Wheeling through time in a century-old car from England to Australia

Globetrotters Lang and Bev Kidby have ventured on a transcontinental adventure in a 1923 Bean Sundowner, retracing the historic expedition of Australian adventurer Francis Birtles from England to Australia between 1927 and 1928.

Wheeling through time in a century-old car from England to Australia

Lang and Bev Kidby

Embarking on a journey that’s part road trip, part time machine and entirely epic, a daring duo from Australia is swapping their morning tea for outback adventures. Setting off on a vintage odyssey that might echo the penned adventures of Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, Lang and Bev Kidby have revved up a century-old car for a road trip from the misty moors of England to the sun-drenched landscapes of Australia—not by plane, not by modern car, nor by a steam or electric locomotive, but in a vibrant vintage vehicle.

Sitting amidst the lush greenery of the Tollygunge Club, Lang and Bev, the globetrotter-couple from Brisbane, Australia, regale The Statesman with tales brimming with action, recounting the thrilling milestones their car has conquered on its journey from London to Kolkata till date.

The car had been on display at Gilberts Motor Museum in Strathalbyn, South Australia, for many years, and it was something I had known about for a long time. We had always dreamed of undertaking this trip, but sadly, the owner passed away. We reached out to the family, and they agreed that if we took on this historic journey, they would sell us the car. Thus, just last year, we acquired it specifically for this adventure. It’s a sister car to Francis Birtles’ Bean Sundowner. Although this one isn’t the original, it’s identical in every respect. After being used in car rallies and other events throughout the 1980s, it underwent restoration before finding its place in the museum for several decades,” says Lang.


The 1923 Bean Sundowner, boasts an arresting crimson exterior. This exquisitely crafted two-seater features side panels adorned with a detailed map and the inscription “England to Australia 1927 Expedition”, betokening the audacious journey it is set to pursue.

Bean Cars were manufactured in England by A. Harper Sons & Bean, Ltd., with production facilities located in Dudley, Worcestershire, and Coseley, Staffordshire. During the early 1920s, Bean surpassed Austin and Morris in sales and was renowned for its build quality and technological advancements, comparable to vehicles from Vauxhall during that era. However, production ceased in 1929.

Today, Beans enjoy a special place among vintage car enthusiasts, particularly in Australia, where Barlow Motors, a prominent Bean agent in the early 20th century, sponsored record-breaking drives to promote the vehicle.

“Following a glowing assessment from our motoring friend Keith Thomson, we made the decision to purchase the car in early May 2023, sight unseen. David Ragless, an energetic 88-year-old, eagerly shared his experiences in restoring and constructing the body of this faithful replica of Birtles’ 1927 car. David himself drove the car on numerous challenging journeys over the years before selling it to the late David Read, a prominent collector from south Australia,” say the enthusiastic Kidbys.

Travelling through 16 countries: The voyage that unfolded

On 18 April, the Bean embarked on an extraordinary adventure from the Brooklands Museum near London.

Lang and Bev, standing proudly beside the 1919 Vickers Vimy, an aircraft built by Lang himself, received a fervent send-off from fellow enthusiasts. Hence began retracing the historic journey.

The Bean Sundowner’s journey began with a ferry crossing from Dover to Dunkirk, leading the Kidbys through Belgium and Luxembourg before reaching Germany. There, they faced their first significant challenge: the Bean refused to start amidst cold, rainy conditions. However, Lang’s mechanical expertise quickly came to the rescue, and the couple continued their journey undeterred. As they travelled through Germany and Austria, the Kidbys were greeted with warm hospitality from local car enthusiasts and members of FIVA (Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens). By 26 April, they had arrived in Zagreb, Croatia. The Bean, despite the adverse weather, demonstrated impressive fuel efficiency, proving its mettle early on.

In Istanbul, the Bean underwent comprehensive servicing, preparing it for the diverse landscapes of Turkey and Iran. The drive through Turkey flaunted its scenic and historically rich vistas, while Iran offered a unique cultural experience. In Iran, the Bean was meticulously serviced to concours standards.

The challenging terrains and extreme temperatures of Pakistan tested the Bean’s durability, leading to innovative repairs. In Lahore, the expertise of local mechanics proved invaluable, ensuring the Bean was ready for the next leg of its journey. However, visa issues at the Wagah border presented a new challenge, necessitating Bev to fly to New Delhi while Lang continued driving. The couple was reunited at New Delhi.

In Chandigarh, the Kidbys were hosted by FIVA Emissary Navaz and her family. Their journey continued to New Delhi, where they were welcomed by Ranjit Malik, a notable figure in the Indian classic car community. At Malik’s farm, the Bean received crucial maintenance, including an oil change and spark coil repair, ensuring it was primed for the road ahead. Their route took them to Agra, where the Bean received additional insulation to cope with the intense Indian heat. Departing for Lucknow on 4 June, the Kidbys faced thick smog, with visibility reduced to a mere kilometre. Despite these conditions, they made good progress, arriving in Lucknow by afternoon and enjoying a rare evening of relaxation at their hotel.

The following day, they set out for Varanasi. Their journey continued through Gaya to Barhi on 6 June, navigating poor road conditions and traffic. Yet, the Kidbys persevered, pressing on to Durgapur and then to Cossimbazar Palace for a two-night stay, hosted by car enthusiast Pallab Roy. On 10 June, an early morning departure saw the Bean heading towards Kolkata via Krishnanagar. By midday, they arrived in Kolkata, where they were escorted to the Tollygunge Club by a convoy of vintage, classic and contemporary cars, organised by the Calcutta Motor Sports Club. This historic club, established in 1949, has had a collaborative relationship with the Kidbys since 2013. 

The journey that has been and will be

The car has spent its entire life in Australia until we shipped it to England. Being akin to a sports car, it doesn’t accommodate much luggage. We’ve packed only essentials for our journey. Along the way, as expected with an older vehicle, we’ve encountered several issues. However, we’ve been resourceful in resolving them—whether by our own efforts or with assistance from mechanics and car clubs we’ve encountered along our route,” says Lang.

“Driving this car has been quite uncomfortable due to its cramped space and intense heat. The heat has been our biggest challenge. Additionally, the car’s slow speed, averaging only 60 kilometres per hour, means we’re often on the road for seven to eight hours a day, starting at five in the morning,” he adds.

The Kidbys, however, did not initially choose this timing. Owing to significant shipping delays and disruptions in the Red Sea, which affected routes through the Suez Canal, global shipping patterns changed. Ships were rerouted around South Africa, adding an additional two to three weeks to the journey. As a result, their departure was significantly delayed, taking approximately two and a half months for the ship to arrive and for them to receive the car. Consequently, their journey was pushed into the hotter season, and they had no option but to proceed under these challenging conditions.

“Despite all the hurdles, we’ve experienced so much and met so many wonderful people; every country we visited welcomed us warmly. I didn’t see a single angry face. The car has been a magnet for attention, drawing crowds wherever we go,” remarks Bev.

In the initial expedition carried out by Birtles in 1927-28, he was caught by the monsoon and flooded rivers upon arriving in Burma, and was forced to load the Bean onto a ship in Mergui, sailing down the coast to Penang in Malaya. From there, he drove a short distance to Singapore before shipping it to Darwin, Australia.

The Indian Government has now sealed the Burma (Myanmar) border to all crossings. As a result, we are not following Birtles’ route from Calcutta to Myanmar. We are shipping the car directly to Singapore and then on to Darwin to resume the final 5,000 kilometres of Francis Birtles’ journey from Darwin to Melbourne. This decision might result in a transit time of 3 to 4 weeks—or possibly longer—before we can continue our road trip in Australia. So, we’re probably looking at the completion of the expedition around the end of July,” informs Lang.

The 1923 scarlet Bean Sundowner is, however, going to be sold off. “Without any major or corporate sponsors, we have funded the entire trip ourselves. Therefore, to recoup some of the expenses, we unfortunately need to sell the car,” adds Lang.

Learn more about the globetrotter Kidbys

“Since childhood, Lang has always sought out challenges and enjoyed tinkering with engineering projects,” says Bev. “He has a passion for vehicles, boats, aeroplanes—anything mechanical. In contrast, I come from a more conservative background. However, since marrying Lang, I have embraced adventure and enjoy being part of our journeys. While I may not share his enthusiasm for cars specifically, I relish the opportunity to meet new people in different countries through our travels. For me, that’s the true essence of our adventures together.”

At the age of 16, Lang’s father Richard and his 14-year-old brother Lester, inspired by Francis Birtles, undertook an impressive 3,000-kilometre bike journey from Melbourne to Home Hill near Townsville, Queensland. The entire route was on dirt roads, making it one of the most memorable teenage adventures to this day.

Lang formerly served as a pilot in the Australian military and later worked with the United Nations, while Bev was employed as a radiographer.

“We met through a friend of mine when we were about 18 years old and started dating. It was a wonderful introduction, and now we’ve been happily married for 55 years,” adds a cheerful Bev.

The couple has undertaken several expeditions throughout their lives, and have travelled across more than 80 countries. A few of the expeditions are noted below.

Vickers Vimy Recreation: In collaboration with American Peter McMillan, they meticulously crafted a faithful replica of a 1919 Vickers Vimy bomber and successfully flew it 14,000 miles from England to Australia, recreating the historic first flight between the two countries.

World Vintage Air Rally: Under the leadership of Lang and Bev, 24 antique aircrafts dating back to before 1950 emplaned from England on a journey across the globe bound for Australia.

Avro Avian Flight: Lang meticulously restored and piloted a diminutive 1927 Avro Avian biplane to recreate the historic first solo flight. Throughout the journey, Bev provided crucial administrative support across 18 countries.

Around the world in a Fiat 500: Lang and Bev set out on a global journey in a compact 1969 Fiat 500, covering 35,000 kilometres in 99 days. They made history as the smallest car to circumnavigate the world, travelling from Australia to Russia, Alaska and back to Australia.

The Willy’s Overland Expedition: Lang and Bev, along with Carl Neilsen restored and drove a 1915 Willy’s Overland car on a 6,000-kilometre journey through outback Queensland to raise awareness about prostate cancer among rural communities.

Indian Expedition: The Kidbys took on a seven-week journey in an old Suzuki 4×4, navigating the remote mountain roads of northeastern India along the borders of Bangladesh and Burma.

First to Cape York by Austin 7: Lang and Bev replicated the inaugural car journey to Australia’s northernmost point using a 1928 Austin 7, identical to the original expedition vehicle.

Peking to Paris: The Kidbys and Warren Brown recreated the legendary 1907 Peking to Paris motor race, assembling vehicles from the same five manufacturers that participated in the original event. Lang meticulously restored a remarkable 1907 ITALA to serve as their vehicle for the journey.

Down the memory lane with Francis Birtles

In 1926, Francis Birtles ventured on a series of remarkable journeys in his Bean 14 Sundowner, setting numerous records across Australia. His first feat was the Melbourne to Darwin transcontinental drive, covering 4,200 kilometres, marking his 14th such adventure with various car models. He then set the Darwin to Sydney record, completing the 4,000-kilometre journey in six days, followed by a one-day sprint from Sydney to Melbourne covering 720 kilometres. Later, Birtles undertook his second Darwin to Melbourne trip that year, traversing 4,720 kilometres in just five days.

In 1927, Birtles attempted to drive from London to Australia in an experimental Bean 6 with Malcolm Ellis but had to abandon the car in Delhi, India, when it collapsed into scrap metal. Undeterred, he telegraphed for his trusty Bean 14 Sundowner, which was still coated in Australian outback dust. He set off from London again on 19 October 1927. Departing from Calcutta on 15 January 1928, Francis Birtles was joined by hitchhiker Peter Stollery, who provided invaluable assistance throughout Burma. Stollery’s efforts included cutting stone and gravel to build roads suitable for the Bean 14 Sundowner. Their arduous journey, spanning 16,000 miles, lasted nine months and five days. Birtles triumphantly arrived in Melbourne on 25 July 1928, being greeted by a crowd of 10,000.

The Sundowner was intended for the Australian National Museum, but as the museum didn’t yet exist, the car languished in various sheds for 40 years, losing parts to souvenir hunters. It was finally restored to running condition in the 1960s and now proudly resides in the Australian National Museum in Canberra. Birtles continued his record-breaking and exploration drives in a new Bean 14 and various other vehicles until his death in 1941.