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Why modern electric vehicles are like cars from 1905

All the cars in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run must be pre-1905 to qualify.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

At 6:45 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4, I was standing, freezing, at Hyde Park Corner in cold torrential rain. At 7 a.m. precisely, nearly 500 teams of mad Englishmen and women, grinning deliriously, made their start in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

A 60-mile run in horrible weather may not sound like much of a challenge today; however, each of the vehicles that were splashing through the puddles rising around me were at least 107 years old.

It is put on by the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and is claimed to be the longest-running motoring event in the world. It is also probably the slowest motoring event in the world as all these horseless, and mostly roofless, carriages must be pre-1905 to qualify. It's an annual folly that repeats the Emancipation Run of 1896, a celebration of the "Locomotives on the Highway Act," which eliminated the requirement for vehicles to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag. It also raised the speed limit from 4 mph to a terrifying 14 mph. In 1896, 33 motorists set off from London, but only 14 made it to the Brighton Pier.

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This year, well-prepared drivers and passengers were decked out in massive waterproof suits that must have come from North Sea oil workers. The rest were attired in woollen blazers and caps and headed for certain hypothermia.

Off they went in waves of contraptions from De Dion Bouton, Darracq, Panhard et Levassor, Renualt and Peugeot. Yes, the French seemed to be dominating the industry before 1905. British-builts included Wolseley, Vauxhall and Sunbeam. There were also several Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles to round things out.

The fleet spewed clouds of smoke, which were swallowed by the driving rain and a colourful film of leaked oil on the soaked road as they headed for Buckingham Palace, over the Westminster Bridge and south to Brighton, hours away. "Interesting," you might say, "but what's 'green' about this?" Well, so far nothing, but the day before – running in the opposite direction in beautiful, sunshine – was the RAC's Future Car Challenge.

It's the third edition of a showcase for low-energy-use vehicles. It had competitors driving electric, hybrid, hydrogen and low-emission gasoline and diesel cars from Brighton north to London. The point is to use as little energy as possible to cover the distance. Entrants included enthusiasts and independents driving their own vehicles as well as major car manufacturers – including Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Vauxhall, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover.

Given all the French cars in the pre-1905 event, it's perhaps fitting that a French Renault won the Future Car prize.

The Renault ZOE, its new compact hatchback electric car, took the top award. It was launched at the Paris Motor Show and goes into European showrooms shortly. It has better range and can be charged quicker than the Nissan Leaf. Renault says the ZOE has a range of more than 200 km (140 km in normal conditions) and that it's the first electric vehicle that can be fully charged in as little as 30 minutes, up to nine hours, depending on the power available at the charging station.

The ZOE also has a reversible heat pump that heats or cools the car without burning off too much juice to reduce the driving range. Renault will have four EVs on sale by the end of 2012 and expects to move 20,000 of them by the end of the year.

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The most noticeable thing about watching the pre-1905 stuff depart into the near hurricane, apart from the barmy drivers, was the tremendous variety of ideas car manufacturers were trying pre-1905. No two vehicles looked alike and they had countless approaches to engines, suspensions, drive systems, steering and braking.

The arrival en masse during next few years of zero-emission and nearly-zero-emission cars may bring about a range of approaches as differing and bewildering as those of 107 years ago. But at least the new stuff will be watertight with windows, roofs and heaters.

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