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100 years of motoring in 100 minutes | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

12th November 2021
Gary Axon

Last Sunday (7th November) I had the somewhat unique opportunity to witness 100 years of motoring advances in as many minutes. 

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Bright and early on the Sunday morning I attended the last Goodwood Breakfast Club meeting of the 2021 season at the Motor Circuit, themed around cars of the 1990s. Less than 100 minutes later I was strolling along the famous Madeira Drive in Brighton, admiring the motor cars at the finish point for the annual London-to-Brighton run for pre-1905 veteran cars, which celebrated its historic 125th Run this year (following its cancellation in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic). 

From a sea of 1990s era motors at the Goodwood Breakfast Club first thing, dominated by popular Japanese vehicles of the decade with Mazda MX-5s, Subaru Imprezzas, Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and Nissan ZXs present in abundance, the scene at the Brighton sea front finish line was entirely different, the majority of late 1890s marques being French and made up of De Dion-Boutons, Panhard et Levassors, Peugeots and Renaults; the principal vehicle makers of the late 19th Century, with not a single Asian vehicle to be seen. 

A 1904 Albion.

A 1904 Albion.

Strolling around the motor carriages built before the London to Brighton Run’s 1905 cut-off date, it struck me just how depressingly few of the pioneering vehicle manufacturers have survived to this day, with examples of Peugeots, Renaults, Fiats, Vauxhalls, Cadillacs and Fords being the only remaining car brands (to use the appropriate 21st Century vernacular) to have weathered the numerous storms and challenges of the last 100-plus years of the automotive industry. 

Some will argue that Mercedes-Benz should be included on this list of motoring pioneers, and there were certainly examples of both Mercedes and Benz models at the 125th Brighton finish, but Mercedes-Benz as a stand-alone marque is still only 95 years old, following the merger of this two historic vehicle producers in 1926. Before this date they were bitter German rivals, despite Mercedes-Benz frequently claiming to have ‘invented’ the motor car for umpteen decades…

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The contrast to last Sunday’s two Sussex-based car events at Goodwood and Brighton couldn’t have been more marked. The relitivively ‘modern’ 1990s cars at the former gathering (mostly populated by a lively younger audience of ‘petrol heads’) were all fuelled by other petrol or diesel. The more mature (in age!) Brighton motorists challengingly drove vehicles (many with tiller steering, limited and oddly arranged foot pedals, as per my recent Anorak highlighting the changes to car control layouts over the years) powered by petrol, steam, coal or electricity, effectively illustrating that there is nothing new under the sun, as we naively hurtle head-long (largely blindly due to global Government pressures) into all-electric vehicles. 

The variety of 1990s cars present at ‘90s Sunday served as a painful reminder that even in this modern age of motoring, the future presence of any car marker is not assured. Gleaming Rovers, Saabs, Daimlers, plus the odd Pontiac, Reliant and Marcos, were examples of once proud and popular marques that are no longer with us, and I fear the attrition rate of other precarious car makes will be even higher in the coming years as the switch over from the internal combustion engine to electricity claims a few more slow-responding and/or under-funded victims in the changeover. This process has already begun with a few recent ‘start up’ vehicle manufacturers in the USA and China, such as Byton and Xpeng, quickly falling by the wayside. 

A 1903 Knox.

A 1903 Knox.

Refocusing on the number of fallen historic vehicle producers present at Madeira Drive, and the harsh realities of ‘making it’ in the motor industry become all too evident with hundreds of fallen marques in attendance (such as Napier, Oldsmobile, Leon Bollee, Darracq, Rochet-Schneider, Knight; the list goes on...). 

The most commonplace marque on the Run – De Dion-Bouton – was once the global passenger car market leader in the pioneering era of motoring, for example, the French maker being the largest automobile producer in the world by the late 1890s, licensing out its designs and engine to more than 150 other vehicle companies by the early 1900s, yet long since forgotten and now unknown by probably 98-plus per cent of the world’s population. 

Trying to predict which of today’s car makers, if any, will still be here and active 100 years into the future is a very tough call and I have yet to invest in a new wind-powered crystal ball. The likes of Toyota, Volkswagen and Ford will hopefully still be around, but even in the shorter term, I fear for lesser marques such as Chrysler, Subaru, Lancia, as they risk falling into the ever-increasing chapters of past glories of motoring history. 

‘90s Sunday images by Joe Harding and James Lynch.

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