The Harrington Legionnaire. You say that you’ve never heard of it? Well, you probably haven’t, but invariably you probably know exactly what it is.
Threading its way up and over the Col De Turini, driven by surly Big William and carrying a cargo that started with three Mini Coopers, promptly jettisoned over the cliffs as the Coach left Italy and headed for Switzerland and eventually finished up carrying only four-million dollar’s worth of gold bullion (in 1970 value!) and the perpetrators of the crime that heisted it from the Italians, led by none other that one Charles Croker.
Yes, that relatively non-descript but curious and now famous coach was indeed a Harrington Legionnaire. Like the Minis, and the Alfa Romeo Giulia police cars in the film, the Aston DB5 Volante, the E-Type and of course the Orange Lamborghini Miura driven by Rossano Brazzi in the opening sequence, all the cars in the film became famous. Perhaps not because of the film but at least in part it must’ve helped. The Legionnaire too, is instantly recognisable with its twin front axles, both steering and a simple single rear with twin rear wheels. Its distinctive two-tone paint and barn-door rear allowing for the ramps to be lowered at speed on the Autostrada outside Turin and the Minis to drive aboard!
It was heady stuff, and the stunt team lead by Remi Julienne performed it all for real. No CGI in 1970!
It’s interesting to me that commercial vehicles so often escape notoriety or enthusiasm because they sadly have a lack of relativity to most of us in “mainstream” enthusiast fields. Trucks and busses for most of us exist out of necessity, but like cars there were some companies that had truly interesting histories – Harrington was indeed one of them.
Established in 1896, Thomas Harrington and Sons was a coachbuilder in the true sense of the word, constructing horse-drawn carriages of varying applications. And then intelligently, over the course of the introduction of the car, they adapted themselves as constructors of car bodies, clothing chassis from Bugatti and Ballot, Rolls Royce and even Austro-Daimler – a brand that they were for a time responsible for importing and distributing in England. With a forward-thinking approach to business and design Harrington thrived, and in the thirties also moved into a delightful Art Deco factory in Hove, Sussex that established them with a reputation for volume and quality, and style.
They intelligently predicted that times would get tough for coachbuilders that constructed nothing but car bodies, and ended this type of production concentrating solely on trucks and motor coaches. Then, during World War two when so many companies in any type of automotive application were utilised by the war office to direct their labour toward the effort, Harrington’s expertise was adapted in the construction of the airframes for the Westland Lysander aircraft and, more entertainingly – the construction of one-quarter scale busses and trucks designed to entertain children and keep their spirits up!
After the war, a swift return to coach body construction was on the cards to cater for the increased demand for that type of vehicle.
Harrington embarked into a period of design and construction excellence, developing a reputation for their busses that cut a fine dash, and drew good clientele from all over Britain and Europe.
By the early sixties the company was under its third generation of family control and Clifford, Thomas’ grandson sought a re-entry into car manufacture. The company had always had a connection with Rootes Group and thus consequently that company’s Sunbeam products made perhaps, an obvious place for Harrington’s re-entry into the car business. Albeit really a modified car, the Sunbeam Harrington Coupe was born.
These days we’re accustomed to convertible versions of various cars being an off-shoot of the coupe but not so in late fifties Britain. In many cases, sports cars were designed solely to be sold as roadsters, and it lead to the sale of many types of hard-top as either factory options or after-market accessories. Just think about cars like the MGA, Austin Healeys, MGBs and indeed – the Sunbeam Alpine. Harrington’s conversion basically sought to offer the market a closed coupe version of the Alpine roadster, in a more civilised, European style; like a miniature Aston Martin DB4. It was a successful conversion even if it was in some ways quite rudimentary – using the soft-top clips on the windscreen frame to permanently hold the leading edge of the roof in place!
In 1961, the Rootes Motorsport department a Harrinton Alpine was prepared with aluminium boot, door and bonnet panels and faired-in headlamps and sent to compete at Le Mans, and beat Porsche to victory in the Index of Themal Efficiency, spurring a slightly warm version of the street car that would be known as the Harrington Le Mans.
Short glory back in cars though for the firm, as serious business continued in the coach business and it was, a result of their own evolution that the Legionnaire came to be. As an eleven-metre passenger coach body, built on Ford Thames 676E and Bedford VAL chassis like our hero bus from the Italian Job, Harrington probably built hundreds of Legionnaire Coaches but I can’t find a skerrick of data anywhere that eludes to real number!
After its use in the cult film, the production company sold it on and it went back to a more humble life, actually carrying passengers around Scotland before it was scrapped in the 1990s.
I guess whilst the stories of companies like Harrington’s are never going to be as well known as some car manufacturers, what they are is utterly shrouded in mystique.
There are lots of bus enthusiasts around the world – (I promise, there really are!), but lets be honest – what kid has a picture of the school bus on their bedroom wall? It is in some ways sad that Harrington has vanished into the ether, leaving only very specialised interest in what they did, but its not uncommon. It is nice to know though, that as a relic of a film that was partly famous for its motorised stars as well as its actors, that there was a little bit of interesting history behind ‘ALR 453B’, the Getaway Bus!After its use in the cult film, the production company sold it on and it went back to a more humble life, actually carrying passengers around Scotland before it was scrapped in the 1990s.
I guess whilst the stories of companies like Harrington’s are never going to be as well known as some car manufacturers, what they are is utterly shrouded in mystique. There are lots of bus enthusiasts around the world – (I promise, there really are!), but lets be honest – what kid has a picture of the school bus on their bedroom wall? It is in some ways sad that Harrington has vanished into the ether, leaving only very specialised interest in what they did, but its not uncommon. It is nice to know though, that as a relic of a film that was partly famous for its motorised stars as well as its actors, that there was a little bit of interesting history behind ‘ALR 453B’, the Getaway Bus!