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Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond on: using old cars

Published: 14 Aug 2013

I have, only this week, lived a perfect recreation of one of the most significant moments in history for those of us who share a love of cars and motorcycles.

It didn't look promising at the outset. Larry didn't stand a chance. He had come to collect my 1934 Sunbeam Limousine, and he hadn't brought a trailer. He was, he told me, simply going to drive it back to his workshop and put it on display. As I saw it, he didn't stand a chance on two points: firstly, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone turning up at the gloriously battered Nissen hut deep in Gloucestershire from which Larry restores and sells vintage and classic motorcycles is going to shelve their dreams of a classic BMW boxer twin or an MV Agusta race bike and buy a 20-foot-long, 80-year-old limo instead.

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More pressing, though, was my concern regarding the journey to the workshop. It's 45 miles from my house, and most of it, in fact all of it, seems to be uphill. The route includes the fearsome Fish Hill, a near-vertical section of switchbacks and hairpins climbing the Cotswold Ridge that has had even my 911 sounding breathless. What chance, then, an 80-year-old car that I have never had the courage to drive further than Ross-on-Wye, some three miles from home? Larry's an optimist. He's ex-military, and I cannot imagine what it must have been like, in those tense moments before going to do what soldiers must do as Larry bounded about under a mound of guns and grenades with his puppy-like enthusiasm. He must've been forever standing straight up to look over the edge of the trench or round the corner or whatever, all the time reassuring the nervous chaps that yes, they might be outnumbered, outgunned, and outmanoeuvred but not to worry because everything will be fine. He has assured me that, in fact, the chaps welcomed his eternal optimism and at no point felt tempted to turn their weapons on him and make him the first target of the mission. And this day was no different.

Despite every scrap of evidence adding up to a compelling case for abandoning the trip as lunacy doomed to certain failure, Larry leapt in, fired up the Sunbeam with an oily cough and puttered out of the gates, I presumed never to be seen again, or at least not until he had walked back from the ditch into which the car had wheezed its last.

I got the call two hours later, but it had all the wrong words in it. "Catastrophic failure", "fire", "collapse" and "ruined" were not mentioned. Instead, I listened to Larry gush about how effortlessly it glided up the Fish Hill and how the temperature remained constant, the gears meshed and the brakes worked. And this, to him, was entirely as expected and according to plan.

Inspired, confused and oddly ashamed, I wandered out to my garage and took a long look at my remaining Sunbeam.

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Inspired, confused and oddly ashamed, I wandered out to my garage and took a long look at my remaining Sunbeam. This one is a bike and even older than the car. It's from 1927 and, while mechanically simpler than a bath plug, is so fiendishly complicated to use that I can only compare it to operating a Victorian printing press, while riding a motorcycle. I have ridden it many times, as a sort of novelty, to enjoy the confused looks from people as I potter past, adjusting the mixture and hauling the clutch with my left hand, advancing and retarding the ignition, controlling the throttle, pumping oil to the crankshaft, changing gear with my right hand and steering with my teeth. But I'd never used it to go anywhere. Today, I would.

Armed with something as close to Larry's vigorous optimism as I could muster, I set out to elevate the Sunbeam from a pleasing distraction to a means of transport. Something very similar must have happened at the dawn of the motor vehicle. There must have been a moment when it moved from being a novelty item to something that could be used to go places. I rode it to my mate's farm. It was eight miles away. Not, I'll grant, an epic trek, but still a considerable enough distance to justify the use of some sort of machine in the covering of it.

And I made it. My family had already driven there, in a modern car, of course. And, an hour later, came the historical moment. Because a hundred or so years ago, someone else must have stood in front of his friends, red-faced and sweating with the effort as he struggled to persuade his quaint Edwardian novelty to cough into life. It will have been a process he'd gone through many times before, but only ever for the novelty of it, as a sort of trick to amaze onlookers. Today, though, he was using his horseless carriage as a means of transport. As I hacked at the kickstart on the Sunbeam, flooded it, tweaked the mixture to lean it out again and dry the plug, I knew that, despite appearances to the contrary, it would start, that it would cough into life. I knew, in fact, that everything would be alright. And I hate to disappoint you, dear reader, but it was.

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