AT LE MANS BY JUSTIN HARRINGTON

That Rootes ran two Alpines each year at Le Mans from 1961 to 1963; that five cars were used for these entries; and that the greatest success was the victory in the Index of Thermal Efficiency by the Harrington Alpine driven by Peter Harper and Peter Procter in 1961 are all well known and well documented facts. That four of the five cars that were built for the Le Mans campaign can justifiably lay claim to being Harrington Alpines is less well known.

Ever since the early 1950s Rootes had operated an active competition programme. This was heavily geared toward rallying and works drivers had included such household names as Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. By the late 1950s, the leading Rootes works driver was Peter Harper, at that time one of the top half dozen British rally drivers, while 1961 saw an up-and-coming Ulster driver by the name of Paddy Hopkirk being recruited to the works team. With the introduction of the Rapier and the Alpine, more emphasis had been placed on racing in addition to the rallying activities and full works teams of Alpines were entered for the Blue Riband Sebring 12 hour and Le Mans 24 hour races in 1961.

 

The Sebring entries were all standard shape Series 2 Alpines, albeit significantly lightened and carefully race prepared. These cars all remained in the USA after the race, in which the car driven by Peter Harper, Peter Procter and Bob Olthoff finished 17th overall and third in class, with the other works cars of Jopp and Hopkirk finishing 34th (5th in class) and that of Wilson and Tamburo retiring with gearbox problems. A privately-entered car driven by Theodoli and Barrette finished 31st (4th in class). Although a works car, the Harper/Procter/Olthoff car was actually listed as being entered by Jack Brabham, at that time the reigning World Champion racing driver, who marketed performance improvement kits for Rootes cars and featured in contemporary advertisements for Sunbeams.

Meanwhile, two more cars were being built up for the 1961 Le Mans race: a standard shape Series 2 (3001RW) and one of the newly launched Harrington Alpines (3000RW). The latter was to be even further modified, with the extensive use of lightweight aluminium panels being complemented by aerodynamic improvements, including the use of faired-in recessed headlamps and (at least in practice for the race) an undertray designed to improve airflow.

 

These modifications were designed and executed by Harringtons at their factory in Hove but, despite these improvements, it turned out that the standard shape car was the faster of the two in the race: possibly by virtue of being slightly lighter in weight. In the end, however, 3001RW was disqualified as a result of topping up with oil earlier than allowed by the regulations, while 3000RW ran consistently and reliably to achieve its Index victory – much to the chagrin of the French organisers who had set the rules to favour their domestic entries. The fact that the Harrington Alpine’s relatively heavy weight was probably the deciding factor is neither here nor there: rules are rules and a win is a win!

Emboldened by this unexpected success - the story goes that no-one in the Rootes pit realised they were on track for victory until someone from another team pointed it out to them - Rootes decided to return to Sebring (again with a trio of standard shape cars) and to mount a more serious effort for Le Mans in 1962. Three cars were entered for Le Mans, for the two 1961 driver pairings (Harper/Procter and Hopkirk/Jopp) and also for Lewis/Ballisat. All three entries were accepted, but the latter only as a reserve. In the end it did not get to race. The 1961 race cars had been retired – 3000RW never raced again in period while 3001RW passed into private ownership – and Rootes examined various possibilities for aerodynamic improvements over the standards shape.

 

Many of the Rootes competition department archives seem to have disappeared – hardly surprising, given lapse of time and the fact that, frustrating though it can be to those of us interested in historical minutiae, preservation of such documents was not high on the list of priorities. Luckily, however, some of the reports of tests undertaken to determine the optimum shape for the 1962 Le Mans Alpines did survive. These show that a number of aerodynamic permutations were tried: in addition to the eventual adopted shape, a version which maintained the normal wing line but had a partially raised boot was tried. As well as these basic shapes, other variations were tried, including the addition of a small spoiler on the bootlid, various different combinations of front number plate position and headlamp surround and also the use of the yet-to-be released ‘Series 3’ hardtop, with the more squared-off line as compared to the ‘Series 2’ shape. Fairly meticulous wind tunnel testing at different equivalent road speeds was evidently conducted with one of conclusions being that the car showed a lower drag coefficient when fitted with a front number plate in the standard position than when the number plate was removed. This was attributed to the possibility of the number plate acting as a splitter, reducing air pressure under the car.

Having settled on the Kamm tail shape after the wind tunnel tests were completed in February 1962, the competition department notes say that the cars were sent to Harringtons for the bodywork modifications to be carried out. Even though in terms of overall appearance the 1962 cars are not as radically different from standard shape Alpines as was the 1961 Harrington Alpine, the modifications were indeed significant. All of the bodywork aft of the cockpit was rebuilt with the redesigned rear end was fabricated from aluminium, as were various other panels including the door skins, hard top and bonnet. As had been the case with the 1961 cars, the fuel tank was repositioned to the space immediately behind the seats. From the front, the cars looked very little different from the standard model, the most obvious difference being the loss of the grille bars and the hooded headlamp surrounds. The appearance from behind, however, was significantly different and arguably rather neater and tidier than that of the standard car.

First outing for one of one of these new cars was at the Le Mans test day in April, but meanwhile four more works-entered Alpines had raced at Sebring. Three of these were standard shape cars, finished this year in Seacrest Green with cream hardtops, as opposed to Wedgewood Blue from the previous year. These were entered for Harper/Procter, Sheppard/Payne and Miles/Spencer. Harper/Procter went on to finish 15th overall and, as in 1961, 3rd in class and the Sheppard/Payne car finished 32nd. The Ken Miles car retired after only 25 laps and Lew Spencer transferred to the Sheppard/Payne car. In addition to the works cars, Theodoli and Barrette were entered by Rootes, their car being the red Harrington-bodied Alpine actually owned by Theodoli. They finished 33rd and this car went on to race at Sebring again in 1963, finishing in 36th place.

 

The test weekend for the 1962 Le Mans race took place over the weekend of 7 and 8 April. Only one of the newly built Kamm tail Alpines attended, to be driven by Peter Harper. This was 9201RW and it ran at the test weekend as no. 32 and was painted entirely in dark green: according to the factory build records, all the cars were painted Jaguar British Racing Green. It may have been a bit of a rush to get the car to Le Mans in time: 9203RW was registered from 1 April (its road fund licence was actually issued on 24 March) and assuming that all three were registered at the same time, final preparation efforts would probably have focussed on just the one car. The best lap time achieved over the weekend was 5mins 8.6secs, which was about 12 seconds quicker than either of the Alpines had achieved in practice the previous year.

Come race weekend, on 23/24 June, all three cars had acquired cream hardtops and the post-race report remarks that this had been a sensible move in view of the hot weather conditions experienced over the weekend. Photographs taken at scrutineering show that one of the cars at least (9203RW) still had its number plate conventionally located on the lower part of the front apron. By the time of the race the number plates had moved to the nearside (left) leading edge of the bonnet – possibly the conventional mounting position, with the aerodynamic advantaged it apparently conferred, meant that the cars could have failed the very strict ground clearance tests imposed by the organisers. Apparently one of the Alpines entered the previous year had passed this test only with the aid of tyres inflated to extremely high pressures! The cars that actually ran in the race (9202RW for Harper/Procter, race number 32 and 9203RW for Hopkirk/Jopp, race number 33) also acquired coloured nose bands to aid identification between scrutineering and the race: red for no. 32, yellow for no. 33.

 

The race itself was not to produce the same level of success as the previous year. 9202RW ran through to the finish, covering 268 laps and finishing 15th out of 18 classified finishers. 9203RW had a more troubled time, running its big end bearings early on the Sunday morning. An heroic effort by the mechanics saw the bottom end of the engine being rebuilt in situ with the car in the pit lane (in those days the only separation between the pit lane and the track, at which point the faster cars were achieving about 150mph, was a white line). In order to comply with the requirement not to replenish engine oil before a certain distance had been covered since the last top-up, the contaminated oil was strained back into the engine, reputedly through the stockings of a lady member of the team! Contravention of this rule had led to the disqualification of the Hopkirk/Jopp car the previous year. Unfortunately all this effort proved to be in vain and 9203RW’s engine cried enough after completing 187 laps.

After the race, 9203RW was sold to Alan Fraser, a prominent private entrant of Rootes cars in races and rallies in the UK. The car ran in the Peco Trophy race at Brands Hatch at the beginning of August and then in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood on 18 August. In this race, Fraser entered a total of three Alpines: 9203RW for Peter Pilsworth, 9201RW (still actually owned by the works) for Peter Harper and his Harrington Le Mans, MEL63, for Ellis Cuff Miller. Without wishing to be too uncharitable, the race was not exactly a resounding success for the Alpines. MEL63 had been slowest in practice and retired from the race at the end of the first lap. 9203RW had been second slowest in practice but managed to complete 43 laps (just over 100 miles) before retiring with engine failure. 9201RW put up a better show, ending up 12th out of 19 finishers.

In those days, competition cars were more versatile than is now the case and 9202RW in particular had a varied career. It went on to compete in, amongst other events, the 1962 RAC Rally, the 1963 Monte Carlo and Tulip Rallies, the 1963 Tour de France and the 1964 Circuit of Ireland Rally. At least, photographic evidence suggests that it was 9202RW that competed in all these events, the caveat being that works competition departments would not be averse to swapping registration plates between cars for the sake of easing the paperwork needed for taking a car abroad. 9201RW and 9202RW also found their way back to Le Mans again in 1963, to be driven by Harper/Procter and Lewis/Ballisat respectively. The nominated reserve driver for the Harper/Procter car was Chris Amon, but his Le Mans debut had to wait another year: the organisers apparently thought that, at a mere 19 years old and despite his experience in Grand Prix cars, he was too young to take part in such a major race! A mere three years later, at the ripe old age of 22, Amon was to win the race outright in a Ford GT Mk 2.

 
In the search for additional speed, the engines had perhaps been pushed too far. Lap times about three seconds faster than had been managed the previous year were achieved by further weight saving and, crucially, by replacing the Zenith carburettors with Webers and by raising the compression ratio to about 12:1. This meant that reliability was sacrificed and both cars retired with engine failure, 9201RW completing 93 laps and 9202RW, 200 laps. So ended the Sunbeam Alpine’s escapades at Le Mans, the score sheet showing, for the six starts, one victory in the Index of Thermal Efficiency for the Harrington Alpine, one 15th place and third in class for one of the Kamm tailed cars, one disqualification and three engine failures.

 

So, what happened to the cars once their front line careers ended? 3000RW was meticulously restored over an extended period and is now a regular competitor at major events such as the Goodwood Revival. 3001RW was sold to British racing driver Mike Coombe and was unfortunately completely destroyed in a road accident*. 9201RW has also been restored and has returned to its spiritual home at Le Mans on frequent occasions, for the Le Mans Classic races. 9202RW passed to Ark Racing (who later went on to build Group C world sports car championship cars) and was progressively modified as a club rally car until, apparently, it was stolen and quite probably broken up. In any event, there has been no trace of the car for over 25 years. 9203RW continued to be raced by Alan Fraser’s team and was evidently involved in a significant accident at some point in its life: it might possibly be the car in which the late Tony Lanfranchi was involved in a serious road accident that put something of a brake on his racing career. The car has now been rebuilt to as close as practical to its original appearance and specification, but use is currently restricted to road trips and track days.

© Justin Harrington, January 2008.

*2022 Note: 3001RW was subsequently rediscovered and restored and has competed in Historic Racing including Classic Le Mans and the UK FISCAR series for a number of years.

 

 

 

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