Bean Cars, Birtles and Lang & Bev Kidby – Part 2
Images: Lang Kidby
Have you read the article posted yesterday? If not, read it and then get onto this one.
Birtles was immediately given an almost identical Bean 14 ‘Sports’, which is often mistaken for the ‘Sundowner’ and he proceeded to explore the wildest parts of Australia, writing stories and making films particularly about the Aboriginals. He continued until his early death at 53, establishing himself as an undisputed pioneer in Australian motoring history.
There are two great books recently produced on Birtles and both are very good reads (although on the same subject, they are very different from each other). Warren Brown’s ‘Francis Birtles, Australian Adventurer’ is well researched and done in Warren’s usual entertaining style and gives an insight into one of the toughest Aussies in history.
More recently, Terry G. Birtles (he is not really sure where his family line and old Francis’ cross) has written ‘Driven. Francis Edwin Birtles, Trans-Australian overlander, cinematographer and writer’. This is also a very entertaining read with much more fine detail which will amaze every reader that one man could have crammed so much into a single lifetime.
Fast forward half a century and we come to David Ragless of South Australia. Back in the ‘70s David was already a BEAN enthusiast collecting everything Bean from all over Australia and restoring vehicles. Having been sold on the make with his standard vehicle he naturally was fully aware of the Sundowner and Birtles’ place in Australian motoring history.
Gathering together remains of Beans from around Australia David soon had more than enough to get started on his replica Bean 14 Sundowner. The aim was to have it finished in time for the 1988 Bicentennial Rally in Canberra. Having the original car displayed near his South Australian home greatly assisted in the final production of a very accurate replica. The mechanicals were restored to the highest possible standard with everything kept as close to period as possible.
David set out from Adelaide at the last moment to drive his car to Canberra and apart from a fuel blockage and a flat tyre it completed its 4,000km maiden drive faultlessly. For the next few years, he rallied the car mercilessly even on the rough roads of the Flinders Ranges ‘passing Landcruisers’. He estimates he did 30,000km before finally selling the car to well-known collector David Read. I suspect Read was a little larger than Ragless and Birtles and although quite a large car, the compactness of the sports body would have been challenging. Eventually the Bean 14 found a home at the Strathalbyn Motor Museum in South Australia for several years before David Read’s death.
I had long known of the replica, having the Birtles trip recreation on my list of ‘must do’s’ for 40 years. Bev and I did a survey drive through Northeast India to the Burma border 10 years back as preparation for the recreation drive which never came off at the time. After negotiations with the family through Ben Finnis I was allowed to purchase it. Immediately a date was set, 1 April 2024, to depart London on the recreation drive across the world. 11 months is not long to prepare and ship the car and do all the administration necessary for a drive through 16 countries.
When the car arrived in Brisbane work began. Initially it appeared to be in museum quality condition—and it was—but sitting for many years does not do old fashioned seals and bearings any good. Slowly working to bring the car up to a standard to undertake a 26,000km drive, many seals were replaced as new bearings were found to be pitted from sitting, brakes relined etc.
On top of this, the stripped-down version of the ‘Sundowner’ was returned to the condition it was when departing London in 1927. Studying every photograph I could find facilitated the reinstallation of the original spotlights, bumper bar, canvas tarp roll attachments on the car and the biggest job, the fitting of the folding roof. Extra lights and seat belts were fitted for safety on modern roads.
When Birtles had his Bean, it was brand new; our Bean is now 100 years old and certainly well rallied in David Ragless’ hands. A decision was made to fit a Laycock overdrive to reduce the expected 80kmh cruise engine speed from 2,500rpm to 2,000rpm. This is a very straight forward conversion and just requires the unit to be mounted to the chassis inserted in the tail shaft. It may well save the day! The 15-amp cut-off style generator is not up to the job running modern lighting so a pulley was fitted to the tail shaft on the overdrive universal with a belt to a chassis mounted 65 amp alternator.
At the time of writing (October 2023) all is on track for our London April departure. The car has proven to be very nice to drive, easily reaching 100kmh but with a planned cruise of 80kmh we will knock over between 300 and 500km per day across the world.
Already FIVA, the world governing body for historic car clubs and events, has taken us under their wing and affiliated motoring organisations are well into planning to meet and escort us along the way. Iran, Pakistan and India have daily trip sheets and stops already produced and members volunteering to help us through borders and along the way.
We will be travelling entirely unsupported, just my wife, Bev and me in the Bean and it should be a great adventure. As usual, we are looking for sponsorship and can offer great returns in this area from the experience of our many previous international trips. The full story and daily blogs along the way can be found on our website: www.next-horizon.org.
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