Thermal underdog

This Sunbeam Alpine shocked the French hosts by winning the Index of Thermal Efficiency at Le Mans. Richard Heseltine goes back to its Rootes

It’s unlikely to feature in any roundup of motor racing milestones: 16th place and second in class at Le Mans 1961. But, as expectation-defying acts go, the Rootes Competition Department’s victory in the concurrent Index of Thermal Efficiency with this Sunbeam Harrington Alpine should be celebrated, if for no other reason than for upsetting the French. This was, after all, a prize created with the sole intention of ensuring the locals won something — anything — in the 24-hour Grand Prix d’Endurance, regardless of where they finished on the road.

And much ado was made of the ‘Index Energetique’ at home, the patience-challenging regulations being principally based on fuel efficiency using a formula relating to the distance covered over the 24 hours, the amount of fuel used and the weight of the vehicle. Perseverance doesn’t necessarily mean worthiness, but in this instance drivers Peter Procter and Peter Harper completed 2182 miles and averaged 91.4mph, spending just under nine minutes in the pits. A remarkable achievement considering this was a steel-hulled production sportscar with a 1.6-litre pushrod engine up against purpose-built machinery. That said, ‘production’ didn’t always mean ‘standard’.

The suggestion of campaigning the Alpine at Le Mans was down to Rootes competition manager Norman Garrad who, together with young engineer (and future Ferrari sportscar ace) Mike Parkes, headed up the project from the end of 1960.  Procter recalls: “There was some doubt over whether or not we would do the 24 Hours. Peter Harper and I were sent to the MIRA proving ground with a regular-bodied Alpine and told to drive it around there for 12 hours. If it didn’t break we would then get an entry for Sebring and Le Mans. We thrashed it for hours on end and I seem to remember us averaging around 100mph. Garrad scolded us, saying, ‘What are you trying to do, blow it up?’, but the beauty of Rootes’s products was that while they weren’t the fastest cars out there they were reliable. Anyway, Garrad went back to the factory and informed Lord Rootes of how we’d got on. He was delighted that the car hadn’t broken.”

So three cars were dispatched to Florida in March ’61. Only one lasted the distance on the bumpy airfield circuit, Procter and Harper finishing third in class — behind two MGs. Not the sort of publicity Rootes was after, but the US arm made the most of it, trumpeting how the Alpine had been fastest in its ‘price class’.

Then came the April Le Mans test weekend. The Sebring veterans — bumperless and wearing hard tops — proved desperately slow, the best overall time being 24 seconds behind a 1-litre Abarth. Hedging their bets, the decision was made to enter two cars for the race proper: an outwardly standard one and another more distinctive variation.

Enter Thomas Harrington Ltd. This Hove coachbuilder had found some fame during the earlier half of the century. By the early ’60s the business incorporated a chain of Sussex Rootes dealerships and the firm was lent official blessing for an attractive GT variant of the Alpine, one of which was to form the basis for the Le Mans challenge.

After initial preparation at the Rootes Competition Department at Ryton, 3000 RW was sent to Hove where the doors, bootlid and bonnet were reskinned in aluminium. In a major departure from the standard car, the ally nose area was unique, with recessed headlights and a very low front apron that went right back and below the sump. This incorporated an inlet for the oil cooler below the radiator inlet. Unlike the regular Harrington coupés, the glassfibre roof fitted here featured a vent to the rear, Perspex side glazing affording additional weight loss. A huge filler cap in the rear side window led to a 22-gallon tank immediately behind the drivers, and in a quest for economy the 1652cc ‘four’ was fitted with twin downdraught Solex carbs instead of Webers in the run-up to the race.

Qualifying didn’t prove simple, scrutineers insisting that the rear wheels should be shrouded as they were not allowed to protrude beyond the bodywork. This done, the car made the start, while the essentially stock sister car of Peter Jopp and Paddy Hopkirk was soon hobbled by overheating problems. By half distance it was out of the race, according to Garrad “because of overdrive problems”, some period reports claiming it had run its bearings. Truth is, the car was disqualified after oil was added before the regulation 25-lap interval — precisely to stop bearing failure.

So Rootes’s hopes rested on the Harrington coupé. Fortunately, the car ran with metronomic regularity. Procter: “We barely had to change the tyres and I don’t remember the oil filler being opened once. It was a lovely car and so easy to drive. No power, but you would just wind it up and let it drift through the corners. We set a constant average and stuck to it, hoping for a class win, but it was pretty obvious that we couldn’t stay with the Porsches so we just settled in for a finish.”

There was, however, one slight flaw in the plan. “Peter Harper was a keen smoker and the thought of spending so long between cigarette breaks was too horrible to contemplate,” laughs Procter. “He used to light up going down the Mulsanne and then stick the butts in the ashtray before Arnage. Well, I used to chew gum and then stick it in the ashtray. I remember Peter giving me a right rollicking over that!”

Ashtray etiquette aside, there were no further problems. The duo found themselves leading the Index of Thermal Efficiency in the later stages, although story has it that when John Wyer paid a visit to the Sunbeam pit to inform Garrad that he stood a good chance of claiming the prize he was met with a quizzical ‘Index of what?’

Nonetheless, Rootes took away the silverware, although this success wasn’t confirmed until after the race. Procter: “They didn’t complete all the tallying up for about an hour after we’d finished so we never got to make it onto the podium with all the quick boys — a bit of a shame.”

So, after its one and only competition appearance, the Harrington toured Rootes’s outlets before being sold as a road car. After passing through various hands it suffered the ignominy of having its unique front end destroyed after connecting with a milk float. The Sunbeam then went to ground before Clive Harrington (son of former MD Clifford) located the by now bruised and battered remains in a West Midlands field in 1974, the front panels by then replaced with standard Alpine items.

Wanting to own some form of link with his father’s firm (Rootes had taken over the business in 1964), Clive bought the car three years later before embarking on a comprehensive stripdown. Despite having been left open to the elements it was nearly complete, right down to the race engine bearing the experimental number EXP421. By the early ’90s Harrington was in a position to restore the car, roping in Rod Jolley to recreate the distinctive frontal area, with former Brabham man Richard Miles — who’d built engines for Sunbeam’s 1962 Le Mans attack — fettling the mechanicals. Since the car was completed Clive has raced it sporadically, including a couple of outings at the Goodwood Revival.

Photographs don’t really lend a sense of scale. The Harrington really is dinky, like an Aston DB5 that’s been shrink-wrapped. Finished in its original Seacrest Green, it’s not exactly pretty, more pert and cute. Instantly endearing too. You’d be hard pressed to see where the aluminium starts and the original metal ends: take off the roundels and kill switches and it could pass for a production car.

A sense that’s less immediately obvious inside, the Alpine’s cabin recognisable but shorn of any extraneous baggage, with minimalistic door furniture and exposed transmission tunnel. The regular dash is in place minus the original, very large tacho. Despite the pedals being offset to the right it’s comfortable, although taller drivers will probably find their heads making contact with the exposed glassfibre matting.

As Castrol R tickles your nostrils, the Sunbeam is barely audible at idle. Only when you flex the vivid green throttle pedal do you usher in any commotion, the rorty backbeat attracting the attention of the circuit’s noise police (“You do know there’s a 100-decibel limit, don’t you?” “Pardon? Can’t hear you.”).

With around 105bhp on tap, initial acceleration isn’t all that swift and there’s a bit of a gulf between second and third, but in the mid-range the Harrington picks up and goes. At around 4500rpm (there’s another 1000 left before the red line) in fourth you’re flying, with overdrive top just a lever-pull away. Procter reports that he and Harper pretty much left overdrive engaged for the duration and you can see why: it’ll cruise quite happily in the low three figures all day.

And it’s just so faithful. The steering is wonderfully meaty, which makes it that much easier to explore the handling. On narrow rubber it drifts without any real effort and you don’t have to constantly apply lock to counter the tail as it steps out under hard cornering. There isn’t enough power to get into any real trouble so it flatters even hacks. Only camber changes upset the chassis, the racing boots prompting it to tramline a little over zitty asphalt, but even then it’s a doddle to correct. The factory four-speeder has quite a long throw but you would have to be totally hamfisted to bungle your changes; the brakes are reassuringly progressive with decent pedal feel, although in period this was one area drivers found lacking.

So it’s still an Alpine, albeit an exceptionally well-sorted one. The Sunbeam’s trump card is its ease of use. Though not the fastest car ever to grace the Circuit de la Sarthe, it’s doubtful that many could produce its sort of consistency. Nothing did in period and, tellingly, the Index of Thermal Efficiency was canned within a few years of the two Peters lifting the spoils. It may not be woven into motorsport lore, but it was an English victory. In France. They don’t come any sweeter.