Courtesy of Bonhams

This early single-cylinder Swift was purchased by the vendor’s grandfather in 1931 from a farmer in Eversley, Berkshire. Since then, the car has completed no fewer than 57 London to Brighton Runs plus numerous other events and rallies. It has only failed to finish on four occasions, and in 1968 successfully completed the Run despite having tailgated another vehicle following a brake failure. (The Swift was professionally repaired.)

Earlier this year the car successfully completed the Ellis Journey, celebrating the first recorded motorized carriage journey in the U.K.

H51 comes with various trophies, pendants, badges and other memorabilia accumulated over the last 90 years together with a Veteran Car Club dating certificate and three journals dating from the present day back to the 1930s, including photographs. Also included in the sale are a maintenance manual; spare trembler assembly; spare inlet valve and housing; spare exhaust valve, spring, cotter and retainer; and numerous other parts and spanners.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1904 Swift 7HP 2-Seater
Years Produced:1900–04
Number Produced:Unknown
Engine Number Location:You’ll be lucky
Club Info:Veteran Car Club
Alternatives:1902–04 Renault Voiturette Types D–G, 1903–04 De Dion-Bouton 6hp, 1904 Ford Model C

This car, Lot 201, sold for $116,801 (£103,500), including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ London, U.K., sale on November 4, 2022.

The Veteran — pre 1905 — market is a unique one, pretty much centered on the world-famous London to Brighton Run. According to participants, it’s one of the motoring world’s “must-do” events, along with running in the Mille Miglia or taking part in the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Traditionally in Europe, the biggest concentration of eligible cars changing hands has been at Bonhams’ London sale two days before the Run. The idea for the interval was that it was possible to buy a car with an entry to the Run on Friday, have Bonhams teach you how to drive it the next day, then take part in the Run on Sunday. It’s been done, but not this year.

A long legacy

Let’s have a bit of historical context. In the early days of horseless carriages in the U.K., such was the terror that these fire-breathing motorized devices might instil upon an ignorant populace that they were subject, under the Locomotive Act 1865, to a 4-mph speed limit and required to be preceded by a man on foot bearing a red flag.

The 1896 Light Locomotives on the Highway Act raised the speed limit to 14 mph and abolished the red-flag requirement. To celebrate this emancipation, a bunch of early London motorists drove the 60 miles to Brighton — no doubt at breakneck speed. They repeated the feat in the following two years with runs from Whitehall in central London to Sheen, eight miles south. By 1903, after a 193-car extravaganza to Oxford the previous year, the speed limit was raised to 20 mph, and with “nothing left to celebrate,” the early commemoration runs stopped.

The London to Brighton Veteran Car Run as we know it was first staged in 1927 for cars over 21 years old, following the 1896 route as far as possible, and with the exception of 1947 (due to petrol rationing) and 2020 (COVID-19) has continued every year since. This was celebrated in the 1953 film “Genevieve,” starring the titular 1904 Darracq. The Royal Automobile Club has organized it since 1930, when the Veteran Car Club was formed and established the cut-off date as the end of 1904.

The Run today

Every first weekend in November, antique automobiles still assemble in Hyde Park at the crack of dawn, ready for the 7 a.m. send-off of the first cars. Driver garb varies from sensible rainproofs to latter-day Mr. Toad, and the route through London on the way to the south coast is now split into two to alleviate traffic congestion.

Sadly, there have still been a few fatalities in recent years, usually by cocooned modern motorists rear-ending slow-moving Vets, especially if they are off the expected route. For this reason, many seasoned runners now sport extra taillights (battery-powered LED illumination for the bicycle market has been a godsend) and even turn signals.

Unlike the carefree “Genevieve” days, most cars have service crews to attend to breakdowns and trailer them back. Some will have more-modern ignition systems, though in recent years the trend has been to return them to original as far as possible, hot-tube ignitions and all.

The oldest and rarest cars tend to be the most valuable, partly for the bragging rights of an early start number and therefore set-off time, but close behind in price are the largest and most powerful cars, usually with 4-cylinder engines, which get the 60-odd miles to Brighton fastest, without having to unload passengers to crest hills. These also tend to be the easiest to drive, with conventional control layouts and useful torque.

At the cheapest end you have the smaller devices, little more than motorized dogcarts with single-cylinder motors, usually under the seat and driving through rudimentary transmissions. Examples are the De Dion-Bouton Vis-à-vis, or the ubiquitous Curved-Dash Olds and Cadillacs. Somewhere in the middle are cars showing the next generation of development, with engines in front and beginning to look like proper automobiles, usually with more cylinders and real transmissions. These tend to be priced on a simple rule of thumb of about $30k per cylinder, plus $30k per seat, which is where we find our subject Swift.

The short Swift story

Coventry-based bicycle maker Swift turned to motor manufacture at the turn of the century with a voiturette powered by a single-cylinder De Dion-style MMC engine, progressing to a 10-hp twin-cylinder light car entirely of its own design in 1904. This later car became Swift’s most popular offering, though both larger and smaller cars (like our subject) remained on sale. Swift continued to make quality family cars between the wars, but it could not compete on prices with mass-producing rivals and was forced to close in 1931. According to the Swift Register, just over 200 Swift motor cars of all types are known to survive worldwide, mostly in the U.K. but spread as far as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Chassis 182, still wearing registration H51 (English registrations stay with their cars for life unless transferred, and this number has a value of its own), looked in generally good working order. This is as you’d expect from a car that has completed so many runs. Our subject looked able to go straight out on another.

Unusually for a Veteran, the single-cylinder Swift is shaft-driven rather than by chain; that’s one less thing to worry about. It’s in nicely mellowed order, any previous repairs subsumed under older restorations and repaints, now showing a few cracks and chips.

The attractive copper radiator shell is nicely burnished, and the scuttle-mounted carriage lamps are only lightly dinged, though the taillight lens was smashed. Leather to the seat back is shiny and well used, with a few small tears but repairable, which is preferable to renewal on a car of this patina. The seat base has been retrimmed but is settling in nicely. There’s a large fire extinguisher mounted on the scuttle, which is a sensible precaution with any old car.

A Vet, sold swiftly

Our Swift sold for twice its pre-sale estimate, and for about twice the price of one of the cheapest Brighton-eligible runners such as a Curved-Dash Olds. The included spares and enclosed trailer (buyer to collect) must have offset the buyer’s pain by a few thousand dollars.

Bonhams sold a sister 1904 Swift, chassis 176, for $74,326 in 2011, having sold the same car for a 50%-over-estimate $151,074 just before the 2008 financial crash. Since then, we’ve had another market peak in 2015, along with the subsequent fall.

Though Veteran cars don’t appear to be as affected by the roller coaster of the world’s general financial status as Astons and Ferraris, this result looks to be ahead of the curve. But, as Bonhams’ Tim Schofield points out, the registration number was worth £25k–£30k ($28k–$34k). Take that off and we’d be back near the “$30k per” rule of thumb that applies to the more-populous Brighton runners. Even so, I’d suggest this Swift at $117k was both slightly under-estimated and well sold. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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