DUPLE and Thomas Harrington (Part 1)


DUPLE and Thomas Harrington

The company began with the construction of horse-drawn carriages. With the rise of motor vehicle, Thomas Harrington began building on motor car chassis, and prior to World War I, began to specialise in commercial vehicles, buses and coaches. After the armistice the company concentrated on luxury coaches supplementing these with some single-deck bus bodies and other general coach building activity.
During World War II they were selected by the War Ministry to build a specialised aircraft design and during their history they also produced ¼ – scale street-legal model coaches to entertain children, pioneered a minibus that bus operators found practical (and legal) to use and drove-forward coach design. They had an open outlook on developments in technology and an excellent grasp of marketing opportunities and an eye for a catchy press advertisement. They nurtured relationships with customers, one at least bought nothing other than Harrington for its entire existence.

The styling distinctiveness was a major selling point. A Harrington body had a clear ‘look’ at a time when many coachbuilders, Duple especially, would oblige customers and produce an astounding variety of outlines from the conservative to the totally bizarre, sometimes building to order straight copies of another coachbuilders style. By the mid-1930s the Harrington ‘look’ included a half cab with no canopy over the engine and a stepped window line, all arranged in a distinctive flowing series of curves. By the end of the decade when streamlining was the vogue Harrington had devised and patented a new feature called the ‘dorsal fin’. This appurtenance looked like a truncated aircraft tail and when applied to the rear of the vehicle allowed a rakishly curved rear-dome outline without compromising passenger access to the rear bench seat and was designed to act as an air-extractor as the vehicle moved, stale air exited the coach saloon due to the suction effect of the low pressure areas created behind the fin.
But at this time Europe was returning to war, and coach operations ceased, many operators having their vehicles impressed into military service. By the middle of 1940 all non-essential production had been frozen on Government orders and the entire vehicle-building industry had to turn to war work. Harrington were allocated the Westland Lysander aircraft to build. This was a short take off and landing STOL single-engine type, designed as an artillery spotter, which became noteworthy for its use in covert operations to and from occupied France. As well as the benefits of this to the war effort, it gave Harrington’s workforce new skills in jig-building using lightweight alloy sections and extrusions. After the war demand for new buses and coaches was somewhat pent-up as few had been delivered during the war. However, the country had a massive war debt to pay and all manufacturing industries were exhorted to devote at least 50% of output to export. Harrington was able to build a satisfactory export trade, particularly to South American operators and to those in British African colonies. For the home market most bodies were framed in steel-reinforced hardwood. Because all the established firms were trying to export, and thus were not able to offer even their most loyal customers acceptable lead-times, the period from 1946 to the early 1950s caused a mushrooming of small coachbuilders. There were many new models and styles of coach. In Harrington’s case these included (from 1948) the normal control Leyland Comet CPO1 with its small capacity 300 cu in direct-injection diesel and the Commer Avenger full-fronted forward control lightweight coach, with its big Humber petrol engine tilted over to 70 degrees so it hid under the coach floor. Commer was part of the Rootes Group, later the Rootes family bought Harrington and John C Beadle. For customers wanting a return to pre-war glamour, the ‘dorsal fin’ was available as an option even on the next generation.
This was designed for the new underfloor-engined chassis from AEC, Leyland and others but was also to be found on three of the Foden rear engined coach chassis. The Wayfarer ran to four marks and was produced from 1951 to 1961, the longest life of any Harrington design. It was the first to the new dimensions of 30 ft long by 8 ft wide and the first Harrington coach to feature a marque name. Grey bought every version of the type and also took Harrington-bodied Bedford’s throughout the 1950s; Silver Star took marks 1, 3 and 4 on Leyland; Southdown only took the mark one on Royal Tiger in 1952 and then deserted Harrington until 1960; Charlie’s Cars took Harrington-bodied Albion Victors and in 1958 had two Wayfarer mark 4 on Albion Aberdonian. North Western had been transferred from Tilling to BET during World War II and took Wayfarers of marks 1, 3 and 4 for its touring coaches but went elsewhere for express types, notably toward the end of the decade to Alexander.
From the early 1930s until the mid-1950s Harrington employee and former Southdown driver Ernie Johnstone constructed 63 quarter-scale road-legal coaches to give novelty rides to young children. Many of these were powered by Villiers 125cc two-stroke petrol engines. Bodies on 12 of these working models were constructed by Harrington, the rest he did himself with two friends in his spare time. During the 1950s Harrington, like Plaxton and Readings offered small party coaches on Karrier and Commer delivery van chassis, whilst from the late 1950s until the factory’s closure, Harrington was responsible for producing the Rootes Group’s in-house PSV conversion of the Commer 1500 minibus. After Harrington’s demise the minibus work went to the former Tilling-Stevens works in Maidstone. Customers of the minibus included Crossville, the first time the state sector had been served by Harrington since 1949, when United Automobile Services took a batch of Bristol coaches bodied in Hove for their prestigious Newcastle-London service.
The state-owned bus firms’ lack of interest in outside suppliers had one over-riding reason: In 1948 ECW and Bristol were served with a statutory ban on selling bodies to other than wholly government-owned organisations and thus ECW took care of almost all of the Tilling Group’s bus & coach body needs, produced London Transport’s first genuine coaches, and supplied some bodies to the Sheffield Transport C fleet and the Group. From 1953 to 1969 former Tilling-Stevens factory built the Commer TS3, a compact, if noisy, two-stroke opposed-piston diesel engine adopted in Commer commercials and later marks of their Avenger bus chassis. Harrington (like Beadle) employed units from the Avenger together with a mid-mounted TS3 engine in its Contender range of integral buses and coaches of the mid-1950s, some of these resembled the Wayfarer and others had the standard bus outline of the time, but there was a special design built for BOAC this had a straight waistrail and a multi-paned lantern-type windscreen. (One at least of these were powered by an eight-cylinder Rolls-Royce petrol engine of military pattern, driving torque-converter transmission. An odd choice of propulsion in the fuel-economy obsessed 1950s but they were probably a lot lighter on petrol than a Boeing Stratocruiser or a Lockheed Super Constellation). This style of Contender was sold in 1:76.8 scale model by Dinky Toys as their ‘BOAC Coach’ BOAC took 28, of which nineteen were used overseas making them the largest customer for the Contender, Maidstone and District were second with 11 buses and one coach.[12]Although during its short life the Contender was less successful than Beadle’s integral coaches, Beadle’s comparable Chatham range were by 1957 almost their only line and when the BET group decided to reduce the number of its recommended suppliers only Southdown’s liking for their coach body on the Leyland Tiger Cub kept the Dartford body lines going, but then Southdown switched to Weymann and briefly Burlingham (having taken Harrington Wayfarer mark ones in small numbers and then deserted Harrington for most of the 1950s) and that was the end of Beadle in the coachwork game. Rootes decided that the car-dealership chain Beadle also ran was a better business. During the life of the Wayfarer all of the mushroom coach building businesses disappeared. The clear number one in coach bodies by 1959 was Duple at Hendon, who by 1954 also had a bus factory in the east midlands at Kegworth and in 1958 purchased the bus builder Willowbrook in nearby Loughborough. Duple was strong in the lightweight end of the market, being first choice for bodies on the market-leading Bedford but was facing competition in the premium under floor engine class from Plaxton and Burlingham of Blackpool. Like Harrington’s, these were primarily builders of coach bodies who also did buses, Burlingham built double as well as single deck vehicles and had a respected if small list of customers for these. Weymann, Roe and Alexander were on the other hand bus builders who also did coaches.
During the run of the Wayfarer and the Contender, Harrington’s coachbuilders developed expertise in handling increasingly large and complex glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) mouldings. The management were keeping abreast of European trends in design and had formed an especial friendship with their opposite numbers at the Italian firm of Orlandi. These changes set the seed for future progress. This combination of alloy frame, mainly aluminium panelling and GRP for coachwork features requiring complex compound curvature enabled stronger, lighter and more durable coach bodies. Besides Harrington, Alexander, ECW, and Yeates of Loughborough and (in 1954-6) Park Royal were going down this route. The development of durable laminates for interior panel finish such as Wareite and Formica was another feature that Harrington started to pioneer. A belated change to the UK government construction and use rules in 1957 allowed fixed, rather than opening, driver’s windscreens on public service vehicle (PSV) bodies. This, together with advances in toughened glass manufacture, at last made it possible to have a coach windscreen with a three-dimensional curvature. Early examples of this by Duple, Plaxton and (particularly) Burlingham on the Bedford, Commer and Ford Thames lightweight coaches from 1958 were apt to be ‘over the top’ echoing similar goldfish-bowl windscreens on large saloon cars by the US-owned carmakers such as the Vauxhall Cresta PA. Harrington did not slavishly adopt, it considered, the next design from Old Shoreham Road retained flat-glazed (optionally-opening) windscreens.
Until 1957 Harrington designs for lightweight coaches such as the Bedford SB and the Commer Avenger had been unnamed, but in 1958 the Crusader was launched, it used large glass-fibre mouldings for the front and rear panels. It was slightly ungainly in its original form, but the Mark 2 was a fine looking vehicle, updated as Mark 3 with larger, Cavalier-sized side and rear windows. The final Mark 4 was perhaps a retrograde step, but no worse than equivalent Plaxton or Duple offerings of the time. It was built on the above two chassis and the Ford Thames 570E, customers included Northern General Transport, Garelochhead Coach Service and Southdown, who took a batch of 15 Commers in 1960. The Crusader was the only classic-era Harrington coach body to be purchased new by the state-owned operators, Transport Holding Company subsidiary Thames Valley taking a small batch of Mark 4 on Bedford SB13 for its South Midland coaching operation in 1964. Although that same year, Wilts & Dorset took over Silver Star, adding Wayfarers and Cavaliers to its coach fleet. Barton Transport’s 20 Grenadier-bodied Reliance’s are justly famous, but they also took 15 Crusader 3 on Bedford SB5, 1011-25 (BVO11-25C).
When Rootes Group entered the two-seat sports car market in 1958 with the Sunbeam Alpine some customers complained to the dealers that unlike some rival makes such as MG and Jaguar there was not a hardtop coupe version, Harrington were a Rootes dealer and had more expertise than remaining full Rootes subsidiaries in the use of GRP moulding techniques and thus produced these for sale through selected Rootes dealerships, they were known as Harrington Alpines. They also did a similar conversion to the Triumph TR4 for Wimbledon-based Dove Garages. This was called the Dove GTR4. The success of the Alpine programme including an encouraging performance at Le Mans led Commer to entrust Harrington with the PSV conversion of the 1500 van, which included a complete one piece fibreglass roof panel of clerestory outline.
Launched at the end of 1959, the Cavalier was ahead of the opposition in many if not all respects. Certainly its outside appearance was of classic beauty combining curves, sharp angles and peaks in harmony, which combined with understated use of bright trim in a way that made it stand out from the opposition by combining style with good taste, the double curvature windscreen was not only wholly in line with the style of the body but it helped night-time coach drivers by dispelling interior reflections. The Plaxton Panorama (launched in production guise in 1959) had a basically rather boxlike shape and a very flashy grille, but it did pioneer Smiths Instruments ‘jet-vent’ forced ventilation system allowing fixed windows and a cleaner side outline. The Duple Britannia (1956, on its third facelift for the 1960 season) had an excessively droopy outline and tiny windows, and was very little different from Duple’s gaudy Super Vega/Yeoman/Corinthian for cheap coach chassis. Duple probably didn’t care; the Brittania was not where the jam lay. The Duple (Midland) Donington was really just a bus tricked out with more chrome. The Willowbrook Viscount (new for 1960) had puzzling trim lines stopping and starting in the middle of nowhere and an overly-bulky outline whilst the optional reverse-rake rear glass was a feature that was already dated at the time of its launch and today simply looks odd.
Alexander sold coaches south of the border to North Western and Barton Transport and had a pair of fairly conservative (though aluminium-alloy framed) designs. The curved-waist style which Barton had taken since 1954 was discontinued in 1959 after its other major customer Western SMT had stopped ordering it, North Western took the straight-waisted variant for most of its coach applications, even taking its first batch of 36 ft (see later) Leopards to this outline.
Weymann built its Fanfare design for sale through MCW from 1954 to 1962 without alteration, at the end of its run it was a dated looking body.
Roe had during the 1950s a coach renaissance, selling versions of its Dalesman style to independents and company fleets almost exclusively on the AEC Reliance, in 1959 the Dalesman IV had trapezoidal glazing and a straight waistrail; the biggest customer for this style being Black & White Motorways of Cheltenham.
The masterly execution of the Cavalier stood out most against Burlingham’s Seagull 70, its closest contemporary and a body very similar in construction and basic outline. Comparing the two the Seagull 70s detailing was crude and over-emphasised whereas that of the Cavallier was sharply delineated, making the whole coach look lean and sculpted by comparison with the Burlingham style. Some would say that they summed up the difference between Blackpool and Hove. During that season Duple purchased Burlingham and renamed it Duple (Northern).
The Yeates Europa (from 1958, on first facelift for 1960) combined a similarly dumpy volume to the Willowbrook, made in the same town, with deliberately tasteless detailing and riotous paint schemes in a way that operators and passengers either loved or loathed, but it was easily the brashest option.

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