ARCHIVE TIMELINE NOTES

 

In March 1961 the Sunbeam Harrington Alpine was introduced, built by Thomas Harrington and Company, a firm of coachbuilders in Hove, Sussex. This company had for some time pioneered the use of glass fibre in the construction of coach bodies, becoming particularly expert in the laying up and moulding of this revolutionary material. However, Harrington's considered that they were not realizing the full potential of glass fibre and, in addition, their moulding equipment was not working to full capacity. They thus decided to seek out some new project. In the event, the Harrington design team provided the answer -- one which would totally involve the specialist knowledge the company had acquired. They felt that there was a market for a coach-built touring version of the Alpine -- an Alpine with a fixed hard top in glass fibre. Clifford Harrington approached Alec Caine at Rootes and outlined his team's ideas. Alec was impressed, considering the new project to have distinct possibilities. (It appears that someone had criticized the size of the Alpine boot, saying flippantly that it was not large enough to accomodate a bag of golf clubs. Clearly, if the Harrington conversion overcame this particular problem, the project would be successful!)


Ron Humphries, Harrington's stylist, produced some designs from which the first moulds were built and a prototype 'hard top' was then laid up. A standard Alpine tourer was modified and fitted with the new bodywork -- with impressive results, totally surpassing expectations. For this was not merely a hard top but in fact a coach-built fastback -- one of the first.


Thomas Harrington Ltd (also a Rootes main vehicle distributor) had worked with Rootes for many years, using their commercial vehicle chassis and engines. Lord Rootes occasionally visited the Harrington factory in this connection, and Clifford Harrington took advantage of one such visit as an ideal opportunity to show off his new thoroughbred. When Lord Rootes arrived, Harrington guided him round the workshop and confronted him with the prototype. "What have you been up to now?" asked Lord Rooted, yet despite this characteristic reaction, he must have been impressed, for he encouraged Harrington to proceed with development. Later, when the Harrington Alpine was formally announced in March 1961, it was given full approval by the Rootes Group. It was available exclusively through Thomas Harrington and Company.


Shortly before the official introduction of the Harrington Alpine the Thomas Harrington Company was bought by the Robins and Day Group. This group was a private company owned by the Rootes family and run by George Hartwell who now became Harrington's new chairman. His experience was to prove invaluable in the tuning workshops, for when the Harrington Alpine was announced, among the optional extras offered were three stages of engine tune (all of which complied with FIA regulations). These tuned cars were available only through the engineering division of George Hartwell Ltd in Bournemouth. It was during this period that Desmond Rootes joined the Harrington Company, to take over the sales division.


Not long after production of the Harrington Alpine started, Rootes approached the Harrington Company with a view to modifying one of two cars they wished to enter in the 1961 Le Mans 24 hours. One of the problems for a large company such as Rootes was its inability to produce one-off prototypes conveniently. Manpower deployment and the inevitable red tape were simply not geared to low volume production and hence it was quicker, cheaper and easier for such work to be effected outside the company. Harringtons agreed to prepare such a car and work began. Using a standard Sunbeam Harrington Alpine as a basis, they created a unique car, flaring the headlights into the body and fitting a large undertray beneath the front valance in an attempt to reduce drag. Luckily, the car did very well at Le Mans -- much to the surprise of the Rootes Competition Team, who were in blissful ignorance of its position until John Wyer of Aston Martin came over and said, "Hey, your car is doing well, it's winning the Thermal Efficiency Index." Driven by Peter Proctor and Peter Harper, it covered a total distance of 2194 miles, averaging 91 mpg for the 24 hours without a stop, except to take on oil, fuel, and water. It finished in 16th place overall, second in the 1600 cc class to a Porsche/Abarth, and returned a higher than average speed and lower fuel consumption in terms of weight and engine capacity than any other car. Altogether, it lapped the 8.36 mile circuit 261 times and used 127.5 gallons of fuel, averaging 18 mpg. Unfortunately, the second car was disqualified.


So much interest was aroused by the Harrington race car that the company, in honour of their Le Mans achievement, introduced the Harrington Le Mans at the 1961 Motor Show. A great improvement over the Harrington Alpine GT, the new car featured a full length hard top from front windscreen to rear bumper. Access to the rear was made easy by an opening tailgate.


In order to fit this new glass fibre hard top, part of the original bodywork had to be removed and there were fears that this would cause the body to become weaker and thence to flex. A prototype was taken to the British Army's vehicle proving ground at Chobham, in Surrey and subject to extensive testing. No major weaknesses were revealed and, with this reassuring news, it was felt safe to go ahead with manufacture. The car also boasted the following refinements: Microcell seats, veneered dashboard, special wood-rimmed steering wheel, oil cooler, brake servo, competition clutch, and an engine tuned by George Hartwell to give 104 bhp at 6000 rpm. The result was a handsome, well equipped GT car, priced at L1495.


Harringtons had intended to introduce a third series of hard top. Like the series I, it would have required few body modifications, but would have featured the opening tailgate of the series II. In the event, only a handful of hard tops were made before production finally stopped. The price of the complete car was to have been £1196.


The decision to terminate construction of the Harrington Alpine was the result of a company policy meeting. The Harrington coachbuilding company, responsible for the construction of coach and motor bodies, utilized non-mass production techniques and it was decided to redirect their efforts into the Rootes franchise. Unfortunately, factory records giving accurate production figures have long since been destroyed, but it is thought that approximately 150 Harrington Alpine GTs were produced together with 250 or more Harrington Le Mans.

 

 

 

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