The Greatest Drive
Recreation of Francis Birtles 1927 England to Australia Journey
In the last weeks of April 2023 Lang informed me that there was a 1923 Bean car that he had long known of, displayed at Gilberts Motor Museum in Strathalbyn South Australia being advertised as part of a deceased estate. Ever since he was a boy Lang has followed the adventures of Australian Francis Birtles 1881-1941 and the availability of the car meant his brain was working overtime.
Birtles was an extraordinary adventurer who became the first person to drive a motor car overland, in an identical Bean, from London to Melbourne in 1927/28. Prior to WW1 his cross-country bicycle rides through the Australian deserts were legend. His motto being “Chance it”
Way back in 1936 Francis Birtles was at the height of his fame. Lang’s Dad, Richard, as a 16 year-old and his 14 year-old brother, Lester, inspired by their hero, undertook a huge 3,000km journey on their bikes from Melbourne to Home Hill (near Townsville) in Queensland. Dirt road all the way and it remains one of the greatest teenage rides to this day.
After returning from WW2 Richard entered the car business so Lang was brought up with Francis Birtles as the family Australian hero both as a bike rider and motorist.
Here are just some of Birtles” fantastic bike rides, mostly over horse tracks before 1920.
Lang remembers selecting Birtles for a school project on Australian pioneers in Grade 10 about 1962 and this Birtles Across the World recreation was the main reason for our North East India expedition in 2013 (see the story “Indian Expedition” on the website main page).
For various reasons this planned adventure did not come to fruition so Lang and Bev have grabbed the opportunity to make it happen.
This is the chance to add another great historic recreation to our mission to bring to life the fantastic efforts of the world’s transport pioneers. Their trials, tribulations and often deaths are lost to society today. They opened up the world with heroic efforts in untested or unrefined technology. We owe them a great debt.
This is one of the most interesting of our historic recreations so far, which include:
The first flight from England to Australia in a replica 1919 Vickers Vimy – The Smith brothers 1919
The first solo flight from England to Australia in an original 1927 Avro Avian – Bert Hinkler 1927
Peking to Paris in a 1907 Itala (with all 5 original type vehicles) – Prince Borghese 1907
First to drive to Cape York in an original 1928 Austin 7 – Hector Macquarie and Dick Matthews 1928
After a motoring friend, Keith Thomson, inspected the car, with a very positive report, we went ahead and bought it sight unseen in early May 2023.
David Ragless, a spritely 88 year old, was more than happy to talk about his restoration and body construction of this close replica of Birtle’s 1927 car. The original is in the Australian National Museum in Canberra. David drove the car for a number of years often on long and rough journeys before selling it to the recently deceased owner, the well known South Australian collector, David Read.
In the intervening weeks Lang has been non stop brain storming and working on possible routes, shipping, and generally how we can structure the whole trip.
Naturally the expedition needs to be funded and we believe we can offer great things for supporters. We would love to talk to any potential sponsors.
Two of our journalist friends have also been keen Birtles fans.
Ron Moon has a great article on Birtles’ life on his web site https://www.dirtroaddiaries.com.au/historic-motoring/francis-birtles/
Our partner in the Peking to Paris race, Warren Brown, not only owns another BEAN replica but he has written an excellent book on our hero. It is an entertaining read.
Francis Birtles – Australian Adventurer by Warren Brown – Hachette Australia
26 May 2023
We have just received the photos of the car being loaded onto a trailer at the museum on its way to its new home in Brisbane and proposed further adventures.
27 May 2023
Interest in the project is now coming from many quarters.
Of course our great friend, Ravi Kumar, Chairperson of the Calcutta Motor Sport Club, has hit the ground running and is doing his usual grand job with advice and introductions.
The most promising result so far has been Ravi’s introduction to well-know classic motoring journalist Gautam Sen in Paris. You can see Gautam’s work on the fabulous on-line magazine https://magazine.derivaz-ives.com/ Gautam is our FIVA connection.
FIVA (Federation Internationale des Vehicules Anciens) is the sister peak motoring body to FIA which oversees Formula One and International Rallies. FIVA looks after concours, rallies and major events involving vintage, veteran and classic cars.
Gautam has contacted his FIVA associates along the route and in just a few days Ramin Salehkhou in Iran has enthusiastically joined the fray and is working to give us a great journey through his country with the support of the old car members along the way.
4 June 2023
The Bean finally arrived and unusually, looks far better in real life than the photos. David Ragless’ restoration of 25 years ago really was a superior mechanical and body result (I strongly suspect the workmanship is far superior to that to be found on the original car). The restoration was a serious undertaking and no “modernising” took place. Several other BEAN owners donated original parts and those unobtainable replacements were manufactured to original specification from factory drawings, manuals and photos.
Of huge assistance was the presence of Francis Birtle’s original car in a nearby South Australian museum before it was transferred to the Australian National Museum in Canberra. David described the many hours he spent back in the 80’s with a camera and tape-measure in the museum with Birtle’s original “Sundowner” to produce the closest copy possible.
David had it finished in time to drive from Adelaide to Canberra to be a feature in the 1988 Bicentennial National Rally.
I have seen two references to extra fuel carried by Birtles and will follow this up out of interest. David Ragless rallied the car on some long distance drives and has fitted a period style long range tank in the rear compartment. This should give the Bean a range approaching 1,000km, far more than required on any leg of the journey. There is a fuel tap beside the cockpit to allow switching tanks while on the move.
I have commenced adding to the “Sundowner 24’s” additional equipment from photos of the car early in its 1927 journey. Later photos, if carefully studied, show the Bean shed much of its original self on the hard drive across the world. Mudguards, bumper bar, engine side panels and several minor parts probably still are laying in the deserts or jungles alongside Birtle’s path. No doubt his beaut kangaroo radiator mascot was stolen before he got out of Europe.
To date I have fitted period spotlights to match the originals and reshaped a vintage bumper bar to replicate the 1927 Bean style.
A folding roof from a 1925 vehicle is being modified to match Birtles design to fit the “Sundowner 24”. The main change is reducing the top bows from an originally cosy width of 4′ 6″ (you can not use metric measurements on a 1923 British car) to a very squeezy 3′ wide.
The cockpit seating is styled on the two-man racing cars of the period where the passenger’s seat is a few inches back from the drivers. This allows their shoulders to overlap and gives the driver full freedom to swing the large steering wheels of the time.
Period style sidelights have been fitted with orange bulbs to provide the compulsory modern turn signals. As a sensible nod to modern safety awareness seat belts are being fitted.
Below are photos in Brisbane with preparation underway.
Francis Birtles adventures in the Bean 14 “Sundowner”
All in the Bean 14 “Sundowner”
Melbourne – Darwin Transcontinental record 4,200km (this was Birtle’s 14 th transcontinental adventure in many different makes of car)
Darwin – Sydney record (6 days) 4,000km
Sydney-Melbourne record (1 day) 720km
Darwin-Melbourne record (5 days) 4,720km (His second Darwin trip for the year)
Birtles first attempt to drive London to Australia 20 February in an experimental BEAN 6 car. He reached as far as Delhi in India before the car completely collapsed into “scrap metal”
He immediately telegraphed for his old faithful BEAN 14 “Sundowner” still covered in Australian outback dust to be readied and left London a second time 19 October. He arrived in Melbourne 25 July 1928. A crowd of 10,000 blocked the street to welcome him.
“Sundowner” was presented to the Australian National Museum (which did not exist at the time) and it was pushed from shed to shed for the next 60 years. It was restored in the 1980’s to running condition and is now displayed at the Australian National Museum (which now exists – in Canberra)
Birtles was immediately given a new replacement Bean 14 and continued his record breaking and outback exploration drives in it and many other types until his death in 1941.
The battered “Sundowner” in the Australian National Museum, Canberra.
This week we attended Dick Smith’s annual Old Adventurers Club lunch. It was encouraging to get so much interest and support from Australia’s most famous and accomplished adventurers.
Dick, as usual, is following our latest expedition and is encouraging us on our preparations.
I am investigating the temporary fitting of a small Laycock in-line overdrive gearbox unit to reduce engine cruising revs from 2,500rpm at 80kmh down to 2,000rpm. These auxiliary transmissions were fitted to many cars of the 40-60 period such as Triumph. MG, Jaguar, Volvo and even Ferrari before modern 5 and 6 speed gearboxes became standard. This will be an easily reversible modification upon return.
When Birtles did the drive his engine was only a couple of years old while our engine is over 100 years old. There are large amounts of alloy in its construction which becomes brittle and stressed over the years and the lower engine speed will certainly go a long way towards successfully covering 20,000km.
We just had a visit from 13 year old Besnappy. He is a budding documentary maker and he came from his farm in the Hunter Valley with his dad to Brisbane to shoot a segment on our trip. His parents do not want him to use his real name until he is a little older.
Bev and I think he did a great job producing a YouTube video aimed a young people and reviving Francis Birtles’ name as Australia’s greatest overlander.
Here is the Link
12 August 23
Work is proceeding apace on the Bean. We are finding many problems with a vehicle sitting in a museum for years without going on a decent drive. Lots of seals are leaking and need to be replaced, a couple of bearings, although almost new, have to be replaced because of pitting.
When first started, the engine was exceedingly noisy and only running on 3 cylinders. We eliminated a lot of noise by adjusting the main drive chain and giving it time to warm up and loosen the frozen links. The exhaust valve on #1 cylinder was frozen open so a night soaked in WD40 was prescribed.
Next morning it was no better so, after taking a plug out, the valve was driven down with a broom handle but upon starting it just stuck again. Not wanting to lift the head I decided to help the system by holding the broom handle on top of the valve and running the motor. A few blisters later from the bouncing handle and the valve freed up sufficiently for the valve springs to carry on alone doing their job of closing the valve.
A major question in any discussion is how Birtles managed to use his folding roof. It must have been of importance to him as one would think it would be the first thing to go before the eventually jettisoned bumpers, mudguards and engine side panels. Obviously his low windscreen did not allow the normal 1920’s top attachment so he could only have the roof up at very low speeds or it would have been a parachute. It would appear it was only for shade in low speed track situations (of which he had many).
Being somewhat older than Birtles we decided that the roof should be useful in all circumstances so I duplicated the bottom half of the sports windscreen and made a full conventional screen to support the top in accordance with standard practice of the time. The “pins” on top of the screen are the roof attachment points. The added section is just bolted so it can be returned to “sports mode” in 15 minutes. I went for acrylic instead of glass because not only is it clearer than glass but so strong a thrown brick will not break it. Scratches can just be polished out like an aircraft windscreen.
We have been very pleased by the comments from visitors that the revised screen makes the car look much better and more balanced. The hand cranked windscreen wiper was a popular after-market extra of the time. This one is from a WW2 Willys Jeep.
From left to right. Altimeter, Clock, Speedometer, Ammeter with light switch ring on outside, Dash light above, Tachometer. Oil Pressure (behind wheel). Switches – Generator cut-out, Magneto Ignition, Coil Ignition, Pull-type starter switch, Choke above, Horn button headlight dip combined. Turn signal (behind wheel), Spotlight switch (behind wheel). Silver lever on gearstick is reverse safety (will not allow you to accidently go through the gate into reverse).
The RACQ (Royal Automobile Club of Queensland) “Road Ahead” magazine has just done a story for its 1.8 million subscribers.
20 September 2013
Lots of activity taking place regarding shipping, routes and events.
Ravi in Kolkata is finding lots of shipping options through his contacts and we are looking at the best on offer.
The FIVA contacts are really getting behind the trip.
Ramin in Iran has his team well under way and has produced daily running maps to give us the most interesting journey through the country. The team expects to meet us at the Turkish border and guide us through to the Pakistan border a week later.
Mohsin in Pakistan has also produced daily maps and has a team to hand over from Ramin’s people at the border and has planned a very good route through to the only Pakistan/India border crossing in the north near Lahore. As this is around the half-way mark he has planned a one or two day layover for a full service and maintenance on the Bean