Americans (Among Others) Down Under – The Ford Edition, Part 1: Across Australia with Francis Birtles

After the inaugural article of the “Americans Down Under” series, I am gleefully taking a temporary detour from that premise.  In researching for the Ford edition I stumbled upon the epic voyage of Francis Birtles.  He was an adventurer for the ages and one of his pioneering journeys heavily involved a Ford Model T.  His story needs to be told here before returning to envisioned Australian fare.

Isn’t the beauty of research allowing oneself to become distracted by diving down a rathole when a bigger story presents itself?

Francis Birtles was born in Fitzroy, Victoria, in 1881, the third child of an English boot maker and his wife.  Birtles embraced his adventuresome streak at an early age, joining the merchant marines at age 15 and later doing a stint as a soldier in Australia’s irregular mounted infantry.

By 1905 he was back in Australia after spending time in South Africa.  In December of that year Birtles left Fremantle, Western Australia, to ride a bicycle to Melbourne.  He would be the first person to successfully make this trip.

Later, he would be the first person to bicycle from Fremantle to Sydney, currently a driving distance of nearly 4,000 kilometers.

Birtles is not featured in this photo

In 1912 Birtles gave his bicycle a reprieve for a 20 horsepower Flanders similar to this one.  Birtles, his bulldog, and his brother Clive would drive the Flanders from Melbourne to Sydney and then to the Gulf of Carpentaria.  This trip took the Birtles Brothers close to the border with the Northern Territory before returning to Melbourne.

As an aside, the Flanders was based in Detroit and produced from 1910 to 1913.  It was founded by Walter Flanders who had previously been a plant manager at Ford Motor Company.

The year 1913 is when Birtles would use a brand new Ford Model T to make a 3,500 mile automobile journey from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Port Phillip Bay, a southbound journey covering Queensland and New South Wales.  Birtles kept a diary of his trip and Ford Motor Company used excerpts in their various literature in 1915.

Birtles with catch, year unknown

It is nicely detailed and gives the reader a unique insight into the gritty reality that was Australia in the early 20th Century.  Let’s see what Birtles experienced.  This journey was not a quick one but is very captivating.  Click on the pictures to make it larger for easier reading.

Of note is Birtles’ living off the land, shooting a crocodile through the eye with a 0.22 caliber rifle, and his Model T’s use of benzene.

Bear in mind this was written from the perspective of someone from the early 20th Century.  Odds are quite high some of his descriptors likely would not be so readily used in contemporary times.

Naturally, the trip was successful for both Birtles and Ford.  Birtles’ account of the trip, while not overly focussed on the Model T, serves as profound testimony of the brutality of the Australian wild combined with the flawless operations of his Ford.

Birtles would continue with his automotive adventures.  In 1927 he drove from London to Australia via the Continent, Egypt, India, and Burma before arriving in Australia.  By this point in time Birtles had traversed Australia a total of 70 times.

For his Darwin to Adelaide adventure in 1924, Birtles used an Oldsmobile

His adventures were recorded in several books, such as 3,500 Across Australia in a Ford Car in 1915 and Darwin to Adelaide in 9 Days, 9 Hours, 15 Minutes in 1924.  Birtles also made five films about his travels.

For his unnerving and seemingly ceaseless adventures, Birtles has earned some additional recognition a century later.

Mr. and Mrs. Birtles, 1935