Monday, November 24, 2008


About 10 years ago, I was offered a collection of photographs, totally out of the blue, by a rare books dealer in Australia. I knew nothing about the photos, or the photographer, other than the set contained shots from the 1920s onwards, of a variety of machines, ranging from ABC and Brough Superior to Velocette, all taken by one Harry Beanham. In later years I came to know a bit about this man who lived in Sydney; his quirky ways, his motorcycles, and his undying love of Velocette LEs.

My friend Wolfgang asked me to send photos of an ABC for reference, as he's restoring a damaged model which has lived nearby for decades (in Germany). I knew that quite a few photos of Harry's ABC and its French incarnation, the Gnome-Rhone, were in the box of photos; scanner time!

The ABC (All-British Engine Company) company existed before WW1, but their story becomes interesting postwar. The Sopwith Aviation Co., makers of the Sopwith 'Camel' biplane during the war (famous for being the plane which shot down the 'Red Baron'), suddenly had no market for their flying wares.

It was decided that building a motorcycle would be a good use of their facilities, and this new ABC model was designed by Granville Bradshaw, with features far more advanced than just about any other motorcycle in the world in 1919. The spec included; a flat-twin ohv engine of 400cc, a full duplex cradle frame with springing front and rear, a clutch and three-speed gearbox in unit with the engine, chain final drive, and proper drum brakes front and rear. In short, all the items which the rest of the motorcycle industry would take years to adopt. The ABC had excellent performance for the day, being capable of nearly 70mph in standard trim (still not a bad figure 20 years later), and much more in tuned form at Brooklands (a subject for a future post).

The detail of the workmanship, as might be expected from an airplane manufacturer, was excellent, and the engine in particular was a fine thing, with lovely delicate steel fins on the cylinder barrels, just like a radial engine of the day. The pushrods tended to fly free of the rocker arms, so aftermarket firms created revised rocker supports, which was fairly easy as these items bolted to the cylinder head. Otherwise, the ABC gave excellent service, and quite a few of them have survived. [The picnic photo is from '24, and young Harry can be seen in the lineup; I surmise that the ABC was originally his father's machine, and within two years Harry was riding it himself]

The downfall of the ABC was an accounting error, whereby the Sopwith firm lost money on each motorcycle sold. Thus, they abandoned production; they had previously sold manufacturing rights to yet another renowned aircraft builder, the Gnome-Rhone company of France, who carried on for just two years further (1925), after also deciding that no money could be extracted from the sale of such an advanced design. Thus, the ABC passed into history, but by then the BMW R32 had appeared, which, although inferior in performance (due to its anemic sidevalve engine), proved that the formula itself was sound, and the layout continues to this day! [This pic, from 1926, shows a 16 yr old Harry with his mother and sister in the car]

Harry Beanham was many things; a pattern maker by training, a trader by personality, and a photographer by inclination. He documented all of the motorcycles he owned over the years, from the 1920s to the 60s, and apparently rarely sold any of his personal machines, as several of the bikes, including these ABCs, went under the hammer at his estate auction in 1998, after Harry passed away at age 94. The non-Gnome Rhone ABC, still in its original paint and outback dirt, showed up for sale at Yesterdays around 1999, but I haven't heard of the whereabouts of Harry's Brough SS80 or SS100(!).

Back to the photos; on the back of each image Harry recorded the date, the location, and often, what equipment he used to take and print the photo, with the timings, f-stops, etc. Many of 'my' pics were printed after WW2, when Harry bought out the Australian Army Photo Department stock of surplus paper, which was a little short on the bromide necessary to 'fix' an image. As photo paper was unobtanium in Australia immediately postwar, Harry set up a business selling boxes of this paper, with small packets of bromide attached!

He did the same with surplus machine tools and motorcycles, setting up separate businesses in different locations, ending up with a lot of valuable real estate in Sydney as the city grew up around him. He became a very wealthy man, but even into the 1960s and 70s could be seen riding his humble LE Velocettes to his workshops, clad in his old blue work coveralls and plastic sandals (which, of course, he had bought as a job lot).

So, we have a unique photographic history of one man's 5 decade-long relationship with his motorcycles, and in this case, his ABCs. I'll scan photos of his Broughs for a later post. All the photos are taken in and around Sydney or in the Blue Mountains, from 1926-28. In the very top photo, which must be one of his first efforts, his camera 'bulb', which triggered the shutter remotely, can be seen laying on the seat of his new ABC, along with a bit of hose draped over the bike, which connected to the camera. This is the only photo with the 'structure' exposed - Harry took more trouble to conceal his tricks afterwards, but is often in the same pose, hands behind his back, behind the motorcycle. In this bottom photo, the air line can be seen (barely) coming straight at the camera from under the engine; Harry conceals the bulb in his hands!


Anonymous said...


My name is John Rowe Beanham, William Harry Beanham was my second cousin, thus cousin of my father, William Halley Beanham. He lived to his death in Shirley St Wolstoncraft, Sydney.

During my family history research, I 'met' Harry via phone and letters when he was in his mid 80s. He was a friendly old codger and was most helpful in gathering data for my research. He eventually dies at about 93, one of the longest living males in our line.

An anecdote of some 30 years ago had a real estate agent finding me and asking if I knew "W.H Beanham, owner of extensive holdings in Elizabeth St, Melbourne". My response was that W H Beanham was my father, and if he had such holdings he was keeping it a secret from me! I later found out that the Harry Beanham in Sydney was in fact WILLIAM Harry Beanham.

Harry sent me many pics from his youth, and I have them still of course. They are all in the same theme as the ones you have published.

I hope the above is of some interest.


John R Beanham.

Anonymous said...

H.Beanham's ABC's still exist, they are in Tasmania, see link below;

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
In 2008, you said you were unaware of the location of Harry Beanham's Brough Superior SS80 and SS100. And that you might one day, post pictures of his Broughs, following the story you did on the ABCs.
I can provide some information on these.
In 1998, I bought at a Sydney auction Harry's SS100, which at the time was fitted with a KTR 4 cam JAP side valve racing engine. It had lost its OHV KTO/R engine. It seems the SV engine fitted must have been the engine from his SS80.
I sold the SV JAP engine to my friend Gary Ross, who died last year (2014). I acquired a correct OHV engine from a 1930 SS100 which is fitted to my bike now.
At the same auction in 1998, Gary bought Harry's notebooks. He was going to give me copies of the pages pertaining to the Broughs, but I never received them. His widow is now selling off the materials Gary had, including the KTR JAP engine, and his 2 SS100s.
I would be glad to hear from anyone with any further information on Harry Beanham's Brough Superiors.
Doug Young