Driving a century-old vehicle more than 100 miles can be a challenge under the best of circumstances.
But dark skies and intermittent rain throughout Saturday made the 33rd annual New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run even more difficult than usual.
Not that it really dampened the spirits of A.B. Bonds of Kingston Springs, Tennessee, or any of the other motorists.
“This drive is tremendous,” Bonds said during a stop in Litchfield Saturday morning. “It’s a tough challenge, but it’s great to be able to do it.”
This year was Bonds’ fifth participating in the New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run. He was among 51 registered participants, all making the 120-mile trek, which emulates the London to Brighton, England, Emancipation Run of 1896. The 120-year-old Veteran Car Run celebrates passage of the Locomotive on Highway Act that raised the speed limit from 4 mph to 14 mph for so-called “light locomotives” of the era, and repeal of the “red flag law” that required any automobile of the era to be led by a man carrying a red flag to warn carriage drivers to hold the reins of their animals, should they be spooked by the “horseless carriage.”
The English run has a far longer history, but its Minnesota brethren goes a much greater distance, doubling the 60 miles of the London-to-Brighton path.
“I think this old car run is underappreciated,” Bonds said. “It has such a great history. It is an outstanding collection of very rare automobiles. But it doesn’t get as much national attention as I think it deserves.”
It does draw a crowd in the five towns in which it stops, however, as it did in Grove City, Litchfield and Kingston Saturday.
Rules state that only cars 1908 and earlier, or 1- or 2-cylinder vehicles up to 1915, can participate in the run. This year’s run included two of 1902 vintage, an Oldsmobile and a Knox.
Bonds’ 1908 Buick Model 10 was among the newer vehicles, but one still steeped in history. Bonds and other participants serve as amateur historians, at least when it comes to the cars they drive in the run, as Bonds was happy to demonstrate for those who stopped to chat.
His 1908 Buick was the first car built by General Motors. Not his car, exactly, but the model. His car rolled off a Detroit assembly line in September 1908, as car No. 2817.
While many remember Henry Ford’s Model T as the car that changed the world, Bonds said, the Buick actually was the first king.
“Buick outsold the Model T during those first three years (1908-1910) of production, and then Henry got into gear,” Bonds said with a grin.
David Dunbar Buick, a Scottish-born American, founded the Buick Motor Co. But while automobiles will always be what his name is associated with, Bonds explained, it was actually another invention from which Buick found his fortune.
He and a partner took over a Detroit plumbing company in the late 1800s, and not long after came up with an idea that has lasted as long as his namesake automobile.
“He got rich by porcelainizing bathtubs,” Bonds said. The process, used to coat cast iron bathtubs at a lower cost, is still used today, even though cast iron tubs are not common these days.
From plumbing, Buick moved to motors — but for boats, not automobiles. He conceived a valve-in-head engine for boats, Bonds said, that he eventually translated into the manufacturing of an automobile motor that ran better than the “flatheads” used in almost every car of the time.
“Nowadays, every car (engine) is overhead valve, or valve-in-head,” Bonds said. “He started it.”
Among the questions antique car run participants field most often is “Why?” Why have a century old car, and why put it through a grueling day-long run across the state?
“Look at it,” Bonds said in answer to the first why. “I can look at all of these cars, they’re beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
And in answer to the second “Why?” A 120-mile drive with a 100-plus-year-old car is melding of form and function.
“All of the different things people did to build cars back then,” Bonds said. “Nobody had a book to say, this is how to build a car. They tried all kinds of things. Chain drives, steam engines … It’s fascinating.
“This is 110 years old and still doing its job,” Bonds said. “How many things can do that?”