Throngs of people lined the Victorian promenade clapping and cheering as another car turned into the parade; spurred on by the rapturous welcome and the finishing line in sight, the driver wiped his goggles clean with a leather glove. Beyond the promenade, the pebbles and crashing waves of the sea, heads turned on the famous pier as day-trippers rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves, for though they knew the time from their watches, they had temporarily forgotten what century it was.
The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, celebrating its 115th anniversary this year, is a motoring event from a bygone age, a slice of nostalgia every bit as tantalising as the teacake served on the gilt-iron terrace of a beachside Georgian hotel.
With entry restricted to cars made before 1905, this isn't just a car race but a motoring museum, meandering its way from the capital to the south coast of England, at speeds sometimes in excess of 25kph. At a mere 87km it may not be the longest car race in the world but it is the longest running. Held since 1927, it has claimed a special place in the affections of motoring enthusiasts and the public at large. It is to the English autumn what the boat race is to the spring, a peculiar and peculiarly English event with its roots firmly in the past.
The origins of the race go back to 1896. Far from being merely a jolly jaunt to the seaside for those who could afford a car in that era, it marked what is probably the most significant, but least well known, rule change in the history of motoring. That first race was nicknamed the "Emancipation run" and celebrated the removal of the requirement for every car to follow 20 metres behind someone waving a red flag. As you can imagine, this safety measure was not only an imposition but an embarrassment for drivers seeking to show off their ever-more-powerful machines. With the red flag no longer required and the speed limit raised from a pedestrian 6.5kph to a positively cantering 22.5kph, the joys of the road could be fully explored.
For those unaware that the race is taking place, it makes for a charming and eccentric diversion from their day-trip to the beach but, for enthusiasts such as Elaine Wilson, from Brighton, this annual event is the highlight of the year.
"I've been coming every year since I was a girl. It is a thrilling spectacle and a piece of history," she says.
As a 1902 Oldsmobile bumbles past, she observes: "These cars are the origins of what we all drive now, though there appears little in common. They are heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next like an oil painting."
The race starts in Hyde Park at exactly 7.02am, the official time of the sun rising. More than 550 cars had their carburettors and ignitions adjusted and, with a couple of lusty turns of the starting handles, set off for the sea. All but the 50 that failed to cross the starting line, that is. After all, in motoring terms, these cars are like fossils.
Four hours later, having passed along country roads lined with waving enthusiasts, who cheer heartily while keeping their hands warm with piping hot flasks of coffee, the leaders cross the finish line for what is, in its own way, as great a feat as completing Le Mans. For these cars are all more than 100 years old, making them the mechanical equivalent of an elderly person completing a marathon.
Another enthralled spectator, Graham Brown, 54, from Sussex, finds beauty in the cars' history.
"Cars of this age were little more than horseless carriages," he says. "They were a new, exciting invention and, when they drove into the countryside, they would cause jaws to drop, as most people wouldn't have seen a car before. They weren't just making a journey along a road but a journey into the future."