Sundowner' 14 HP Bean car driven by Francis Birtles

Exhibited in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra

gallery/birtles dunlop

Replica of the 1926 Special Fourteen in its original form.  The original car was subsequently re-bodied and named The Sundowner



FRANCIS BIRTLES is well know for travelling vast distances in the early part of the twentieth century across Australia initially by bicycle and later by car.  He used Bean vehicles for several journeys both in Australia and on trips from London to Sydney.  (For a more in depth story of his adventures, see article The Last Australian Explorer Awheel further down page)

The main journeys made with Beans were:





This was a Bean Fourteen painted scarlet. Scarlet Runner is also the name of a variety of the edible runner bean. 

Birtles, Malcolm Ellis (a motoring journalist) and Simpson (a Bean mechanic), made the trip from Sydney to Darwin and back a distance of 6278 miles, a journey never before attempted in a motor car.

They left Sydney on 4 June 1924 and returned on 21 August 1924.





In 1926 Birtles made a second trip in a second Bean Fourteen. This Bean was specially prepared for the journey in England. The car was a two seater, had a lightened chassis with drilled holes, higher ground clearance, smaller windscreen and had larger fuel tank fitted in Australia. It was painted in camouflage colours (originally,it was also scarlet). The engine had timing gears in place of the usual chains. The journey from Darwin to Melbourne was to promote the Bean Fourteen and introduce the new Bean truck (the 20-25 hp) to the Australian market. Birtles was accompanied by Alec Barlow, the son of Bean’s Australian agent. The Fourteen was to become known as the Sundowner.

On September 20ththe vehicles left Melbourne in convoy for Sydney whence the car was shipped to Darwin. Birtles and Barlow used the truck to examine the route and leave fuel supplies for the car’s journey back. They reach Darwin on October 15th, two days before the car arrived.

The car left Darwin on October 23rdand arrived in Melbourne on October 30th, eight days and 13 hours later, averaging nearly 400 miles per day. The truck arrived back on 17thDecember.





In February 1927 Birtles left London to drive to Australia a distance of 16000 miles. He was accompanied by Malcolm Ellis and Billy Knowles. Bean had produced a prototype six cylinder vehicle whose durability was to be demonstrated by the long distance and rough terrain. The Imperial Six, as it was named, was untested and departure was delayed by late delivery of the car. Birtles was undeterred and the trip left a month late. The unproven vehicle was beset by numerous problems and the crew beset by illness but nevertheless managed to reach Delhi where the trip ended. The late start and repeated mechanical problems meant that the Monsoon had started rendering large areas ahead impassable.





Birtles set out again from London to travel to Sydney on 19 October 1927 but this time in his well proven Sundowner and alone. In Calcutta which he left on 15thJanuary, he picked up a hitch hiker, Peter Stollery. The journey into Burma through the Naga Hills was extraordinarily difficult and where only one mile a day was covered. The crown wheel was reversed to give a very low forward gear. The car was frequently winched up and down extreme gradients and mountain tracks with sheer drops had to be widened in places. It took nearly 3 months to reach Rangoon on 10thApril. The car was shipped from Lower Burma to Penang and then from Singapore to Darwin where it arrived on 10thJune to be impounded by customs.

The car reached Sydney on 15thJuly.

The 16,000 mile journey took 9 months and 5 days.


Note: The Sundowner was given to the Federal Government of Australia and is now in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.




A letter sent to the Motorsport Magazine dated February 1966, in response to an earlier article on Bean Cars, gives more information on the Imperial Six and what became of the 1924 Scarlet Runner...


I was delighted to see your article on the Bean in last month's issue, forgotten make or not! May I take this opportunity of correcting a point you raise about the "Imperial Six" Bean.  This was, in fact, a completely separate model from the 19/50 car and designated Model-10 by the factory (the 18/50 was Model-7).

When Hugh Kerr Thomas took over as Bean's General Manager in 1926, he was never officially Chief Designer, though the post 1927 cars and commercials were largely his work.  Thomas felt that the new Beans should be rather more fleet of foot than the earlier 14 and 12-h.p. models, and the 14/40, which appeared at the end of 1927, heralded the first of the "new look" cars.  Up to this date Bean's had not bothered with a separate export model, the overstrong 14-h.p. car looking after sales both at home and abroad.

The Imperial Six was to be the new overseas car and, unlike the 18/50 model with its Meadows engine, had a 82.54 x 120.6-mm bore and stroke.  Tipton-made 6-cylinder engine with Ricardo head.  In view of what happened en route to India, it is perhaps just as well that only one prototype was made and the model dropped.  The full story of this trip is ably recounted in M.H. Ellis' book "Express to Hindustan."

Thomas seems to have been unlucky with 6-cylinder engines as his 69 X 120-mm effort in a coach chassis (Model-9) somewhat unfortunately named "Sir Galahad," failed to reach the production stage despite its appearance at Bean's Stand at the 1927 Commercial Motor Show.

Incidentally, the 14-h.p. car "Scarlet Runner," driven across Australia by the Ellis/Birtles/Simpson expedition in 1924, is unfortunately no longer in the Science Museum.  In 1928 it was returned to the Tipton works and hauled into a loft where it remained until the mid-thirties.  When it was sold for scrap.

Thank you for providing such an interesting and informative article. 


Jonathan Wood, Historian, Bean C.C.




Express to Hindustan by Malcolm Ellis

The Bean by Jonathan Wood

Battle Fronts of Outback by Francis Birtles

The Sundowner Bean Car by John Clark (published by National Museum of Australia)

Five Roads to Danger by T R Nicholson

The Long Lead by M H Ellis

Across Unknown Australia by Michael Terry

The Story of Australian Motoring by Keith Winser

An Epic of the Outback by A A Barlow.


Bean Magazines, Numbers:

127, 143, 262, 263, 275, 276, 278, 283, 296



gallery/birtles endtrip


Alec Barlow - 1907-1972

Born 23 December 1907 at Ballarat, Victoria and educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.

Alec's father was a motor vehicle dealer representing Bean Vauxhall from the UK and Stutz from the US.  Aviator Ray Parer was often employed by Barlow Motors Pty Ltd and gave Alec his first taste of flying.

In 1926 Barlow Motors organised and promoted a record breaking run with a Bean Touring Car from Darwin to Melbourne.  Alec Barlow and Francis Birtles were to drive the car.

The party left Melbourne on 20 September 1926 and drove to Sydney where the car was shipped to Darwin.  On 22 October, Barlow and Birtles left Darwin and arrived at Melbourne's Post Office on 30 Octobter covering the 3380 miles (5439kms) in 8 days, 13 hours, averaging 400 miles (643kms) a day.  The record was established.

The Bean 14hp. two seater, is now on display at the National Museum in Canberra - pictured above.


by  Mark Lax and Peter Barlow



Photo of the 1924 Bean 14hp  'The Scarlet Runner'

We Called It Motoring

by M. H. Ellis

featured in BCC Magazine No: 265

Birtles, the old drivers will tell you, once fashioned a sump to replace a broken one, out of a sugar bag and some flour.  But nothing they can tell you of him seems more vivid than this brilliant description of a trip with Birtles by one of Australia's most respected historians and authors.


On a blazing morning somewhere around the Gulf of Carpentaria in that region where you will see the words 'White Stone Ranges' on the map, behold Francis Birtles, overlander and gentelman at large, at the wheel of the Scarlet Runner.  One needs to climb a tree to do it, because of the length of the grass, but the view is well worth it.

The grass is interpersed, here and there, with a green, straggling shrub known as Turkey Brush.  Now and then an inquisitive ant-bed peeps over its tops and occasionally, the decayed branches of a fallen tree stand above its matted tangle.  Across the top of the grass-field runs a rusty red line, usually elusive, sometimes well marked, often dying away into a labyrinth of paths, all tenuous with nothing to show which is the best to follow.....this is the road.!

We are following it carefully, even gingerly.  Francis, in the driver's seat, knows that it has been made by last year's travelling bullocks and by the mailman who comes over on horseback once every two months from Darwin.  Though he has a deep respect for mailmen and blesses their name like everybody else in the outback, he knows, also, that on horse-back one may take the rough with the smooth and he is using his own judgement, depending, beyond that, only on the goodness of his luck.

The first thing you will notice about Francis is that he is without a shirt, firstly because of the tropic heat, secondly because for some peculiar reason, the continuous shower of grass seeds which come over the bonnet, pierce and scratch the skin when they strike through cloth, but seem innocuous against bare and perspiring flesh.  He has four week's whiskers, which makes him look exactly like the devil.  A cut over his left eye, fresh and raw, adds a piratical look to the devilry.  A long lock of yellow hair, matted with grass seeds decends upon his forehead, from under his topee.

The back of his right hand, black with oil, is bleeding from a timber gash and swollen from the effects of continual hard work and wheel strain.  The engineer is not pretty either.  He reclines gracefully (when he is not in the air) on sixty gallons of benzine astern, smoking eternal cigarettes in company with Dinkum, the dog.  Francis says caustically that 'a black gin would need to be given a lot of tobacco to kiss him', which is the limit of compliments to his filth.  He is supposed to be 'resting' and is doing it mainly on the bounce.   My own whiskers are full of grass seed and dirt and Dinkum, high on the luggage where he gets the full flow of windblown vegetation, is a perfect armoury of vegetable spears.

You would probably note, if you were observing us from an eminence, the distinct air of nervous strain in the front seat where Francis and I sit with our eyes glued before us.  You would note, too, that we communicate with each other only by a system of signs and nudges which are more certain then words in a high wind and that we have an air of distinction derived from wearing goggles.  Furthermore, your ears would inevitably tell you that Francis was relieving the situation by singing his favourite ballad.  Heaven knows where he learnt it, but it dates back to the long past days of the teams.  It has 219 verses and a chorus.  Very little of it, except the chorus is printable and the air is lugubrious and in keeping with our snail-like pace.

"Here's to Bullocky Brown and the devil may care,


howls Francis, deftly dodging a stump which has loomed up for a fraction of an instant

"Here's to his wicked old face all covered with hair".

The chorus yells:


Bump! Bang! Wallop!  An ant heap dissolves into powder.  Its base disappears under the car, makes friends with the cross steering rod, trundles, muttering, in front of the differential casing and subsides in the dust of its own summit.  Three misguided saplings which happen to be in our path, go down with rifle-shot crackling, as we trample them under and we hear one of them dragging protestingly in the undergear.

A whirr of sliding gears and we slip suddenly into a gully and out again.  A lightening turn of the wheel, two tons of car and luggage lurch sideways with a sickening swerve.  You stiffen to avoid flying over Francis.  Over your shoulder you have a hurried glimpse of the Engineer and Dinkum, the Engineer's cigarette all tangled up with a drum of benzine which has burst its mooring straps.  However, we have missed the hidden pot-hole which last season's rains had formed right in the centre of our path and which we saw just in time.

The mailman's horse will walk into it one day and break its neck.

That thought just reaches your brain, when your spine seems contract and be about to break in three or four spots.  the car stops and goes on in the same movement.  We can hear the stump which we so fortuitously uprooted - "by the skin of our teeth", as Francis says - go scraping underneath.

"O-vive-la-kumpanee", sings Francis jerkily.

The a chasm yawns among a line of gums.  As soon as this happens, cars stops and the moment the strain of concentration lifts itself from your mind, you may notice that the bush is very beautiful.  A host of pink and grey Galahs (parrot like birds) chatter in the trees overhead.  A silver wallaby which has been sitting very still in the hope we will pass without noticing him goes by "womp, womp, womp" in high, straining leaps into the undergrowth, Dinkum in his wake, squeaking with entirely unjustified optimism.

We all get out and Francis and I survey the waterless creek before us.  It is a pretty problem of passage.

There is no crossing.  The banks go down and up on the other side, at angles from sixty to eighty degrees and even if one could get the car down the grade which is scored with crumbling gutters and gullies, the space between the old man gum trees would make it impossible. 

"No go" ! we say with one breath, viewing the precipices, the trees, the soft sand in the creek bottom and the sheer wall of the opposite bank.

The sun is high in the sky just over our right shoulder.  It is blazing hot.  We start to look for a crossing.

Francis goes one way I go the other.  We have both been on low damper ration for three days, thanks to Boorooloola conditions and it is suprising how, without flour, one soon becomes weak doing heavy work, even with plenty of other foods, when wheat is excluded from one's diet.  We crawl, stumble and creep through and over two miles of creek debris, noting possible crossings.  We then return with suggestions and finally agree on a crossing of sorts, half a mile from where the car stands.

"She will need to be guided all the way here", says Francis.  "If we get down in that sand, there we are and it will be a case of Spanish Windlass".

I mark a track back to the car and tell the Engineer to bring it along at minimum speed to the point where Francis is waiting.  I then return to Francis, cross the creek and proceed to the ticklish task of blazing a safe track back to the packhorse 'road' from the selected crossing.  This is hot work, the grass being up to my neck,  well larded with snakes and tangled like the hair of the Medusa.  Presently I begin to feel uneasy about The Scarlet runner.  I have not heard her moving - she has an open exhaust and roars like the Bull of Bashan, when she is really working for her living.

I coo-ee, no answer.  I go ear to earth.  There are only the peaceful sounds of the bush to be heard - insects, birds, the swish of grass and the gossipy creaking of the trees. 

I return to the crossing.  No car.  No Francis.  I coo-ee again and there is still no answer.

Later the party is discovered.  The Engineer, tempted by an apparently open space, has desired to feel the exhilaration of a little speed and has attempted to rush along at the breathless rate of fifteen miles an hour.  The Scarlet Runner is not now travelling at fifteen miles an hour, but is lying at a drunken angle, her back wheels are buried in a deep-sided washout.  One hub below the level of the ground.  One involuntarily thanks an inscrutable Providence that the front wheels have jumped over the depression.  If they had gone down into it, the car would probably have somersaulted and we should have had to use up to two or three hours burying the Engineer and a month walking to Darwin.

Two busy workers are hard at it, bringing the wheels to ground level, by the laborious process of gradually jacking the car up on alternate sides and building, with earth and stones, a surface under the tyres.  Eventually we cross the creek, after having lunched it with gusto and Francis, buoyed by the meal, becomes so smitten with accursed hope that he remarks unguardedly that we seem to be in for a little good going - which means, of course, a regular seven miles an hour.  I touch wood, but it is of no avail.

Ahead appears a splash of tender purple - Flinders Grass.

We sigh, deeply.  We know that where Flinders Grass is, there will be a deep black soil washout every three yards and that, in between the more dangerous washouts (they are usually about two ffet deep and four feet wide with sheer, hard edges and well hidden in the tall angle of grass) there will be 'devil devil', ad libitum.  All 'devil devil' is bad, but Flinders Grass 'devil devil' is the king of its species.   Is is formed by the cattle which, in the wet season, sink into the black soil to their hocks.  When the rains are over the resulting hoof-holes dry into stone like and jagged bumps, on which a heavy, highly sprung car bounces like a rubber ball. 

Our pace slows down to an average of two miles an hour, including stops and for a time the world has a distinctly elastic appearance.

Most manufacturers would be surprised at how much this sort of things a heavily loaded car would stand and when we first encountered it the Engineer was firmly of the opinion that we could nver cover a mile of it without falling in halves.  He cited various mathematical and mechanical formulae to prove it.

However, three hours later, we would all be six or sixteen miles ahead with nothing damaged but ourselves.

By this time, of course, we are fairly frayed with the day's work and matters are not made the more pleasant becuase I have to discuss with Francis the fact that, at luncheon, under cover of a savage tirade against the opressors of his country, he attempted to sneak some of his meagre bread ration into the common stock and to pretend that he had eaten it.  there are circumstances under which unselfishness becomes a misdemeneanour and fruit for protest.

It is just as well that the debate ends suddenly, for we presently discover ourselves upon a timbered plain in which there is no guiding red mark in the grass to tell us the direction we should go.  Indeed, the long grass suddenly fades out and gives place to Porcupine Spiniflex.  This luscious vegetable is about the size of a small Association Football.  The plants grow close together.  the yare round and they consist of a thick arrangement of vegetable porcupine quills.  If fever makes it impossible for you to wear boots, by reason of the swellings, which it has induced and if you have tropic itch which makes socks unbearable upon your ankles, there is no form of occupation more calculated to develop the memory than exploring in porcupine grass.

Francus and I, perforce, go exploring.  We do not in the least wish it, but we have to.  It becomes worth the effort to hear Francis' language.  It is beyond the ordinary limits of profanity.

Eventually, scanning the ranges, my heart is gladdened by what appears to be a clear-cut gap in the trees on a mountain a few miles ahead of us.  I instantly believe that the road must go through there.  We return to the car with blood running down our  ankles and the soles of our feet perforated and after seven miles of timber smashing in brittle hardwood scrub around the foothils, we arrive at the gap.

There are certainly no trees growing on it, sor the simple reason that no tree could grow there.  It is a deeply scored slide or slope about 150 yards long, tilting upwards at a sheer angle and covered with loose stones about sixty pounds in weight bought down by the rains.  On top there is fairly open country which looks promising, so we decide to risk it in the hope of cutting the packhorse track later on.  Francis and the Engineer set about clearing the worst of the boulders out of our path and I address myself to the task of lightening the load of the car and carrying the impedimenta which I remove to the top of the hill.

This is a splendid exercise.  A drum of petrol carried on a perspiring shoulder is one of the most awkward burdens in the whole world.

Eventually, everything is ready for the push.  We put the Engineer at the wheel, with instructions to throw in his clutch and 'make her jump' when I shout the word 'Go !'.  Francis and I stroll behind the car and each arms himself with a big stone for a chock.  Our shoulders press against the car body.  The word is given.  The clutch goes in.  The car jumps a foot or two according to the grade and sprays us with dirt and small stones.

Before it has time to roll in its tracks, down go our chocks and on go the brakes.  Our shoulders swell into the form of large, puffy blue bruises later in the day from this gentle exercise, since they bear the recoil of the car at every jumps, but in a little over and hour we  are at the top.

We start off again.  Boulders hidden in the grass add to our tribulations.  We have them at short intervals, together with ant-beds, saplings, small and large stumps, washouts, 'devil devil', creeks and clouds of grass seed as before, finally arriving, when it is almost sundown, on a fairly open stretch with an undefiled but very ancient wagon track, which we had been told we might find about five miles from a deserted station homestead with a good water-hole.  "A team started out from there the year before last", said the Men of Boorooloola, "but it got bogged and turned back".

When we should be three miles from the station on a calculation, we come to another difficult creek.  We walk six or seven miles in grass up to our necks - it is not possible always to travel in the creek bed becuase of the presence of water - looking for a new crossing.  We return in inky darkness, falling down banks and over timber hidden in the long grass.  We find our water drum is punctured so that washing is impossible and we are too weary to walk to the first water-hole more than a mile down the creek to get more.  In the morning, the damper (bread) ration is exhausted. 

The Engineer goes to sleep over his tea.  Francis sings 'Bullocky Brown' in his sleep.  Then we get up in a tropic temperature of about forty degrees (it was below that one night); light a fire with water logged wood; burn the grass along the banks; construct a rude get out for the car; and after a struggle negotiating it, clamber on our way.

The struggle begins all over again......

That is a sample day from our journey between Boorooloola and the Overland Telegraph line.

Days differed only in that some of them held more of these troubles than others.  Occasionally there was a patch of as much as thirty miles long which allowed us to speed dizzily up to eight miles an hour and we felt in clover.

It took us five days to cover our first 188 miles out of Boorooloola - 22 miles the first day; then 48.7, 18.2, 34.3 and 65 miles on successive days.  The average speed for the 59 hours 40 minutes of travel was, therefore, a little over three miles an hour.

We called it motoring.

































Article from:  Restored Cars Australia Magazine

                             Eddie Ford Publications P/L

With Thanks