Harrington Le Mans: Sunbeam’s Lovely Gran Turismo

Harrington Le Mans: Sunbeam’s Lovely Gran Turismo

Moss on Sunbeams

1951 Sun­beam-Tal­bot 90, his mum’s car, still owned by Bar­ry Brown­leader, Man­ches­ter UK. (Pho­to: Derek Brownleader)

Sun­beam-Tal­bot had a good com­pe­ti­tion pedi­gree before the Sec­ond World War. But the firm was bought by the Rootes Group in 1935, and not much hap­pened for awhile. In 1952, Stir­ling Moss fin­ished sec­ond in a Sun­beam-Tal­bot 90 in the Monte Car­lo Rally—the high point that decade. “You wouldn’t believe how slow my Sun­beams were,” Sir Stir­ling lat­er told my friend, motor­ing writer Gra­ham Rob­son. “Yes I would!” Gra­ham replied.

Arrival of the Sun­beam Alpine sports car in 1959 made com­pe­ti­tion worth con­sid­er­ing. Rootes com­pe­ti­tions man­ag­er Nor­man Gar­rad had the idea that they could win some­thing at the clas­sic Twen­ty-four Hours of Le Mans endurance race. The French orga­niz­ers offered spe­cial prizes for very spe­cif­ic achieve­ments, so that French cars and dri­vers could shine in a field dom­i­nat­ed by the likes of Fer­rari and Maserati.

One of these was the “Index of Ther­mal Efficiency”—basically the best gas mileage. No, I’m not kid­ding. You won it by rac­ing flat out for 24 hours while get­ting over 20 miles per gal­lon. This sounds sil­ly, but a win at Le Mans—for any reason—is a big pub­lic­i­ty deal. Mind you, to win, a car has to fin­ish this gru­el­ing overnight endurance race.

Harrington
Offi­cial­ly, Har­ring­ton built four series, three of which, on tail­fin bod­ies, were called Har­ring­ton Alpines. The excep­tion was the sec­ond ver­sion (pho­to below), the only one called Har­ring­ton Le Mans. (Pho­to by nakhon100, Cre­ative Commons)

“Babes in toyland”

Gar­rad knew Sun­beams weren’t fast enough to win Le Mans out­right. But prop­er­ly stream­lined, maybe one could win the Effi­cien­cy Index. So he con­tract­ed with the old Sus­sex coach­builder, Thomas Har­ring­ton Ltd., to build a gran tur­is­mo “Har­ring­ton Alpine.” It had a tuned engine, a fast­back body and a shield­ed under­car­riage to min­i­mize drag. Off it went with a sec­ond Alpine and a trail­er full of parts towed by a Hum­ber Super Snipe to race at Le Mans. Rootes had nev­er been there before. It was a case of “babes in toyland.”

“Clockwork mouse”

To everybody’s aston­ish­ment, the Har­ring­ton Alpine was just the tick­et. The dri­vers were Sun­beam vet­er­ans Peter Harp­er and Peter Proc­ter, “It cir­cu­lat­ed like a clock­work mouse,” Norman’s son Lewis remembered:

The dri­vers were used to ral­ly­ing, so they were not out to break any speed records—just putting in very rou­tine, reg­u­lar laps. If you told Peter Proc­ter to dri­ve down the M1 motor­way at 30 mph, he’d do it!

At nine the next morn­ing, with three hours to go, a French orga­niz­er told us that if we souped up our car a lit­tle, we’d beat Porsche for the Effi­cien­cy Index. Great delight! We ran up a sign that said ‘+500 REVS TO BEAT X.’ Sure enough, up came 500 rpm. Peter, of course, was very dis­ci­plined. The car just kept going round and round. We couldn’t believe it! It gave us no trou­ble at all.

Thus Sun­beam won the 1961 Le Mans Index of Ther­mal Effi­cien­cy, aver­ag­ing 91 mph and 20+ mpg.

The fable of Judith’s tights

The whim­si­cal sto­ry gets droller yet when we recall the sec­ond Le Mans Sunbeam—a stock Alpine hard­top, dri­ven by Peter Jopp and Pad­dy Hop­kirk. While the Har­ring­ton coupe cir­cled the track flaw­less­ly, this sec­ond car was soon in the pits with a failed main bear­ing. The pit crew scram­bled to tear in and fix it. Lewis Gar­rad remembered:

Judith Jack­son, Peter Jopp’s girl­friend, was our inter­preter. In her best French, she asked the author­i­ties if we could change the oil, since we had to take the sump off to put in a new main bear­ing. No, they said, we hadn’t done enough laps to qual­i­fy for an oil change! Judith and the French had a right old harangue, with lots of arm-wav­ing and all that.

What to do? “We used the old oil, of course,” Lewis laughed. “We had to fil­ter it, so we used one of Judith’s stockings!”

This went down jol­ly well in my book, Tiger Alpine Rapi­er (1981). Until Judith Jack­son (no mean dri­ver and auto writer her­self) hap­pened to read it. “That’s all wrong,” she wrote me. “Lewis is mis­re­mem­ber­ing. I did not remove my tights!” I apol­o­gized and promised to remove her tights in the first reprint, if there was one. Alas not, though some pirate reprint­ed the book in the clan­des­tine pub­lish­ing under­ground years later.

Ambi­tions whet­ted, Thomas Har­ring­ton Ltd. com­mis­sioned design­er Ron Humphries to cre­ate a more ful­ly inte­grat­ed gran tur­is­mo, the 1962 Har­ring­ton Le Mans. By com­par­i­son to the orig­i­nal, it was a stun­ner. Two of these were duly entered for Le Mans ’62. Both fin­ished, Harper/Procter cov­er­ing 50 more miles than in 1961. But a Lotus Elite beat them to the Effi­cien­cy trophy.

Har­ring­ton even­tu­al­ly built about 250 “pro­duc­tion” Le Mans mod­els. And that was how I met one.

Harrington Le Mans: first encounter

It was in 1963 at Beck­rag Motors in Irv­ing­ton, New Jer­sey. I was there to buy a bolt-on hard­top for my Sun­beam Alpine. A new Har­ring­ton Le Mans was in their showroom—Carnival red, entic­ing­ly shaped. It had wire wheels, Micro­cell buck­et seats, and a dash­board made from a real tree. Gor­geous! It looked like 100 mph just stand­ing still. The price was $4295—about $3000 more than I could even bor­row. I had to stick with my hard­top Alpine.

It may have won a gong at Le Mans, but snobs regard­ed the Har­ring­ton as a kind of blacksmith’s revenge, cob­bled up to suit. There were sev­er­al such con­ver­sions back then. The Tri­umph Her­ald-based Bond Equipe was sim­i­lar, but rather less impres­sive. Still, Thomas Har­ring­ton Ltd. knew a few things about cus­tom bod­ies. And Ron Humphries made the Le Mans look like a ground-up design.

The ’59 Alpine had been designed for the Rootes Group by Ray­mond Loewy Associates—a “civ­i­lized” sports car with roll-up win­dows and fash­ion­able tail­fins. For his sec­ond coupe in 1962, Humphries shaved the fins and deck and applied a fiber­glass fast­back. It clamped onto the stock wind­screen and ran back to a Kamm-like tail, sand­wiched onto the met­al body. Out back, it was held on by a bolt that could have come from the Gold­en Gate Bridge. There was a hatch­back back­light, a svelte inte­ri­or, swing-out rear win­dows and “Le Mans” let­ter­ing. A slim strip of body­side bright­work actu­al­ly hid the seam where fiber­glass met steel. I loved every inch of it—just the kind of odd­ball rig that excit­ed a car nut.

Owning a Harrington

Harrington
Jer­ry Logan’s 1962 Pro­mo­tion­al Har­ring­ton (see Jerry’s note in comments)/

In the 1980s I owned a white Le Mans, in pret­ty good shape, too. I road-test­ed it for Spe­cial-Inter­est Autos, August 1983.) Con­sumed with enthu­si­asm, I start­ed a “Har­ring­ton Reg­is­ter” to track sur­vivors. We pub­lished two or three edi­tions of a newslet­ter called the Har­ring­ton Harangue. But my Le Mans was a buck­et of bolts in need of restora­tion. Oth­er projects inter­vened and I let it go. If it’s still out there, the ser­i­al num­ber is #6413. (No 17-dig­it VINs in those days.)

Har­ring­ton went on to build two more ver­sions of the coupe, called the Series C and Series D (though the pre­vi­ous two nev­er car­ried a series des­ig­na­tion). These, like the first ver­sion, were main­ly based on the tail­finned Alpine “Series 3” (through 1964). At least one Series D car­ried V8 Sun­beam Tiger spec­i­fi­ca­tions: the ulti­mate Harrington.

The Harrington Society

Harrington
Har­ring­ton Series C brochure (cour­tesy Jan Iggbom)

In the Inter­net Age, past sins come back to haunt you. Imag­ine my sur­prise to hear via this web­site from Jan Igg­bom, a retired Swedish Air Force offi­cer and, since 1969, a Har­ring­ton own­er. (Jan owned the only Le Mans sold new in Swe­den.) Togeth­er with Ian Spencer in the USA, Igg­bom cre­at­ed a Har­ring­ton Soci­ety, which has tracked more than half of the cars built. Jan wrote:

The own­ers who have dis­cov­ered us have become mem­bers in the Har­ring­ton Soci­ety. It’s not a club, just some­thing which holds the own­ers togeth­er. We thought about writ­ing a book, but a book is some kind of final result, while a web­site is more alive. I’m updat­ing the site at least a cou­ple of times every month. Ian and I have tried to dig deep in the Har­ring­ton sto­ry. We have both been in con­tact with Clive and Justin Har­ring­ton many times, and have writ­ten arti­cles with them. We have also found a cou­ple of old employ­ees from the fac­to­ry who have ver­i­fied some facts for us.

Jan Igg­bom with his rare Series D in Tiger V8 spec. Har­ring­ton built only one of these, but Jan’s and one oth­er car were “Tiger­ized” in the 1980s.

Good on yers, mates

Thanks and a tip of the hat to Messrs. Igg­bom and Spencer for pre­serv­ing an inter­est­ing cor­ner of auto­mo­tive history.

It sounds irre­li­gious, but I’ve nev­er been able to relate to Fer­raris, pos­si­bly because I could nev­er afford one. Give me a quirky Eng­lish rig like the Har­ring­ton, with an inter­est­ing past and a shape you don’t see every day. There’s some­thing about the smell of leather and oil, the way the rain beads on the bon­net, that reminds you of the days when almost any­body in Eng­land could build a sports car, and most of them did.

Further reading

Three years run­ning, teams of Sun­beams appeared at the great French endurance race for which the Har­ring­ton was named. You can read all about them, and many oth­er “Sport­ing Cars from the Rootes Group,” in my book, Tiger Alpine Rapi­er. But don’t pay that sil­ly price cur­rent­ly list­ed on Ama­zon. Use this link on Bookfinder.com to find a cheap­er copy.

2 thoughts on “Harrington Le Mans: Sunbeam’s Lovely Gran Turismo

  1. The Moon­stone white Har­ring­ton pho­to in your won­der­ful syn­op­sis is my USA Pro­mo­tion­al Har­ring­ton Le Mans (PHLM) as it appeared for the Grand open­ing (June, 2012) at the LeMay – Amer­i­c­as Car Muse­um. It debuted at the 1962 Twelve Hours of Sebring fol­lowed by the 1962 New York Inter­na­tion­al Auto show. It was raced by Greg Vederoff on the US West Coast dur­ing the 1962 rac­ing sea­son. I also have the 1962 Works Sebring Alpine #41 dri­ven by Peter Harp­er and Peter Poc­ter where they took third in class. Jan Igg­bom is an auto­mo­tive his­tor­i­cal cham­pi­on for main­tain­ing the Har­ring­ton Alpine site.

    Many thanks, cap­tion amend­ed accord­ing­ly. RML

  2. As build­ings can be recog­nised as art, as works of engi­neer­ing, such as steam loco­mo­tives, can be recog­nised as art, so it should also be with cars.

    Thank you.

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