Already masters of building bespoke coaches and mini buses that complemented their art-deco factory near Brighton, Harrington’s took a stylish sports car and built around 400 GT’s; Grant Ford was lucky enough to find two.
Harrington Alpine; Road, Race & Rally in Style
The name of Thomas Harrington & Sons Ltd is more synonymous with luxury commercial transport, buses and coaches built to order and often unique incorporating the curvaceous streamline look, clad in chrome. Founded the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897) beginning with horse drawn carriages and progressing to buses before the outbreak of WW1. Facing increased competition during the 1930s the company pursued more ‘blue chip’ customers supplying their distinctive ‘Harrington’ look. By the early 1960s the Rootes Group were receiving requests from customers for a hard top version of its beautiful Sunbeam Alpine. Harrington’s already had a separate Rootes car dealership which combined with their amazing coach building talents specialising in fibre glass made them the ideal candidates to supply a new personalised GT car. The first Harrington Alpine arrived for spring 1961 and the new coupe look was well received. Available only as a ‘special order’ each car would be unique to the owner’s requirements; it didn’t take long for the order book to fill. The first model was offered with three different states of Hartwell engine tune for the 1.6 litre and a host of interior options including rear seat cushions; less than 200 were built and offered through Rootes Dealerships. It was a modified Alpine that took on the 24 hours of Le Mans and won the trophy for the ‘Index of Thermo Efficiency’ (a complicated performance related equation involving speed, weight and fuel consumption). Second in class and 15th overall was a fantastic achievement not least because the car was faultless over 2194 miles; drivers Peter Harper and Peter Proctor averaged 91mph. It was no surprise when the Earls Court Motorshow in October 1961 saw the unveiling of the second model from Harrington’s aptly named the Le Mans. Around 250 of this model were produced of which around half were exported to the USA and exactly one year later the ‘C’ Series was introduced, again built in very small numbers (20) due to a new model Alpine on which it was based being launched in January 1963. An estimate of around a dozen ‘D’ Series were built between 1963-64 with six from the Alpine series 3 and the same from series 4 bringing an estimated total of 384 Harrington cars before production ceased. The company continued with its commercial coach building until 1966 when the doors closed completely although many of their vehicles are still preserved by enthusiasts. The coach hanging precariously over a cliff at the end of the 1969 film ‘The Italian Job’ was a Harrington. The cars though are extremely rare beasts and highly sought after, so when I chanced upon one I was pleased but an opportunity to bring readers two and different
models is a real bonus.
A Couple of ‘Sadcases’
Yes and proud of it, both Brian Arculus and Martin Pester are regular features of the Storrington and District Classic and Sportscar Enthusiasts (Sadcase) and even with a 700 membership it was a surprise to find two Harringtons in the same club. Brian’s Wedgewood Blue Harrington-Alpine left the Rootes factory in 1960 and went onto Harrington’s for its conversion being first registered in June 1961. Based on the Series 2 Alpine it was originally sold in the UK then went overseas to a customer in Sweden who kept it until 1984 when it changed hands, remaining in Scandinavia until Brian tracked it down last year. The second owner had been a Rootes dealer and had the car restored in 2010 which suited Brian as he wasn’t looking for a project car and the restoration carried out was of a really high standard. The car has though required a carburation change, in fact they both have enjoyed that enhancement recently; the original twin downdraft Zenith’s failed to work well with the 1592cc engine and it is common practice to swop them out. The Sunbeam Alpine Owners Club had carried out a lot of development work getting a modern Weber carb to work well with the Alpine and is supplied exclusively by the club complete with manifold and it fits any Rootes engine. This system cured the poor starting and uneven performance of Brian’s Alpine and this information quickly got through to Martin who has carried out the same modification.
Martin’s Le Mans was produced on the back of the company’s success at the 24 hours and would have been one of the first of the model leaving the factory late in 1961. Purchased in Hampshire just last year Martin acquired the car in the full knowledge that it needed some restoration time to be put in but the fact that so few were built only exaggerates the small number that are put up for sale. So becoming the tenth owner did not deter Martin as the history lists and dates every time the Le Mans has changed hands, most notable the first owner enjoyed the car for 18 years. Martins in depth file also contained the original cost of the Alpine at £1225 and the Le Mans was £1461, these were not cheap cars especially when compared to the Ford Consul Capri of the same year at £767 or the first of the MGBs at £690. What you got for your money was unique and although the Le Mans version had the largest production numbers of all the Harrington machines you were unlikely to see another in your town let alone in your street.
Purchasing a Harrington presents more than the regular challenges of finding the best car for your money; finding one at all offers any perspective buyer their first dilemma. At the NEC Classic Motor Show in 2014 Silverstone Auctions offered a 1962 Le Mans version which sold at the lower end of its estimate at £20,138.00. I managed to trace another 1962 Le Mans for sale in Belgium at £27,280 endorsing the fact the Harrington cars were not cheap to buy new and they continue to fetch high prices today; that’s if you can locate one. Both of today’s custodians have a good knowledge of the classic scene and an eye for the right car, both reside near the original site of the Harrington factory and both are thrilled they bought locally, although fifty years late. My thanks to Brian and Martin for giving their time and input plus offering me a detailed Harrington education.
A View from the Pilot
The virtues of owning a Harrington are obvious from the images but what are they like to live with? What persuaded our current custodians to part with their money to secure these rare machines? I asked them to divulge….
Brian’s thoughts on the Harrington Alpine
I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Alpines since the late sixties when I couldn’t afford the dark blue one that was for sale with a local dealer. I think that they are grossly underrated in the classic car world and cannot understand why MGBs seem so popular when you can have a much better looking and more stylish car. Once you add the rarity factor of the Harrington top, what isn’t there to like?
I’ve only had mine for a short while and bought it “blind” from the vendor in Sweden through the good offices of the Harrington Registrar who is based over there. The first time I saw the car in the flesh is when I collected it from the dockside at Immingham just before Christmas. A MOT was quickly organised and the original UK registration number was recovered without any drama. I’ve been using it during the winter as for once I have a classic car with a heater that really works.
As a grand touring car it is just great, very comfortable with no vices – particularly with the replacement Weber carburettor set up. When we went down to the local car club meeting at Easter, my wife took the Harrington and I went in our XK120, it was the first time she’d driven it and her only challenge was discovering that the handbrake was on the right hand side!
Martin’s thoughts on the Harrington Le Mans
I have owned Sunbeam Tigers for over 30 years now and have always been a big Rootes Group fan. Anything from Sunbeam, Singer, Hillman or Humber appeals to me and over the years I have had probably 30 Rootes cars. I even had 2 Sunbeam Venezia's which most people have never heard of. I lived a few hundred yards from the old Harrington factory in Hove and always wanted to have one in my collection. They are pretty hard to find now but my Le Mans came up for sale at the right time for me having just sold a Tiger and it was at the right price. The Le Mans being based on the Alpine S2 drives very nicely much like the Alpine but without the wind noise and body movement associated with the convertibles, a great car for touring with the large hatch back area for the luggage and the smooth 1.6 Rootes engine up the front.
Harrington Alpine/Le Mans Specification
Harrington cars could be purchased in three Hartwell stages of engine tune and certainly most survivors have enjoyed modifications so for the purposes of this article we are using the original specification from Harrington’s own brochure of the Le Mans car for 1961.
Engine: 1592cc in line 4 cylinder OHV 104BHP@6000rpm/oil cooler
Gearbox: 4 speed synchromesh 2nd 3rd 4th overdrive optional
Carburettors: Twin Zenith downdraught
Clutch: 8in competition Borg & Beck single dry plate
Suspension: Fr independent coil springs and telescopic shocks
Rr Semi elliptic leaf springs, lever arms, hydraulic shocks
Brakes: Girling assisted 9 ½ inch front disc & 9 inch rear drums
Wheels: Centre locking wires Tyres: Dunlop Road Speed 5.6x13
Dry Weight: 2,112lbs
Brian’s Alpine does not have overdrive but has a higher rear axle ratio whilst Martin’s Le Mans does have it fitted.