by Tony Inzana
The Sunbeam Harrington LeMans, which some of you remember appeared in our newsletter as a Road & Track road test reprint several issues ago, arrived officially on the English motoring scene in December, 1961, at the Earls Court Motor Show of that year.
Take a normal Sunbeam engine and chassis, tune the power unit to a knife’s edge and add as pretty a body as you’ve seen–and the result is the Sunbeam Harrington LeMans, the loveliest-to-lock-at new small car to grace the roads of this country for sometime…
One of the surprises of the show can be seen on stand 74a. It is the Sunbeam Harrington LeMans, which, say the manufacturers, ‘comes straight from one of the worlds greatest motor races’.
And in fact, it did. The Alpine’s and for that matter, Rootes greatest success in competition took place at LeMans in 1961. The results of that one race not only brought Rootes an indeterminable amount of publicity, it introduced as a direct descendant, a new British sports car–the Sunbeam Harrington LeMans.
Based on the Sunbeam Alpine which won the Index of Thermal Efficiency Award at the 1961 LeMans 24-Hour Race (considered the 2nd highest award to outright victory, it recognizes the car ,with the highest overall average mileage for the duration of the race at the highest average speed). The 1.6 litre Harrington LeMans had an entirely new body styling and a highly tuned, high performance engine. It was manufactured and produced by the specialty coach builders of Thomas Harrington, Ltd., of Hore, Sussex, England with the approval of the Rootes Group.
The LeMans evolved from a series of coachwork conversions and modifications that Harrington was performing at the time on the Alpine. These examples, known as Harrington Alpines, were usually customer ordered and correspondingly designed to specific individual purchases.
They offered the flexibility, comfort, styling, and increased cockpit area of GT Coupe to Rootes’ existing Alpine roadster body and chassis. This was accomplished by having a customer purchase a standard Alpine, arrange either through the Rootes dealer or privately, through Harrington, for the car to be delivered to Harrington’s (which in fact was also an independent Rootes dealer). Once there, working to customer request, the car would be converted to accept the chosen GT body styling, either opening rear window hatch with the trunk spare wheel access inside or fixed hatch with trunk access through a half-lid located below the rear window. In some instances, both the hatch and lower lid would open for access. The framing for these modifications was completely of wood with the actual body material being fiberglass. The mating of the roadster steel body and, the fiberglass took place along the waist/rear fender line of the Alpine. Back as far as the windscreen ‘A’ pillar and the doors, the construction was pure Alpine. By overlapping the steel with the fiberglass from-aft of the doors at the ‘B’ post and running the roof line down into a newly designed sharply tapering tail the resulting effect was both structurally sound as well as pleasing to look at.
On these earlier Harrington Alpines the rear fin was retained. It was from this style that the LeMans car came. The production cars were further available with optional engine preparation in three stages from 83 to 100 brake horsepower. In addition, the complete interior was redesigned and available with numerous options and combinations to the customer. Harrington accomplished everything throughout the conversion with the exception of engine tune which was consigned to George Hartwell, Ltd. of nearby Bournemouth. The Harrington Alpine was available to Rootes Dealers and was often ordered as a finished car to sell, as presented, to off-the-street buyers. Harrington themselves would offer cars such as these in their showroom having them available to sell as well as to display and promote their coachwork conversions.
It was with an eye to this obvious experience and success that Rootes chose Harrington to build the body for their LeMans Alpine entries of 1961. The LeMans cars, numbers 34 and 35, went one step further in design by incorporating recessed head lights and a molded wraparound lower grill and apron to the GT styled coupe roof and rear treatment of their sister Harrington Alpines. The finished cars are reminiscent in many ways, to the author, of scaled down editions of Aston Martin coupes of the same vintage.
The success of Number 34 is history as it not only won the Index of Thermal Efficiency but was 2nd in its class and 16th overall. The value of this success was considerable, both for the Rootes Group and Harringtons themselves; and it prompted the decision shortly afterwards to market a production version of the LeMans car. The result is the Harrington LeMans.
The LeMans differs considerably from the Harrington Alpine bodied LeMans Alpines that actually ran in the race. The body was restyled to better incorporate the roof/tail line of the earlier cars by removal of the fins. This allowed the rear fenders to blend more smoothly with the line of the sloping roof. Clusters of horizontal rear tail lamps on the cut-off back replace those previously mounted in the fins. The optional opening rear window hatch becomes standard, allowing for trunk/spare wheel access through the open hatch and deleting the necessity of the lower trunk lid. The opening hatch has a remote cable release from inside near the driver’s shoulder.
Inside the car, the normal seats were replaced by well made and shaped Mirco-cell bucket seats. Behind which are two very small occasional seats of the “GT” variety common today. The backrest for these seats fold forward to provide a greatly extended luggage platform that was impressive particularly for its day (you must remember that in 1961 the small GT sports car as we know it was non-existent and in many senses this was the first, well before the GT6 or MGB/GT and even the XKE). Beneath this compartment, and reached by lifting a trap door directly below the rear window, is the spare wheel, jack and other tools plus additional storage space.
Quality of workmanship was commendable considering the handmade adaptations necessary. The fiberglass roof is of a rough early type “grainy” fiber which is fitted and placed solidly and is free from movement. The result was quite attractive and offered a definitely more finished appearance compared to the earlier coupes and separated it, except from a direct frontal view, completely from the Alpine roadster.
The power unit of this new car, as advertised, was tuned to the “precise” specifications used by the Rootes Group for the car which lapped the LeMans circuit for 24 hours at an average speed of 91.4 mph for 2194 miles on a total of 122.5 gallons of fuel, with only 9, repeat 9 minutes off course for fuel stops. Its average consumption was 18 miles per gallon. The engine developed 105 B.H.P. at 6000 rpm at a compression ratio of 9.5 to 1 or some 19 h.p. more than the normal production of the Series II Alpine at 5000 rpm. The LeMans torque is eleven pounds above that of the Alpine at 4500 rpm instead of 3800.
The engine modifications involved were considerable. A special lightweight flywheel and competition clutch were fitted, and these were balanced as a unit with the crankshaft. Valve operation was controlled from a high-lift camshaft, and assisted through stronger valve springs, while the breathing was altered by enlarging and polishing the inlet and exhaust ports and changing the choke and jet sizes of the two downdraft Zenith carburetors. In addition the Laycock-deNormanville overdrive was available in modified form to operate on all four forward gears. Other mechanical features included a heavy duty brake booster supplied by Clayton DeWandre, larger front roll bar, and an oil cooler. The cars came equipped with Dunlop RS5 radial tires.
The interior was given deluxe trim treatment with numerous interior combinations available including 3 differently styled door panels, the Micro-cell seats were unique and special made for the LeMans, a Carloth wood rimmed steering wheel was supplied by Les Leston of England with a matching walnut veneer dash and gearshift knob.
O.K., with all this, why am I just now hearing about this Rootes entry to the wonder car contest of the early sixties? Who knows exactly, certainly the car wasn’t that far ahead of its time (note the previous mention to numerous GT introductions in successive years).. And according to the English releases, the car was destined for export immediately. One answer might be the price, originally marketed in England for 1495 Pounds, and over here at between 3995-4200 Dollars. In 1962 that would put it in the same league with Alfas, Porsches, Jags, etc. and considerably above Rootes own Alpine along with the MG’s and Triumphs. It was definitely bucking stiff competition in a market segment that Rootes was new to, but then again Rootes had always been forced to go against the competition with its more refined, less ‘roadster’ image sports car in the Alpine. And this was really quite a jump in styling, it was the first of its kind and had the benefit of its LeMans success.
The car didn’t lack for publicity as it appeared on the covers of Road and Track, Car & Driver, and Sports Car Graphic in this country. Initially the dealers were crazy to obtain the cars and yet why the void, why no cars now? As far as I can see this is probably the key, what it all came down to was on the basis of all this acclaim and notoriety, when the dust settled, there were just no cars to take advantage of it. People didn’t see and what they never saw they never bought. Except for dealer demonstrators and a small number of individual orders, mostly from U.S. servicemen who had seen the car while abroad, there just was no follow up.
Actually this same condition plagued dealers again under similar circumstances when the Tiger was introduced in New York 2 1/2 years later. .There weren’t any available to sell in light of the tremendous response given the introduction. Essentially then, the LeMans died on the vine. From initial production in October, 1961, of random cars from the Alpine assembly line to late 1962 only the above mentioned examples plus the magazine test cars appeared in the United States. And when deliveries could finally begin to be expected, the conversions were ceased in early 1963 without any apparent reason and even less publicity.
Automobile Quarterly gives a figure of approximately 200 cars produced, which appears to be supported by Mike Taylor’s new book on the Tiger. Low figures indicate possibly as few as 150-175 units. Existing numbers would be anybody’s guess. I would put the percentage of remaining cars at around 20%, optimistically, of those produced. There is also an undetermined additional number of Harrington Alpines to consider which were available concurrently with the LeMans in England through 1964 (or thru the Series IV Alpine), and there is one Harrington Tiger, (that we know of). In any case, a whole lot less were produced than either Rootes or Harrington, envisioned and -. not very many by any standard.