In 1897 Thomas Harrington (1859-1928) started building light horse drawn passenger wagonettes, flys and landaus at his premises in Church Street, Brighton. Within three years the original works was expanded and new showrooms were acquired in King Street. The increasing popularity of the motor car meant that this became the mainstay of the business, although commercial vehicle bodywork remained as a sideline.
Unlike many, Harrington adapted well when standardisation of body designs by private car manufacturers in the twenties. What work there was tended to be for bespoke chassis such as Bentley or Bugatti and this led to Harrington's upmarket image. Cars continued to be a feature of Harrington work right up to the end of the company, but they were very much the minority. Production of luxury coach and bus bodies became the major occupation of the firm, with commercial vehicle bodies a smaller but significant proportion of the output.
In 1930 a purpose-built factory known as Sackville Works was constructed at Old Shoreham Road, Hove. The factory occupied an area of seven acres and by the late forties over six hundred employees staffed the works. The site area always limited production to approximately 200 vehicles a year and would be one, although not the main reason that Harringtons ceased trading.
During World War II, work other than war effort stopped completely. The very few passenger vehicles that emerged from the works may be presumed to be either repair of damaged vehicles or for supply to the armed forces. Harrington constructed a number of special vehicles for Army, Navy and RAF and maintained others. Part of the works was converted to manufacture air frame components. Another activity where Harringtons were proud to contribute was the production of prototype aircraft components and this eventually became a major part of war work. The techniques such as light alloy construction and jig manufacture were incorporated into post-war coach production, thus ensuring quick and accurate assembly. Prototype work such as this continued even after the war and through the fifties.
During the 1950s, a greater use of glass fibre was successfully applied to their products, thus saving on the costly panel beating process. By the early sixties, when the success of the Cavalier coach was resulting in batches of large orders, the limitations imposed by the factory size were becoming more and more apparent and Harrington once again turned to the car side of their business. Fortunately eschewing the complete fibreglass replacement body so popular in the fifties, they started modifying production sports cars and making fibreglass GT-conversions. Base vehicles were the Sunbeam Alpine and Triumph TR4. Fibreglass was also extensively used in the Commer 1500 12-seater mini bus. Commercial vehicle bodies were also produced but these tended to be very specialist in nature, with most bulk orders being Government contracts of some type.
Harrington had always been a family firm. Thomas' sons Ernest G. and Thomas R. were Joint Managing Director and Chairman until 1960. Arguably, in terms of business development things had been left to stagnate, but the small factory had always provided a good living. The company had made the decision to continue within the limits set by its production facilities at Sackville works. Clifford Harrington had been a joint director since the fifties in charge of coach building. It was Clifford who was keen to embrace the best continental influences. However it was clear that things had to change. The bespoke work that had filled in space around the coach production was beginning to dry up.
Harrington had been a Rootes agent since the thirties, the car dealership being run separately from the coachbuilding side. The result of this special relationship was an intense interest when Harrington approached Rootes to see if there was anything they could do for them on the strength of their initial efforts with the Alpine conversion. It happened that Rootes were being lured into the exotic and expensive world of competition motoring and were looking for a closed body for an Alpine at Le Mans. Unfortunately dark clouds were beginning to gather over the Rootes Group which would have dire consequences for many companies associated with them.
Harrington never became part of the Rootes Group, but early in 1961 the Rootes family gained a financial stake when the Robins and Day group purchased Harrington. Robins and Day were owned by the Rootes family, but privately and outside the Rootes Group. As far as the Harrington family was concerned this should have provided a steady stream of specialist work from Rootes companies and potential for cash injection. Sadly, this was to be far from the case. Later, George Hartwell came in to take charge of the Harrington Le Mans project. In November 1962, Desmond Rootes came on to the board as Director of Motor Trading. Clifford Harrington resigned from the board and left the firm. Gordon H. Harrington took his place as General Manager, Manufacturing (including coach building). At the same time Geoffrey Harrington was appointed to the Board as Sales Manager Manufacturing division.
The Harrington Alpine fell victim to the 1960's recession. The coupe was deleted from the Alpine range in 1963. The conversions on the Commer minibus kept the Rootes connection ticking over until near the end and in fact after the closure of Sackville works, the fibre-glass conversions continued to be produced at Rootes in Maidstone although no longer badged as Harringtons.
The firm was in a deadlock situation. As far as coaches were concerned no money was made available to develop new models. It was quite clear that the bespoke method of production that had served Harrington so well on its small site could no longer be made cost effective. Geoffrey Harrington had resigned in April 1965. Late in 1965 in was announced that coach-building activities would be discontinued in the following year. Unfortunately on the closure of the works most of the archive material relating to bodies built and photographs and drawings were destroyed. The factory passed to British Telecom as a motor fleet service centre and was finally demolished in 1999.
This is a summarized version of N.L.E.Webster's text at www.thcoachwork.co.uk
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