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.

A self-portrait of Harry Beanham taken April 22, 1923, with his Gnome-Rhone built ABC. [The Vintagent Archive]
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!

Another shot of Harry’s ABC, showing the full-cradle welded chassis (you thought the Featherbed was new?), leaf-sprung suspension front and rear, and overhead-valve gear on the cylinders. [The Vintagent Archive]
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.

Harry Beanhams attached a sidecar to one of his ABCs to take the family – his mother and brother- on an outing. [The Vintagent Archive]
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).

Taken on April 29th 1923, at Trawool: two of Harry’s ABCs. [The Vintagent Archive]
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]
Harry with one of his Brough Superiors – an SS80/100 model – and an ABC, taken May 12th 1929. [The Vintagent Archive]
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!

Exploring the burgeoning industry outside Sydney on Harry’s ABCs, on Dec. 2, 1928. [The Vintagent Archive]
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(!). [Note – they later turned up and were sold at auction for a lot of money, in 2017]
A view over Sydney Harbor, made possible by motorbike! Taken April 27th, 1926. [The Vintagent Archive]
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.

Harry or a friend riding an ABC up a gorge on May 12, 1929, at Keilor. [The Vintagent Archive]
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!

A picnic in the outback, showing ‘Tommy’s Hut’ on Aug. 22 1926. [The Vintagent Archive]
The family scrapyard! Taken July 14th 1928. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Beanhams on a picnic, Jan 13th 1924 at Narbethon. [The Vintagent Archive]
 

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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