WHAT did the adventurer Francis Birtles get in 1929 when he became the first person to drive 21,000 kilometres from London to Melbourne in his Bean Sundowner car?

He got a warning for obstructing traffic. ”He’d driven this amazing, phenomenal distance across the world,” said Birtles’s biographer, Warren Brown, a cartoonist and car enthusiast who has restored an identical four-cylinder Bean 14 horsepower car to the one driven by Birtles.

”When Birtles got to Melbourne, where there were tens of thousands of people waiting to see him, the coppers ran up and hopped on his car and said, ‘Move along, you are obstructing traffic’.”

They would not even allow a photo of Birtles and his battered Bean car, which he called the Sundowner, outside Melbourne’s GPO after the 9½ months’ journey.

Birtles had an Australian bushman’s spirit and confidence, setting off alone from London on a trip that many said couldn’t be done. Most people thought he was crazy, said Brown, who sees him as a brilliant but flawed explorer.

He was a man who nearly always had a mission, Brown said. In this case, he was hoping the Bean car would invigorate the British motor industry. It was this same fearlessness that led Birtles to traverse Australia more than 70 times by car and by bike.

”His true legacy was opening up the interior of Australia and demystifying it,” said Brown, whose biography of Birtles will be launched tomorrow.

Free tickets are available to a talk by Warren Brown on Birtles at the NSW State Library on October 18, 6pm to 7pm. Details: www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/events_talks/events/Adventure_Extraordinaire.html

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