Historic Car Brands


Bean Cars was a brand of motor vehicles made in England by A Harper Sons & Bean, Ltd.

The company had been a supplier of car parts and, in 1911, installed drop hammers to increase production. In 1912 the company opened a new forging plant. 

During World War I Bean prospered from military contracts to supply shrapnel and shell cases. The company’s factories were expanded in order increase production. By 1916 Bean was making about 21,000 shells a week. 

The manufacturing rights for the pre-war Perry car were for sale, so in January 1919 Bean bought them. The company began making cars in 1919, but with an upgraded 1.8-litre, fixed-head engine.

1922 Bean 12hp Malcoma

Harper Bean was managing director of the company and he visited America in order to buy the latest machinery for car-making. Bean became one of the first UK companies to adopt twin moving track assembly lines. Bean also wanted to form a consortium of manufacturers along the lines of the General Motors model. He brought together a group of companies including the vehicle makers Swift and Vulcan, the steel-maker Hadfields, and the Regent Carriage company and together they formed Harper Bean Limited in November 1919.

The first model had a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine linked to a three-speed gearbox. It was a revival of the pre-war Perry 11.9, and was rated at 11.9 RAC horsepower. 

By early 1920 the company was making 80 chassis a week and Bean’s Dudley plant could not produce enough bodies, so it ordered 2,000 bodies from Handley Page of Cricklewood. In 1920 2,000 Bean cars were made.

Bean Short 14 Hanborough – Motacilla

However, prices and wages soared and the car industry entered recession. The Harper Bean conglomerate disbanded and the company ran up debts of £475,000 to its suppliers. It stopped production in October 1920 and Jack Bean resigned from the company a month later.

In November 1921 Sir George Bean, Barclays Bank, the National Provincial Bank and Hadfields rescued the company. Production resumed early in 1922 and the company was making 100 cars a week by August.

In October 1923 the company launched a new and much improved model, the Bean 14, with a 2.3-litre engine and a four-speed gearbox. About 4000 of all the variants were made up to 1929.The car sold well, particularly in Australia. 

The best known Bean Down Under is ‘Sundowner’: a 1925, 14hp, four-cylinder Bean 14 car driven by Frances Birtles on his epic journeys, including a record breaking Melbourne to Darwin run in 1926 and an Australia to England run in 1927. This Bean is housed in the National Museum Australia in Canberra and we have more details on its trips below. In 1924 the company launched a smaller Bean 12 and also began making light commercial vehicles. Also in 1924 Sir George Bean died aged 68 and was succeeded as chairman by Major Augustus Clerke who had previously been managing director of Hadfields.

But A Harper, Sons & Bean was still short of money with debts of £1.8 million, mainly as a result of its restructuring in 1921. Hadfields again rescued the company.

From 1922 Bean supplied engines for a light car, the Ariel Nine, but the engine vibrated and was noisy, so in 1924 Ariel discontinued the model.

Bean launched a new model, the 18/50, with a 2.7-litre six-cylinder Meadows overhead valve engine. It was in production for only a year, in which time 500 were made. 

Bean 12 Tourer 1925 – Tony-Hisgett

Some Bean factories were then sold and, from 1927, all cars were branded Hadfield-Beans, and the 14 was updated to become the 2300 cc 14/40, still using the Bean engine.

Bean suffered financial difficulties and Hadfields Limited took it over in 1926.

The launch of an under-developed new model in 1928 worsened sales and the company stopped making cars in 1929. Hadfields continued Bean commercial vehicle production as ‘Bean New Era’ models, until June 1931. 

Bean returned to being a components supplier. Beans Industries Ltd continued in the general engineering field until it was taken over by British Leyland in 1958.


Bean and Birtles

Australian adventurer, Francis Birtles, used bicycles and motor cars to pioneer overland routes and set speed records in the early 20th century. These early journeys were extraordinary feats of endurance, often planned to test the capacity of new technologies in harsh and untried physical conditions.

Technological innovation developed during World War I spurred the automotive industry around the world.

Although the vast distances between urban centres and the lack of reliable roads and other infrastructure restricted the actuality of road travel, the idea of mobility was particularly important to Australians.

The recreational and exploratory potential of the car was showcased by the activities of specialist groups, who organised demonstrations of engineering capabilities and highlighted the new opportunity to define and delimit the continent.

Bean Cars employed Francis Birtles as a promoter. This famous partnership started in 1926 when Bean’s Australian agents, Barlow Motors of Melbourne, commissioned him to drive a new two-seater Bean racing car on mostly uncharted road between Darwin and Melbourne, in the shortest possible time.

Francis Birtles captured Australia’s imagination with his daring and fearless overland journeys in the Sundowner, named for Birtles’ habit of arriving at outback homesteads just in time for dinner. 

Birtles’ cross-continental expedition aimed to prove the suitability of British made goods in an Australian context, as a prelude to the introduction of a new Bean truck onto the market. According to an article in the Argus newspaper, the expedition aimed to demonstrate ‘the speed and stamina of the Bean car.’

The trip relied heavily on other sponsorship: the British Imperial Oil Company provided the Shell motor-spirit; oil millionaire Sir Charles Wakefield supplied Castrol oil and the tyres and tubes were supplied by the Dunlop Rubber Company.

The forward leg of the trip, from Melbourne to Darwin, through uncharted land, negotiated or, in some cases, created the route the Sundowner would take during the record-breaking attempt.

With the help of local knowledge they gained along the way, the party mapped a passable route via stock tracks and unsealed roads. In addition to the fierce heat, conditions were treacherous and the heavily-weighted vehicle could barely proceed without being continuously bogged down in thick mud.

Adopting a policy of accelerating the truck through any obstacle in its way, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the party narrowly avoided serious injury when it skidded and overturned between Narromine and Bourke.

Birtles and Alec Barlow, the dealer principal’s son, left Darwin on 23 October 1926. In his journal, An Epic of the Outback, Barlow wrote that the car ran ‘wonderfully well, eating the miles in a whirl of dust’ down through Katherine, Bourke, Sydney and on to Melbourne.

Eight and a half days and some 5500km of hot and perilous country later, the travel-weary pair arrived in Melbourne to great celebration.  

The journey established a record-breaking time for transcontinental travel, and proved the suitability of Bean’s vehicles in the harsh Australian environment.

In keeping with the promotional aims of the journey, journalists were quick to praise the car’s high performance. Bearing the difficult journey in mind, the claim that Barlow never had to break out a spanner was hard to believe.

No doubt buoyed by the lavish publicity, Birtles was gifted the car by Bean in recognition of the feat. 

The following year Birtles left London on a 26,000-kilometre trip to Melbourne. It was a backbreaking journey through bush and jungle, across deserts and over mountains, with Birtles often forging roads where none had previously existed.

Museum conservators have spent more than 2000 hours working on the Sundowner. Scratches, dents, sand from the Middle East and mud from South-East Asia — all evidence of Birtles’ remarkable journeys — have been carefully preserved.

Check out the Birtles collection and view Sundowner at the Australian National Museum, next time you’re in the nation’s capital.

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