ONLY 250 OF THIS SPECIAL SUNBEAM WERE BUILT, AND ONLY 150 SURVIVE
This 1961 Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans is a rare bird, despite hitting the news at launch — for prompting a lawsuit from Jaguar.
Its unveiling came at the October 1961 Earls Court Motorshow, at which Jaguar also launched its E-Type. Jaguar spotted similarities in the more affordable Rootes Group car’s rear hatch, blamed industrial espionage and called in the lawyers. It lost.
Present owner John Barley confirms that only 250 Harrington Le Mans were built, of which 150 survive, most of them in Europe, or the US. Harrington was a coachbuilder hired to convert the Alpine to a hard-top car.
“What they did was kept the fins, and put a solid hard roof on the car, made of fibreglass.”
Then the company was hired to make a Le Mans version. “They cut the fins off, and the whole back panel and the roof is fibreglass. That made the car floppy, and to make it rigid they put a big piece of metal boxing over the back axle. They called it a Harrington Le Mans. The headlights were curved in so it looked like an E-Type, and it won the thermal efficiency award.”
That award wasn’t based on speed. It used a formula of distance covered, fuel used and vehicle weight. The steel-bodied 1.6-litre car modified by Harrington specifically for Le Mans came 16th overall and second in class. It averaged 147km/h over the 3511.5km raced, and spent only nine minutes in the pits.
“To celebrate the win, they created one for sale, and to make it work for the road they used the boxing from the Le Mans car.”
John Barley and his 1961 Sunbeam Harrington Le Mans. Pictures / Jacqui Madelin
John bought this one in 1999, but his love of Alpines goes back much further.
“When I was 19 I had a Sunbeam Alpine Series II. I sold it after a year and a half, as my mum told me I’d go bankrupt if I carried on with it.”
He always wondered what had happened to his first love and eventually found it, bought it back and is now rebuilding it. But back to the Harrington, and in 1998 the insurance broking house Barley had started with his wife, Suzanne, was doing really well. She asked if he’d like to buy another Alpine, so they found a Series V, refurbished and rebuilt it, “and we get a lot of pleasure from it”.
Then a friend gave him a book, Sunbeam Alpine and Tiger, and there was a rear-view picture of a Harrington Le Mans. “I sat up in bed and said, ‘I’ve just got to have one of these cars.’”
“I was talking to a guy who had one for sale, which was out of my league, but he told me about a guy who had three of them, and one wasn’t in very good condition. So I rang him, he was an interesting chap, but the conversation went dead.”
Until he got another call, telling him if he was interested, to fly out immediately and make an offer. “We got on a flight.
It was in really bad condition, but I just fell in love with it … ” And so, from Easter 1999 to 2008, he rebuilt it.
He worked on the 1600cc engine with a friend, converted the car to right-hand drive, and refurbished the brakes.
“The whole front end had been smacked around, so I found a donor Alpine and we chopped the front end off the Harrington, took the Alpine donor, and boom, it went straight on.” The fibreglass was in bad condition and was redone by a yacht builder, and John tackled the cabin, with a club member remaking the dash. The original instruments went back in, and John rewired the car, following a diagram. “Smith & Smith Glass were brilliant — that back window curves top to bottom and side to side, and they spent hours getting it to fit.”
Amid all the dismantling, John found the original ownership papers under the seat. The car was first registered on January 1, 1962, in Hollywood. “When we stripped the back seat, there on the hardboard in black felt tip were the words, ‘show car’. We discovered only four cars [originally] went to the US, and this was the show car.”
It’s remarkably practical. The boot is huge, and the couple have travelled to Kerikeri and Masterton in it, and use it on runs. It cruises easily at 100, but how about on the track? John hasn’t tried it yet, though he has hit the circuit in his Alpine, with a race driver behind the wheel.
“It was cool fun, and I’d be curious to see how the Harrington performs on the track ... ”
Chances are that however it performs, John will still love this rare car with its cast-iron Le Mans link.