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Taking it to the edge: did you know? The motor vehicle in Australian exploration: Francis Birtles

Francis Birtles

More motorists would pit their skills and the strength of their vehicles against the nature of Australia and succeed, over the next decade, until in the 1920s explorers would take up the challenge. Francis Birtles, after a number of very long bicycling feats, took to the m0tor car in 1912, and completed a west to east crossing of Australia in a single cylinder Brush car.  Then in 1913, in a Ford touring car of 20hp he travelled from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Melbourne - 3500 miles - arriving with the car 'as perfect as when new and with the original tyres'.  In 3,500 miles across Australia in a Ford car he recorded that the car averaged 25 miles to the gallon of benzine (a distillate of paraffin). He also recommended that 'if much of this heavy work [across sandhills and rough terrain] has to be carried out, especially under a hot sun, it will pay to run out the usual Ford light oil and put in a heavy oil.  The difference in lubricating oils is remarkable...the importance of engine oils had not been appreciated by the average owner.  Get a good oil!' Birtles also recorded the result of an impromptu race against a 'big English car'.  The 'little cheap' Ford beat the big English 'thousand pounder'.  He arrived in Melbourne in 21 days, averaging 150 miles a day, and carrying no spare parts.  Birtles stated that the 'Ford requires no overhaul!' Birtles also had an interesting method for crossing sandy river beds:  'Taking off the mudguards and running boards to give greater clearance...then get some long sacks, fill these lightly with grass, and fasten on with rope to the tyres. Go gently down the steep banks; on reaching the sand put in low gear very gently, accelerate slowly, watching back wheels do not skid. The car will waddle across in fine style.'

Birtles made numerous other pioneering motor trips, but perhaps that of 1924 should receive attention.  In a 14hp Standard Bean 1924 model with reinforced springs, and accompanied by JL Simpson of Bean Cars Ltd, and MH Ellis they set out to examine the Northern Territory and form an opinion why 100 years of colonization had produced so few results. The comments of some of the crowd in Sydney, as recorded by Ellis in The long lead: across Australia by motorcar are worth quoting:  'It's Mister Birtles goin' exploring' 'Going exploring?' said one 'He ain't an explorer said the Fat Man derisively.  He's a Humbug.  Says parts of Australia is all sand.  Fat lot he knows!' 'Then the small boy chimed in:  'He is an explorer. I seed him in the pitchers!'

Their 'roadway' was even by this date, virtually non-existent and 'alternated in patches of deep cloying sand and ragged washed-out surfaces scarred with long deep gullies and occasional plum pudding surfaces full of stones the size of a cannonball.' Further along '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.' While water supplies had been a major problem for explorers of the past, the early motorists in the outback had other problems - fuel and lubricating oils. Generally they carried additional tanks and tins of fuel with them and some arranged for supplies to be carried ahead by camels to supply dumps.  But when Birtles' last oil can was punctured, he had problems with lubrication.  Two of the men made a forced march and reached an out of the way store. While a young boy was sent post haste to the nearest station for the requisite oil, the men backtracked to the car with the best the storekeeper could muster - 'half a gallon of beef dripping.'  Ellis wrote 'Incredible that a car could behave itself on such a lubricant, you say? Hear our recipe: take your dripping and render it down to liquid on a hot fire; pour it into the lubricating system; hastily blanket your scuttle and radiator with a tarpaulin to keep the heat in and the fat from congealing, and then drive like the hammers of Hades as far as you can go while your fat is yet oil. You smell unpleasantly, but you can still travel.'  And Ellis (page 56) points out 'that in the inland tropics there is no thirstier animal than a radiator, which will drink six gallons every three hours on a really hot day with the wind behind the car.'


Further reading:

Birtles, Francis 3,500 miles across Australia in a Ford car: from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Port Phillip Bay. Adelaide: Duncan & Fraser Ltd., [1914?]

Davis, Pedr Wheels across Australia: motoring from the 1890s to the 1980s. Hurstville, N.S.W.: Marque Publishing, 1987

Ellis, M. H. (Malcolm Henry), The long lead: across Australia by motor car. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1927

Aunger drives a Dort across river
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Car climbing the Depot Sandhills, 1907
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Car descending a sandhill, 1907
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Deep river crossing
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Dutton and Aunger leave Alice Springs, 1907
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Motoring in the Northern Territory
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