Celebrating the cars and more of Thomas Harrington & Sons

| 21 Aug 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

If you are not into Sunbeam Alpines or mid-century coaches, you probably haven’t heard of Harrington, but the long-defunct Hove-based company is still beloved by those in the know for producing beautiful bodywork for whatever its artisans found themselves working on.

The Harrington Gathering brings together the company’s disparate products every five years, and in May 2023 it came to Transport Museum Wythall.

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

We meet the committed few still flying the flag for coachbuilder Harrington

Thomas Harrington & Sons followed the well-trodden route of early 20th-century coachbuilders as it moved from building horse-drawn carriages to bodywork for motorised chassis, specialising in commercial vehicles.

The firm moved to an Art Deco-fronted factory in Hove in 1930, and that style would dominate its automotive creations.

Among its most famous coaches are its dorsal-finned streamliners, although all of its bodies display a similar style.

“It carried this design theme on through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, to the last vehicles it made,” says Denis Chick, trustee at the museum in Worcestershire.

“There is the same design flair all the way through. They are glorious machines.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Every five years, the Harrington Gathering brings together some of the company’s surviving products, from coaches to coupés

Looking to diversify its income, particularly with something that didn’t take quite as long to build as an entire coach, Harrington turned back towards cars as a sideline in 1961.

Two different Sunbeam Alpine-based models are its most famous products, but the firm also produced closed-cockpit Triumph TR4s.

It wasn’t enough to save the company, however.

The firm closed in 1966, and its decadent factory building has long since disappeared.

Fraser Clayton: 1939 Leyland Cheetah Harrington

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Fraser Clayton bought this befinned Leyland coach in 1991

Harrington’s befinned coaches of the 1930s are probably its most famous creations yet only a handful of these glorious streamlined machines remain, including Fraser Clayton’s superb Leyland Cheetah.

This coach, a 1939 petrol-engined LZ5 model, was run by Blue Motors, the livery of which it wears today, and built with a fully retractable cloth roof, reflecting the coach’s early use for holiday tours.

“I purchased it in 1991,” says Fraser.

“This was something I saw and just thought I had to have a go at it.

“All of these Harringtons have fantastic bodywork, and I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Harrington specialised in commercial vehicles in its early days as a coachbuilder for motorised chassis

“It had been used as a summer house in a garden in Cornwall for many years, and was a complete wreck when I bought it,” explains Fraser.

It took nine years for Fraser to restore the bus, which required new bodywork from the waistline down, but the complex glass and bodywork of the upper half had thankfully survived intact.

Fraser found some of the coach’s original moquette behind some retrofitted panelling and recreated it throughout the interior, while a set of Harrington seats from a contemporary coach were reupholstered and fitted.

“I mainly just take it to events,” adds Fraser.

“We drove up from Sussex yesterday, which takes about five hours in this!”

Julia & Andrew Yates: 1961 Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Andrew Yates had a number of parts shipped from the USA for his Harrington Le Mans restoration

The Sunbeam Alpine was the obvious place for Harrington to turn when it made the decision to work on cars in 1961, because the Harrington family also owned a Rootes franchise.

Based on the Alpine Series II, the first Harrington cars were slightly awkward in how their traditional boot opening married with the fastback rear end, but it was a handsome vehicle nonetheless and sold reasonably well, with 110 of them shifted in a year.

Then the Le Mans joined the range. The model solved the luggage-bay problem by doing away with the Alpine’s rear wings and adding a proper hatchback.

Andrew and Julia Yates’ car is one of the very earliest Le Mans, built in 1961.

“We think – based on the records, which aren’t complete – that this is car number 17,” says Andrew. 

”But we know it is an early car because there are certain things that are quite different from the majority of Le Mans.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Sunbeam Alpine-based coupés became a popular product for Harrington

“The opening mechanism of the hatchback, the armrests, the sliding mechanism for the seat and the centre console all differ from the later cars,” he continues.

“The earlier cars were, in my opinion, built with quite a bit of extra engineering.”

Andrew, also the owner of a Sunbeam Tiger, pursued this Harrington Le Mans for three years before the owner finally agreed to sell it to him.

Then began a full restoration requiring many parts to be shipped over from the USA, where there is an active Harrington Le Mans community.

“I was tempted to make a Harrington Tiger but wanted to reproduce what the factory did, given it is a rare early car,” adds Andrew, “I did a lot of research to get it right.

“This car is unusual for its eggcrate front grille and round rather than peaked headlights.”

Derek Hewitson: 1962 Sunbeam Harrington Alpine Series C

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Derek Hewitson’s Harrington Alpine Series C is a copy of the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show car

Having created a hatchback rear end for the Le Mans, Harrington redeveloped its Alpine to accommodate the much better boot-opening solution of the new design, while maintaining the ease of production of its initial model.

The result was the Series C Harrington Alpine.

“This is the earliest-known example of the Series C,” says owner Derek Hewitson.

“The lady who first bought it was clearly quite forceful. She went to the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show and demanded to buy the very car featured on the stand.

“The Harrington team wouldn’t sell it to her, but made her one exactly the same. So it isn’t the motor show car, but it is an exact copy of it.”

Derek has owned the Alpine for more than 40 years, having bought it in 1984 when struggling to find a decent Volvo P1800: “I had no idea what it was – I just liked it.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Dedicated enthusiasts are keeping the Harrington Sunbeams on the road

“After I’d had it a while I did some research and discovered how rare it was,” he explains.

Derek had the Series C restored in 1987.

The job wasn’t cheap but has stood him in good stead, and the car remains in much the same condition today.

Looking after it has proved relatively simple because it is mechanically almost identical to an Alpine, but there are still challenges.

“I’ve been looking for an overdrive switch for 30 years,” laughs Derek.

“It was also fitted with a Clayton Dewandre brake servo unit by Harrington as an optional extra.

“I’ve not been able to find new seals for it, so I’ve had to use a Girling servo instead.”

Andy Goldsmith: 1963 Sunbeam Harrington Alpine Series C

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Andy Goldsmith has three Sunbeams, including this Harrington Alpine Series C

Harringtons are regarded by many Sunbeam Alpine enthusiasts as the ultimate, most collectible variants of the model, with many owned by serial Alpine fans such as Andy Goldsmith.

Andy is the keeper of two other Alpines and first saw this car at club meets in the early 1980s.

He lost track of it for 20 years, and it wasn’t until it came up for sale at auction in 2021 that he finally claimed it as his own.

“I’ve just always liked the shape of Alpines, and in particular these final Harringtons,” he says.

“I know lots of people love the Le Mans, but the rear without the fins never quite worked for me.

“I wanted one with fins and the hatchback, so that led me to this because only the Series C has both.”

Harrington offered its Alpines with engines in either standard tune or three uprated stages.

“This has Hartwell’s stage 2 engine, and it does feel more powerful than my other Alpines,” adds Andy.

He also reports that the car is noticeably quieter and more serene than an open Alpine.

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

The Sunbeam Alpine proved a great starting point for Harrington

“This is the go-to car of my three Sunbeams when the weather isn’t looking too promising,” says Andy, “and my wife certainly prefers going in the Harrington.”

Unlike the Le Mans, the Series C Alpine features a backward-facing roof vent, which allows air to flow out of the cabin via the perforated headlining.

As low-volume, handbuilt products, the specification of Harringtons varies hugely, with a large options list offered along with any special requests, making the existence of two identical examples unlikely.

“My car has bucket seats and padded knee rests on the doors, which are my favourite options because they’re very comfortable,” says Andy.

“I think it has lost its original steering wheel. It probably came with a Carlotti, because that was the only one offered without a central horn push.

“This car has the horn mounted on a separate stalk, which is a rare detail.”

Justin Harrington: 1963 Sunbeam Alpine Harrington Series C

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Justin Harrington has a family connection to the former coachbuilder

“The name isn’t a coincidence!” says Justin Harrington.

“Thomas Harrington was my great grandfather, and he founded the company in 1897.”

Justin’s is one of the last Series C models, which weren’t built for long because Sunbeam updated the Alpine itself in 1963, modifying the windscreen surround, which in turn meant a new roof was needed for the Harrington.

The Series D that followed was even more scarce, with just six built, and overshadowed by the Le Mans and Harrington’s other products before the firm closed in 1966.

“I probably wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for the family connection,” says Justin.

“The company existed for nearly 70 years, but it’s now been out of business for 60 years so this is one tangible way of maintaining the family history.

“My son, I suspect, will have it next when the time comes.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Justin’s Alpine Harrington Series C was built in 1963, three years before his great grandfather’s business closed

The Series C is the second Harrington Alpine Justin has owned: he also has one of the three ex-works Le Mans cars built, the aerodynamic 3000 RW that raced in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours and won the Index of Thermal Efficiency that year.

His is one of two survivors.

“I mostly use the Alpine to go to events, and I’m doing a regularity rally in Yorkshire later this year,” adds Justin.

“I do a few thousand miles a year in it.

“It’s better to use it; the quickest way to let a car deteriorate is not to drive it.”

Glenn Brackenridge: 1962 Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

This Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans has been built for competition

Most Harrington Alpines have by now been restored, but long-time Sunbeam Alpine enthusiast Glenn Brackenridge hasn’t allowed his Le Mans a retirement from a long race career, with the car still competing to this day.

“A previous owner started rallying it in the 1980s, and by the ’90s he’d had it professionally prepared.

“He competed in the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique five times,” says Glenn.

“Then it was owned by a consortium who took it on Rally of the Tests five times, coming second one year.

“So it’s probably done more competition miles than any other Sunbeam.”

As member number eight of the Sunbeam Alpine Owners’ Club, Glenn figured he was well placed to take on the Le Mans when it came up for sale, in a condition he describes as “trashed”.

Others weren’t interested in a car so thoroughly modified, but Glenn already had plans to compete and considered it a time-saver.

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Some Alpine parts are being remanufactured, making maintenance easier

“Truthfully, it is a better rally car than race car, because of its weight,” he explains, “so I never trouble the leaders, but I enjoy improving my own lap times.

“I do all my own maintenance, so it’s satisfying to finish a race when others who have spent a lot more preparing their cars drop out.”

As one of the SAOC’s leading figures, Glenn has witnessed the cars becoming harder to maintain for a period, particularly lamenting Peugeot’s destruction of the model’s tooling in the 1970s, but parts are now being remanufactured as the cars have become more valuable again.

“The Tiger community has helped with that,” he adds. “We’ve benefited from the shared parts they have started remaking.

“It also helps that the engine lived on in the Hunter, right up to the 2000s in Iran. We’ve had people bring back units from there.”

Gary Scott: 1964 Triumph GTR4 Dové

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Harrington turned its attention to the Triumph TR4 after it stopped producing Sunbeam-based models

Harrington Alpine and Le Mans production stopped in 1963 after 384 of all types had been built, but a few car projects were on the go before the firm closed in 1966.

One Harrington Tiger and three Daimler SP250s were made, both closed-roof versions of standard cars, and Harrington signed up to build hardtop Triumph TR4s for Wimbledon dealer LF Dove & Co, creating the Triumph GTR4 Dové (the accent was a marketing move from the Hyacinth Bucket school of social one-upmanship).

It proved a moderate success despite a price-tag of £1250, when a standard car was £968, with 50-55 cars built.

“It’s my second Triumph,” says Gary. “I had a TR6 before it.

“I saw this for sale and didn’t know anything about them, but I had young children and realised that I could get a couple of small kids in the back seat and a pushchair in the boot, so I bought it.

“The car was a wreck; you’d have skipped it if it were a standard TR4, but all the Harrrington bits were good.

“That was the important thing.”

Classic & Sports Car – Thomas Harrington & Sons: coachbuilt legacy

Gary Scott’s GTR4 Dové was restored in the 1980s

Gary spent three years restoring the car after he bought it, finishing in 1987.

He later discovered that it was the last GTR4 Dové built, and therefore probably the last car produced by Harrington.

As well as the roof and 2+2 seating, the GTR4 gained standard overdrive, an 18-gallon fuel tank and an engine tuned by Laystall Engineering.

“They were obviously a bit heavier, but thanks to the aerodynamics the top speed is significantly higher than a standard car,” says Gary.

He has now owned it for more than 35 years and uprated it to fast-road tune, although he’s now replacing parts fitted during the original restoration.

“I’ve just done the front and rear suspension,” he says. “I’m undoing bolts I did up 36 or 37 years ago!”

Images: John Bradshaw

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