the first time in English history legal restrictions in regard to the use of motor-cars on the public highways, except when proceeded by a man with a red flag, had been removed, and we were to be allowed to drive a car on the road not exceeding twelve miles an hour. The run from London to Brighton had been arranged ti celebrate the event.
It was “a foggy, dull, wet, typical November morning.” Jarrott provides color to his narrative by adding, “An occasional petrol blaze was seen through the fog which filled the hall, making the scene resemble a veritable inferno.” It was a “who’s who” of early British car culture.
It must have been an unforgettable scene. “The spectators had availed themselves of every possible point of vantage, to view for the first time these wonderful machines which were that day allowed to be run upon English roads. Lamp-posts, housetops, balconies were all occupied and the thousands thronging the roadways made the passage for our car almost impossible.”
It was a cosmopolitan event for high-society and the masses alike. “The Frenchmen were of course wildly excited; if gesticulation and talking could have accomplished anything, much would have been laid to their credit. The English crowd was rather fearful.”
The start was slow. Unfortunately, thousands also watched the relative unreliability of early automobiles. The only motorcycle crashed before it ever really got started. All things considered, Jarrott noted wryly, “it might have been worse.”
Finally, Charles Jarrott wrote of the race:
The effect of the run on the public was curious. They had come to believe that on that identical day a great revolution was going to take place. Horses were to be superseded forthwith, and only the marvelous motor vehicles about which they had read so much in the papers for months previously would be seen upon the road. No one seemed to be clear as to how this extraordinary change was to take place suddenly; nevertheless, there was the idea that the change was to be a rapid one.”
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, Charles Jarrott
A History of the First Ten Years of Automobilism, Lord Montagu
Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats, Charles Jarrott, Cutter and Fendell.