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National Museum of Australia

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Francis Birtles' Bean 14 car, which he named 'The Sundowner'

1988.0121.0001

On display

Francis Birtles' Bean 14 car, which he named 'The Sundowner'

Object information

Physical description

A 14 horse power motor car with a long engine cowling and boat tail. The car seats two and is right-hand drive. It has a low two-panel glass windscreen. The side covers of the engine cowling are missing and there is a large-diameter exhaust pipe without muffler running along the left side of the vehicle. It has a full steel channel chassis, which has been drilled for lightness, leaf sprung suspension, and it does not have mudguards or running boards so its wheels are exposed. The headlights have also been removed. With the exception of the lefthand rear wheel which has cast metal spokes, the wheels are wire spoked. There are minimal traces remaining of red and green paint, and many people have scratched their details into it. 'Bean' is handpainted in white on both sides of the engine cowling. 'ENGLAND TO AUSTRALIA', a map of the globe indicating an overland route, and 'SMITHS INSTRUMENTS' are engraved in a rectangular brass plaque, which is attached to the left side of the passenger's compartment and which commemorates the famous transcontinental journey made by the vehicle in 1927-28. 'HOLDER ACROSS AUSTRALIA / RECORD' is painted in white on the upper left side adjacent to the windscreen. Sponsors' advertisements for Shell Spirit and Dunlop Tyres are painted on both sides, and so is an Arabic symbol and text in yellow, which translates as 'Shell Benzene and Oils'. Technical specifications include: a 4-cylinder side-valve, 2.4 litre, 2300cc, dual-ignition engine; a 76mm bore, 140mm stroke cylinder block; a 4-speed, three-plate clutch gearbox; and mechanically operated drum brakes.

Statement of significance

The 'Francis Birtles collection' collection consists of a 1925 Bean 14hp two-seater racing car known as 'The Sundowner' and several pieces of associated ephemera. The era of this car's construction witnessed the rise of the automobile industry and the growing use of increasingly sophisticated vehicles for recreational and practical purposes. Australian, British and American manufacturers competed to produce a car especially suited to the rough Australian terrain. Fabricated by the Bean Car Company of Staffordshire, England, this car was imported for promotional purposes by Bean's Australian agents, Barlow Motors of Melbourne. It was driven by overland explorer Francis Birtles (1881-1941) on two sponsored record-breaking journeys between Darwin and Melbourne (1926) and London and Melbourne (1927-1928).

This collection has strong relevance of several areas of Australian history including the growth of the early motor car industry, the use of cars for recreation and exploration of the continent and the promotional opportunities such journeys offered. The Museum's motor car-related collections are one of its greatest strengths and this collection lends particular insight into the extraordinary achievements of Francis Birtles and early motor cars. Foreshadowing the importance cars would assume in later popular culture, in 1929 the car was presented to the Australian government on condition that it be placed in a National Museum. The collection offers significant research potential in an examination of the social, economic and engineering context of the 1920s.

Educational significance

This is Francis Birtles' Bean 14 motor car, known as 'The Sundowner'. It is a four cylinder, right-hand drive, two-seater with a long engine cowling and boat tail. 'Bean' is hand-painted in white on both sides of the engine cowling. 'England to Australia', a map of the globe indicating an overland route, and 'Smiths Instruments' are engraved in a rectangular brass plaque, which is attached to the left side of the passenger's compartment. It commemorates a famous transcontinental journey made by the vehicle in 1927. 'Holder Across Australia / Record' [in 1926] is painted in white on the upper left side adjacent to the windscreen. Sponsor's advertisements for Shell Spirit and Dunlop Tyres are painted on both sides, and so is an Arabic symbol and text in yellow.

The Bean car was built by the Bean Motor Company of England in 1926. In that year, the car made a record run from Darwin to Melbourne in eight days and 13 hours. In 1927-1928, it made a 28,000 km trip from London to Melbourne. This had never been attempted successfully before and was not emulated until the late 1950s. The Bean's driver on these groundbreaking trips was Francis Birtles.

In the late 1890s, at the age of 17, Australian-born Francis Birtles joined the merchant navy. He jumped ship to fight in the Boer War in South Africa and, after some time in the South African police force, decided that his home country also offered scope for adventurous interests. Between 1905 and his death in 1941, he became known for his epic journeys across some of Australia's least mapped and most difficult terrain.

Birtles's Australian journey in the Bean car is an extraordinary story of endurance by man and machine. The car became a character in its own right. Christened 'The Sundowner' by Birtles, in honour of the outback character who always turned up at a station homestead in time for supper and a bed, it was also known fondly by its maker's name. On the ten-month trip from London to Melbourne, the Bean collected numerous signatures as well as the scars of battle with every sort of terrain imaginable. But the 'old Bean's' engine did not fail.

Birtles's travels across Australia from east to west, north to south, by car, bicycle and plane were often planned to test the capacity of new technologies in harsh and untried physical conditions, and to bring back a record of what it was like out there. Companies, including Ford and Oldsmobile, as well as Bean, commissioned Birtles to make particular trips. Dunlop and Shell provided tyres and petrol.

Birtles's interests and skills in photography and moving pictures enabled him to work in association with film companies. He made five films about his trips. Of these, 'Across Australia in the Track of Burke and Wills' for Hoyts was particularly successful. He also wrote three books and numerous articles.

Physical description

On display at the National Museum of Australia.

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