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Two men in a Brush and a dog called Rex

Tuesday, 15th April, 2014

The intrepid Francis Birtles in his grimy motoring kit. The intrepid Francis Birtles in his grimy motoring kit.

In one of the greatest adventure stories of motoring history, we follow the challenges of Australian legendary “Overlander” Francis Birtles, his friend Sid Ferguson and a foxy dog called Rex as they drive a car for the first time across Australia from Fremantle to Broken Hill then onto Sydney in March and April of 1912.

In early 1912 the famous adventurer and long distance cycling champion Francis Birtles joins forces with Sid Ferguson in Sydney to plan a great journey by car from the West to the East, thus becoming the first motorist to do this arduous trip across the wild Australian bush. 

Birtles has already ridden a bicycle across the country four times and is famous for his long journeys. His friend Sid Ferguson will be the driver of their small one cylinder 10 horse powered “Brush” automobile made in Detroit in 1910. 

After plans and sponsorship are made with the Canada Cycle and Motor Co., and Dunlop Tyre Co they took a steamer boat with the car and sailed around to Melbourne then onto Fremantle and made ready for the tour. 

While berthed in Melbourne Rex the dog was picked up and went on the trip as their mascot and watch dog.

In March 1912 they organise provisions and publicise the great journey, thus capturing the interest of the public right around Australia. On March 16 they set off from Fremantle. First stop would be Coolgardie, then across the western plains to Eucla and to Port Augusta in South Australia. 

They travelled some miles along the track of the transcontinental railway line and through scrub and thick dust but also saw green growth and native flowers after heavy rain. 

They did shooting along the way to supplement their food supplies and camped under the stars every evening. The men suffered one puncture but the Brush car stood up to the rigors of the trip.

On April 9, Birtles and Ferguson arrived in Broken Hill, exhausted and covered in dust. 

Just moments from the Post Office they had breakdown when a wheel cap dropped off, so slowly they wheeled into Woodman’s Garage on the corner of Chloride and Beryl streets for a service about 4pm in the afternoon. 

Woodman’s had only been opened a few months and was the first fully functional auto garage in Broken Hill. 

They had taken a day short of three weeks to arrive in Broken Hill. Birtles took many photos and cinematic film of the journey. He also commented that “the transcontinental railway was at least 60 miles too far north.” On board the dusty car was a bicycle that was used to find water, in case they ran out.

The men received a warm welcome here and refreshed themselves before recommencing their journey after their car was made good once more.

They their dog headed towards Wilcannia and Cobar across the dusty plains as autumn winds blew over the sparse landscape. 

They received generous help and welcoming crowds as they travelled through Nyngan and arrived in Orange on the April 11.

But before them stooda the massive climb over the Blue Mountains and treacherous road conditions. With excellent driving by Sid Ferguson they got over the mountains and were later met by the Manager of the Dunlop Company as they came down the mountains and headed for Sydney.

As they drove towards the city a procession of cars joined them and at 4.52pm on Saturday afternoon, April 13 they were greeted at the Sydney Post Office. 

Later they were welcomed back by the sponsors and other motor industry dignitaries. The little Brush car did a magnificent job although the axle had been bent and straightened a couple of times. 

Though the driving lamps were smashed and the car was covered in dirt it certainly stood as evidence of the motor car’s ability to travel the back roads and tracks of this nation.

This amazing 2600 mile adventure across Australia took 28 days, one hour and 52 minutes to complete on hardly any decent roads. 

In February 1915 Francis Birtles returned to Broken Hill to make a film about his car tour, recreating the journey of Burke and Wills. Later in 1915 he returned to Menindee to complete this film. 

It was a huge success and opened at the Hoyt’s Olympia Theatre in Melbourne to rave reviews on Christmas Day. Birtles’ books about his life on the road and adventures in the outback became best sellers. 

In 1926 Birtles held the speed record between Darwin and Melbourne. Then in an exceptional effort in 1927 he was the first person to drive from England to Australia, which took nine months.

In 2012 Bob Lamond of Mudgee and the drivers of 44 other old cars recreated the Birtles-Ferguson tour of 1912 to mark irs 100th anniversay. Here they were flagged off from the Musicians’ Club car park. 

Francis Birtles died in 1941 at the age of 60.

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