' . . . and the speed limit was increased to 12 m.p.h.'

Times staff writer

It is hard to imagine that driving 6 m.p.h. could be the thrill of a lifetime. But nothing tickles Margaret Anne Payne more than cranking up her 1902 Curved Dash Oldsmobile and taking it for a spin. With her car , Edith (named after one of the three daughters in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Children's Hour"), Payne in November became the first American woman to complete the historic 57-mile London-to-Brighton Commemoration Run of Veteran Cars. The 41-year-old tax attorney for Higgs, Fletcher & Mack says she didn't give vintage cars a backward glance until she bought a 1911 Model T Ford Roadster as a welcome-to-California present for her parents. After purchasing Edith for herself last March, Payne enlisted the help of Lee Pierce, a retired engineer from Chula Vista, to get the one-time museum piece up to speed--so to speak--for the London run. Times staff writer Caroline Lemke interviewed Payne and Ken Lam photographed her.

I became interested in the London-to-Brighton because I was a passenger on the run in 1987. One of the things I noticed was that the traffic was terrible because they don't close the highway to modern vehicles.

The drivers have to be very good drivers because they are dealing not only with veteran cars but with modern cars, many of whom don't understand it takes an old car a much longer distance to stop than a modern car. I was amazed because I had no idea that there would be so much traffic and at how good a driver you should be.

I decided on that trip I would make the run because it was so much a part of history, so I bought Edith, and, after Lee did the restoration work, I drove her all over San Diego County. I put 600 miles on her in a period of 5 1/2 weeks so that I wouldn't be afraid. And I wasn't afraid of the traffic when I got there.

The London-to-Brighton commemorates the run which was made in 1896 by a group of motorists. They made that run in celebration of the repeal of the Traffic Act of 1876. The Traffic Act provided, first, that you had to have a person walk or run in front of you during the day with a red flag and at night with a red lantern to warn the public in urban areas that this terrible motorized vehicle was coming. And secondly, the Traffic Act provided that the speed limit was limited to 4 m.p.h.

Well, I can assure you, 4 m.p.h. is really slow; it's hard on a car's engine to go that slow consistently. So, when in 1896 the act was repealed, it was a cause for real celebration for the early motorists because they no longer needed a person to be in front of them with a red flag or a red lantern, and the speed limit was increased to 12 m.p.h.

That was really the great adventure of my life so far. The public, God bless the English, lined the streets from Hyde Park in London to Brighton. On the highway part of the run, they pulled their cars on the grass and parked, and they had flags they waved. They waved to me and shouted lovely things.

As an American woman, when I made the run I took care to have two American flags, one on each side of the car, and the spectators would say things like "Go for it, girl!" or "Here comes a Yank." When you complete a run of 57 miles with so much public support and encouragement and enthusiasm, your heart overflows more than a little bit to see all that good will and good fun. I was excited. I was proud to do it for the country.

The great charm of this particular car is she's kind of like a little old person. I think a lot of cars are like people--they kind of earn their face. And she's got a good face. I think there's something intrinsically charming about a car like her because you are so vulnerable. All you have is that little wooden curve in front, and she has no top; she did not come with a top. And the sides are not particularly high. The back is comfortable, but it hits you about the middle of your back. She's a very vulnerable kind of vehicle, and I think, because of that, it's like being with a puppy. It brings out the goodness in a person.

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