Fringe Box



Dennis and the Red Flag Act

Published on: 30 May, 2024
Updated on: 30 May, 2024

John Dennis and his 1902 car on the 2023 London to Brighton Run. Photo: Gary Avery

Farnham’s John Henry Knight, inventor of one of Britain’s very first motor cars, played a vital part  in the repeal of the Red Flag Act in 1896.

Before the Act was repealed, every powered vehicle was forced by law to have a person with a red flag walking in front of it, limiting their speed to walking pace, effectively four miles per hour.

The repeal of this Act led directly to a rapid increase in the popularity of motor cars, and was commemorated in 1887 by the inaugural London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

This popular event, restricted to cars built before 1905, has run almost every year since then, barring the war years and, of course, Covid. In November 2023, the Run celebrated the 127th
anniversary of the repeal of the Red Flag Act, the crowds along the route testimony to its
continuing popularity.

But as well as the Surrey connection with the Run in John Henry Knight, there is another, and in many ways, more momentous local connection, in that one entry dating from 1902 has completed an unbroken series of runs of more than an incredible 70 years, and has unlike many if not all other competitors, completed the Run under its own power every single time!

That 1902 car is one of an estimated 2,000-3,000 cars built in Guildford by the Dennis Brothers.

From buses to trucks to fire engines, Dennis products were sold worldwide.

The reason why the company built so few cars was not due to any deficiencies in the vehicles, it was simply that the Dennis Brothers quickly realised that their basic designs could easily be adapted to carry goods, and moreover do so far more efficiently than the, at that time, traditional horse and cart.

Subsequently, the company went on to produce a whole variety of vehicles, ranging from the ubiquitous fire appliances to lawnmowers and even aircraft tugs.

Inside Alexander Dennis’s impressive facility at Farnborough. Photo: Alexander Dennis Ltd.

The company, now named Alexander Dennis, remains a key player in bus manufacture, supplying not just the UK bus market, but to companies around the world. Although, sadly, no longer manufacturing vehicles in Guildford, the company continues its links with the area, having a major Design and Development facility in Farnborough.

Even more impressive that the 70-year-plus record of the 1902 Dennis in the London to Brighton Run is that for 63 of those years it has been driven by the same man – none other than the grandson of one of those Dennis Brothers, John Dennis OBE.

And the name lives on – John Dennis and the Mayor of Farnham planting a tree at Tilford’s Rural Life Living Museum in commemoration of the beginnings of the Dennis company in 1895. Photo: Gary Avery

In fact, even before he was old enough, in 1959, to drive in the Run for the first time, he was regularly a passenger in it, with John’s father behind the wheel. In all the time since then, John has missed only one Run, due to an unavoidable business trip.

This incredible record, of being the person completing the most unbroken Runs, and in a car bearing his own name, has been recognised by the industry, and in 2017 John was one of only three drivers to receive a prestigious Gold Award at the Royal Automobile Club in London to celebrate their participation in 50 or more Runs.

John Dennis at work in his workshop. Photo: Gary Avery

What is even more impressive is that John led the restoration of his 1902 car, and its ongoing maintenance, himself, as he has done with the other vehicles in his collection.

One of his most recent restorations is one of the only two surviving examples of a Dennis 1901 motor tricycle, which currently enjoys an honourable display position inside Alexander Dennis’s Trident House in Farnborough. The other tricycle enjoys a privileged position at the National Motorcycle Museum in the West Midlands.

Intriguingly, John’s 1902 Dennis was built before registration numbers became mandatory, and it subsequently received one of the very first Surrey registration numbers, P26, which it retains to this day. Indeed, it’s now believed to be the only motor car in existence in Surrey running on its original registration number.

Only three Dennis cars are now believed to exist, and John owns them all!

The three remaining Dennis cars, all owned and beautifully restored by John Dennis. Photo: Gary Avery

As well as the 1902 machine, in the 1960s John brought back to the UK and rebuilt a 1909 wreck originally sold to Melbourne, Australia. He also has a 1915 “landau” bodied Dennis which was originally a goods vehicle which he lovingly rebuilt with a new body.

John’s unique collection can often be seen out and about at various classic car events around the area, and we look forward to seeing his 1902 car, and John himself, once again at the 2024 London to Brighton Run on Sunday 3 rd November.

© Andy Goundry


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