Short History of Bean Cars

'Sundowner' 14 HP Bean car driven by Francis Birtles

Exhibited in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra


 Bean Car and Lorry Models


It all began in 1826 well before motor cars were thought of, when Absolom Harper started making fenders and fire irons in Waddams Pool, Dudley.  He was assisted by his sons John and Edward, the firm becoming A. Harper & Sons, but by the 1890s the Black Country iron industry was in decline.  However in 1879 John Harper's only daughter, Mary, had married one George Bean, aged 24 and an ambitious bank clerk, from Stamford, Lincolnshire.  He had been working for the Birmingham Town Bank since 1874 and in 1875 was transferred to its Dudley branch and so came to meet Mary Ann Harper.  In 1884 he left the bank to join his father-in-law's business and when it was registered in 1901 he was listed as its principal shareholder.  Some six years later the firm's name was changed to A. Harper, Sons & Bean, with George Bean, aged 52, its chairman.

The firm now expanded considerably, employing about two hundred people by 1911 and it installed drop hammers to supply forgings to the rapidly expanding motor industry.  In 1913 these were transferred to Rolfe Street, Smethwick and pedestal grinding machines were introduced; also in 1913 the firm exhibited at the Machine Tool Show.  It also gained a contract to supply the Admiralty with practice shot.

The Waddams Pool factory expanded greatly thanks to the First World War, producing naval shrapnel and in July 1915 George Bean was asked to manage a new National factory on the site for the manufacture of shell cases.  Sixteen months later the plant was making 21,000 a week and from 1916 George Bean was also responsible for running the National Fuse Factory which had been built at Tipton, some two miles away, by German prisoners of war.  An iron foundry was also established there.  George Bean was knighted in 1919 for his services to the war effort and his only son John (known as Jack) made a CBE.

When the war ended the Bean family decided to diversify.  The original fender and fire iron business had closed in 1914 and was not re-opened, though machine tool manufacture continued.  The wartime factories would be used to make cars.  The chassis would be made at Tipton and then driven under their own power the short distance to Dudley for the bodies to be fitted.  As much as possible would be manufactured in house with the forgings coming from the Smethwick facility.  To deal with the pent-up demand for cars as soon as possible, Beans took advantage of the decision by Perry cars, four hundred of which had been made in Tyseley, Birmingham from 1914 to 1917, not to resume production after the war, but to sell their jigs, tools and patterns.  Beans bought a Perry for evaluation and one month later, in January 1919 bought the equipment needed to produce the car, for £15,000. The intermediary, P.J.Evans of John Bright Street, Birmingham, received a £5,000 commission, which seems generous.  In March 1919 Beans announced that they would update the Perry and rename it the Bean with the intention of manufacturing it at the rate of ten thousand a year using the methods of Henry Ford, though not in the volumes he made.  In May 1919 John (Jack) Harper Bean now aged 34, went to the United States to purchase the latest machine tools and in November the 11.9 Bean was unveiled at the London Motor Show, the first post-war one.  A bare chassis and open two and four-seater tourers were on display, with prices of £425 and £450 respectively.  Not on display were a two-seater coupė at £500 and a four-seater all-weather coupė at £550.

Bean's chief designer, Harold (Harry) Radford had made some detail design changes to the Perry.  The Bean retained the chassis, running gear and rear-wheel-only brakes of the Perry, but was enhanced by a Smiths electric lighting and starting set.

The Tipton factory's electrically-powered two assembly lines pre-dated those of Morris by some 14 years.  They moved the chassis forward by 12 inches a minute.  There were some Perry-Bean hybrids registered in 1920.  The separate three-speed gearbox was a re-worked version, driven by a cone clutch.  The probable first Bean 11.9, registered FD 1180 on 16th December 1919 was a two-seater and in January 1920 manufacture began in earnest, with one hundred units completed in that month.  By July the figure had risen to 505, which may well be the highest monthly output of the ten year life of the factory.  But despite the sophisticated moving production lines the cars' prices were rising because of wage increases, the four-seater tourer's price had increased to £650, but in September it was slashed to £545 as 'the economical point of manufacture had been reached'.  Nevertheless deliveries ceased and the receiver was appointed.  Some 350 trade suppliers were owed a total of £475,000.  Production ceased in October 1920 and did not restart until November 1921.

The post-war boom collapsed at the end of 1920 affecting Morris, Bean's principal rival, whose factory was full of unsold cars.  The Bullnose Morris Cowley was a more modern car than the Bean and Morris slashed the price by £100 to £425.  With its factory closed Bean could not respond giving Morris the chance to start moving ahead so that by 1925 he was Britain's leading car maker.  Interestingly, his approach to manufacture was the opposite of Bean's in that he mostly assembled components from suppliers – often then buying the suppliers at some point!

Jack Bean although opposed by his father, became diverted from his aim of becoming the Henry Ford of Britain by succumbing to the blandisments of Charles Wardman whose company produced Vulcan cars and lorries.  They approached Hubert (Jack) Whitcomb the founder-manager of the Motor Union Insurance Company and had launched Harper Bean Ltd in November 1919 with a flotation capital of £6million (equivalent to about £250million today, depending of which index is used).  They intended to reap the economies of scale that the Model T had pioneered by owning, like General Motors in America, several motor manufacturers.  The combined production would be about 100,000 vehicles per year – 50,000 Beans, 25,000 Swifts and the same number of Vulcan lorries.

In 1920 they bought ABC Motors and 166,000 shares in Hadfields who supplied their steel.  They also owned seven other smaller companies Whitcomb made and lost over £1million in the venture of which he was chairman while Jack Bean was the managing director.  Sales were to be handled by the British Motor Trading Corporation another of Whitcomb's companies.  However costs were not controlled and the company was caught out by the slump and Jack Bean resigned in November 1920.  A year later A. Harper Sons & Bean returned to private ownership.  The remainder of Harper Bean survived three more years before voluntary liquidation in 1925.  Meanwhile the 11.9 sold well during 1922 with 80 to 100 being made per week with improvements being made to the clutch and for the 1923 season a Meadows-built four-speed gearbox, initially only on some models.  The top speed was just about 50mph.

In October 1923 the larger Bean 14 was announced; the engine having a capacity of 2380cc and producing 32bhp.  Unlike the 11.9 it had a detachable cylinder head and all the ancillaries were driven by the timing chain, causing the engine to whirr distinctively.  The rear brakes were the same as those of the Perry and 11.9 but for £25 extra, Perrot front-wheel brakes could be added.  While most British cars were designed purely for the home market, the 14, larger and stronger than the 11.9, was designed with overseas markets in mind.  The 14 did well in the Empire, especially Australia.  However it was heavier ("sturdy construction") at 1.4 tons and its maximum speed was 49mph though a road test found that 30-35 mph was perhaps the car's nicest "natural" pace – so, slower than the 11.9!

In May 1924 came the Bean 12, a scaled down 14 with the engine dimensions of the 11.9, though in a larger chassis and heavier (1.1 tons).  The choice of bodies was much the same as for the 11.9, though its top speed was about 45 mph.  A year later the four-seater touring body was redesigned featuring identical front and rear doors, so that one jig did for both and front wheel brakes were standardised on the 12 and 14.

Unfortunately the 14 was undercut by the Austin 12, so neither the 12 or the 14 ever sold as well as the 11.9; the depot manager in London's Regent Street showroom had regular phone calls from Dudley HQ urging him and the staff to secure sales and put the proceeds on the train to help meet the weekly wage bill!  As Beans had £1.8million of debt this is not altogether surprising.  Luckily the manager, Ronald Maude, had the ear of the Royal Household, which led to the purchase of a 12 tourer in 1924 by the Duke of York (later George VI) and Prince Henry (later Duke of Gloucester) bought two 14s.  Thanks to the financial woes, Hadfields took the firm over although they had been associated with it since the Harper Bean debacle of 1919.

Sadly the 12 and 14 models were not selling in sufficiently large numbers, but Hadfields managed the firm so ineptly that within three years the marque's reputation was in tatters.  Hadfields' 1928 Bean has been said to be one of the most unreliable models ever produced by a mainstream motor manufacturer, though a more auspicious beginning came with the production in 1927 of the 18/50 which used the 2.7 litre version of a Meadows overhead valve engine and gearbox.  The radiator badge was redesigned and the Bean lion became what has been unkindly dubbed the 'anguished griffin'.  The 14 became the Long 14 and only available with saloon or landaulette bodies, there was also the Short 14 which had the 14 engine in the 12 chassis to pep up performance, a combination that had been used to good effect in the single-seater car the company had used on hill-climbs in 1924-5.  Only the Short 14 lasted into 1928 alongside the new 14/40 which was slightly smaller and noticeably faster than the 14 though the design was a mixture of austere and extravagant.  The car's maximum speed was 58mph and it cruised at an 'effortless' 50mph.  By January when production began the car was re-christened 14/45 as Ricardo had managed to extract more than 40 bhp from the engine.

For the 1928 Motor Show the 14/45 was acompanied by the new 14/70 Hadfield-Bean.  However what has been called deplorable design and under-development was catching up with the firm in the form of faults caused by the spring-mounting of the engine, but more seriously from the overhead worm-drive back axle, which manufacturer David Brown had warned was unsuitable for the task.  Efforts to remedy the problems were successful but the damage to the firm's reputation was terminal.  In March 1929 Cecil Bianchi formerly chief engineer at Crossley Motors became the works manager; he was asked to test-drive the company's products and prepare a report.  Thus it was that car production ceased in the summer of 1929 though Bianchi detected a 'ray of hope' in the commercial vehicle line.

And yet in 1976 Dick Sefton's 1928 14/40 travelled overland from Northern Ireland to India without a single problem until a broken gear selector delayed him in India, thus he missed his boat for the onward journey to Australia.  Sefton had hoped to repeat the epic journey of Francis Birtles, who having accomplished the trip from Darwin to Melbourne via Sydney, was enthused to make one from Britain to Australia - See photo of the car below.

Darwin to Melbourne was accomplished in the special car Beans made for Birtles which consisted of a 14 engine in a special two-seater body which he christened "Sundowner".  Birtles and his journalist friend and travelling companion Malcolm Ellis arrived at Bean's head office in Dudley in January 1927 and were given a prototype model designed by Kerr Thomas, called the Imperial Six which was intended for the colonies.  The car stripped its crown wheel and pinion even before the going got tough, but the journey was abandoned when the same thing happened in India.  The indefatigable Birtles returned to London in October 1927 with the Sundowner and set off again.  After many vicissitudes they reached Melbourne on 25th July 1928 nine months and some 16,000 miles later.

From 1924 Beans had made some lorries based on the 14hp engine in a 25cwt commercial chassis and by 1927 they accounted for 60% of the firm's production and some three-quarters of them were destined for export, mainly to Australia.  Some were bodied as ambulances, light buses or coaches.

In June 1927 these were superseded by a 30cwt model designed by Kerr Thomas and powered by the 14/40 engine, but fortunately a different back axle from the car.  Unfortunately it proved as unreliable as the car and was discontinued in 1929 replaced by the Empire model with a 3.6.litre engine and another try at using an overhead worm drive back axle.  Only about 140 were built.  In 1931 came the New Era under Cecil Bianchi's guidance, a 20/25cwt powered by a revised 2.3 litre Hadfield engine but after some 230 had been built Hadfields applied to the High Court to place Bean Cars in receivership.

However in 1933 Hadfields set up Beans Industries as a general engineering and foundry business, contributing £10,000 to the launch.  At last profitability was achieved and in 1937 Hadfields withdrew and Beans Industries became a public company with Victor Riley as chairman though before the end of the year Jack Bean returned as a director and soon after replaced Riley as chairman.  The profitable drop-forging factory in Smethwick was floated off in 1936 as Smethwick Drop Forgings and was later acquired by Guest, Keen & Nettlefold.

In a mere six weeks in 1937 the Beans Industries constructed George Eyston's Thunderbolt Land Speed Record car, driven by twin R-type Rolls Royce engines it ultimately set the record at 357.5 mph in 1938.

Beans Industries was sold to Standard Triumph in 1956 from where they became part of British Leyland.  By 1975 they were known as Beans Engineering and a management buyout followed in 1988.  In 1991 they purchased Reliant which went into receivership in 1994 and took Beans with it.

Article written by M. Jones and extracted from Jonathan Wood's Book 'The Bean' by kind permission.

gallery/birtles endtrip

Bean Factory pictures and some Bean car specs

Photo of dick Sefton's car
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In 1926, a specially prepared Bean Fourteen with drilled chassis, higher ground clearance, small windscreen and painted in Camouflage colours was driven from Melbourne to Sydney.  The car was shipped from Sydney to Darwin and driven back to Melbourne and was called the "Sundowner".

In 1924 the "Scarlet Runner" (it was painted Scarlet) travelled from Sydney to Darwin and back.  This was a "demonstration" Bean Fourteen.