Triumph Dové GTR4 and MGB Berlinette, Sunbeam Harrington Alpine

2015 Drive-My

Coachbuilt Class for the Common man. Roadsters reinvented How Harrington, Dove and Coune turned MGs, Alpines and TRs into GTs.   Simon Charlesworth picks a winner from these practical period conversions based on three of the best-loved roadsters: TR4, Alpine and MGB. Photography Tony Baker.

First, fog so thick that the ’screen becomes a large laminated cataract; now, rain. Not half-hearted showers, but determined welterweight sideways drops that make you squelch when you move. Yet as frustrating as the Peak District’s weather is, and it’s painful to admit this, its timing is spot-on. Mother Nature’s recurrent bursts of incontinence highlight one need behind the inspiration for these trendy GTs.

Triumph Dové GTR4 and MGB Berlinette, Sunbeam Harrington Alpine

Gathered here, for possibly the first time, is a trio of distinctive coachbuilt sporting coupés. These Grand Tourers offer drivers more room, better security, safety and yes, dryness, to we natives of the umbrella’s spiritual home. Cars that, in keeping with the ’60s spirit, sought to bring the highfalutin blue-blooded gran turismo within the reach of enthusiasts with smaller pockets and, er, soggier bottoms.

Arguably the most seductive of the three just happens to bear the badge with the richest history of building small GTs: MG. Since the T-type though, this long-playing record had stopped suddenly, with only 100 US-market Bertone-designed Arnolt 1¼-litres – rebodied TD Midgets – briefly interrupting the silence in 1953. It wasn’t until 1956 that the MG factory re-entered the fixed-head market with the Morris Bodies-designed bubble-topped MGA Coupé. Initially planned as a low-volume run, the 58,750 cars sold were exceedingly labour intensive. Factor this, MG’s recent poor GT record, and the new 1962 MGB – which was launched without a closed sibling – and it is easy to see why independent coachbuilder Jacques Coune Carrossier spotted an opportunity.

{module Triumph Dové GTR4 and MGB Berlinette, Sunbeam Harrington Alpine}

Belgian Coune was a former racer turned Iso and Abarth importer, and coachbuilder. Previously he produced glassfibre hardtops, plus shooting brake and drophead conversions, before turning his attention to the MG in ’63, for which he would be most recognised in the UK. Well, comparatively speaking…

 Many of his craftsmen were Italians, who had been lured north by the prospect of better wages, and their influence can certainly be seen in the MGB Berlinette’s lines. Specifically, the repositioned faired-in headlamps and the glassfibre roof tumbling into a fastback that slides home to form a Kamm tail sporting a pair of round rear lights. Given the work involved in converting a roadster into a Berlinette with optional 2+2 seating – only the floorpan and rear arches were not cut away aft of the doors – it was extremely expensive. Before purchase tax, an MGB was £690 whereas the Berlinette cost £1300.

Coune did discuss with BMC the possibility of MG producing the Berlinette under licence after its 1964 Brussels Motor Show debut in January. Alas, when the sole right-hand-drive Berlinette was presented to the high and mighty for evaluation, it was dismissed by Alec Issigonis as “too Italian looking”. Another, more valid, obstacle was that BMC’s favoured stylist, Pininfarina, was assisting with the development of an in-house all-steel MGB GT that would be far cheaper and simpler to build than Coune’s composite/steel hybrid. He persisted, though, but production halted at 56 when the doors finally closed on the Carrossier in 1970. Of these attractive machines, just 14 are known to survive.

Far more successful, in terms of numbers, was the association between the Rootes Group’s Sunbeam Alpine and the coach body-builder Thomas Harrington & Co Ltd. The latter was eager to diversify into cars given their quicker turnaround, the UK’s economic inflation problems and its prior experience.

The Rootes and Harrington families knew each other well – Harrington was also a Rootes distributor – and, given the firm’s expertise with glassfibre, it wasn’t long before designer Ron Humphries produced the Harrington Alpine. Based on the ’61 monocoque Series II, the coupé was available with one of three stages of Hartwell engine tune. Later that year, the Harrington Alpine ‘3000 RW’ would win the Le Mans Index of Thermal Efficiency. That feat would inspire the Harrington Le Mans – a less successful design due to its amputated fins and squatting bottom, which appeared a little truncated. Things looked promising for Harrington.

The special-order Alpine had shifted 110 units and, following the introduction of the Le Mans, this hatchback GT would be listed as a standard Rootes product rather than an ‘official conversion’ as per its predecessor. Indeed, the Le Mans was twice as successful as the older version with production hitting 250, around half of which were exported to the United States.

Overlapping Le Mans production (1961-1963), the Harrington Alpine Series C was introduced in 1962, but just 20 were built. Although a far happier, pert-looking machine, it was based on the outgoing Alpine Series II – and the new Series III had a different windscreen design that demanded changes to the glassfibre GT assembly. Sporting quarterlights, the 1963 Series D seems slightly busier than its predecessor which, while building on the Harrington Alpine’s looks, also used the Le Mans’ versatile hatchback. The Series D was not offered with a Hartwell-tuned engine, however, and production ceased in 1964 after just 12 were built on both Series III and IV Alpines. One Tiger was converted in 1965, but, following a change of management after a takeover, Harrington ceased production in 1966.

Today, though, that isn’t the last we shall be hearing of Thomas Harrington Ltd, for the firm was also responsible for making the last of these closed rarities, the Dové GTR4.

Triumph had manufactured coupé models pre-war, but since its acquisition by Standard, the badge had not been applied to anything roofed and slinky. In Belgium in 1954, 22 TR2s were converted by Impéria designer Franz Pardon into handsome TR2 Coupé Francorchamps. Five years later, Giovanni Michelotti turned the TR3 into the Triumph Italia 2000 Coupé – 329 of which were produced by Vignale specifically for Italy’s Triumph distributor.

Clifford Harrington, keen to expand the success his company had enjoyed with the Alpine, went looking for another car project and a deal was signed with Wimbledon’s Triumph dealer, LF Dove & Co Ltd. Constructed along similar principles to the Alpine, the first Dové GTR4 was built on an ex-factory TR4 – it retained its rear wings, but the rear deck and bootlid were removed in anticipation of the glassfibre GT assembly that attached to the TR4’s windscreen. A 15-gallon fuel tank was fitted, along with 2+2 seating, which came with a folding backrest that appears identical to the one in the Series D Alpine. The hatchback and opening rear windows are aped, but not the roof vent.

Instead, the GTR4’s roofline rises from the header-rail to the top of the tailgate, providing an extra couple of inches of headroom. Dove then blessed or blighted its 1963 offspring with an accent that – depending on your view – either titivates the Dové GTR4 with a soupçon of aspirational chic for the Continent or burdens it with a poncy moniker that’s generally ignored. Dove doubtless intended for it to be the former, given the car’s hefty price of £1250 including purchase tax. That outlay is one explanation as to why a mere 50-55 Dovés were built – another is that Triumph planned the TR4 to be a stop-gap model and also, the Rootes family was a shareholder in HJ Harrington Ltd. Come the end of production, Dove obtained the tooling and converted up to five TR4As into GTR4As.

Given that these three machines probably haven’t met before, in the name of straight down-the-line fairness, it’s going to be a matter of weighing up how they could or should drive with the damp reality of here and now. 

The Berlinette, the lightest car here, is also the widest – yet Peter Southwick’s Harrington Series D has more shoulder room and, like the MG, comes with plenty of head and legroom for someone hovering above the 6ft mark. The Triumph, meanwhile, comes as a genuine surprise. Not for its very blokey, dial-rich approach to dashboard design – the sportiest here and, like the other two, straight from the manufacturer. No. Unlike other post-sidescreen and pre-wedge TRs, its driving position doesn’t twist the driver into flesh and bone fusilli nor does its roof attempt to scalp you. A result of either being fettled to accommodate its owner, Gary Scott – a taller chap than I – or possibly because I have warped in this filthy weather. There is less shoulder room in here than in the Sunbeam and the TR pedal-box is narrower, too.

Dynamically, the weakest has to be the Berlinette. Yes, it is 126lb lighter than a B roadster, never mind a GT, and it has a lower centre of gravity than the Abingdon tintop – but the steering is heavy and rather numb. The problem is that Paul DiNicoli’s wonderfully original early MGB is wearing radial tyres on bias-ply steering geometry – and it predates an OE-fit front antiroll bar. Given the wetness, speeds are more Driving Miss Daisy than Death Race 2000, but summon your inner He-Man and the MG does corner neutrally with monosyllabic feedback.

The Sunbeam’s lighter steering and front anti-roll bar make it far easier to wield through corners and over shimmying roads. Lock to lock, its Burman recirculating-ball mechanism proves far more consistent, tauter and quicker than a box has any right to be. Lacking straight-ahead gormlessness and general shilly-shallying, only the faintest degree of fuzziness makes it discernible from a rack and pinion set-up.

Compared with the MG, the Sunbeam’s parpsome 1592cc ‘four’ is down on output (86bhp vs 95bhp; 94lb ft vs 110lb ft), performance and the tone/volume of its growling timbre, which is given a helping hand on the Berlinette by a twintailpipe exhaust (as per the Abarth system that Coune fitted as its Belgian agent). The MG also has the best, most polished ride of the trio, but the Harrington isn’t far behind. This, though, is not enough to counter the Alpine’s sheer ease of use, its lighter controls – exemplified by its slick gearchange – and nimbler feel, which help the Rootes sportster ease ahead to a moral victory.

While both the MG and Sunbeam could be enhanced by factory-backed tuning goodies, the Triumph is the only car suitably tweaked – and boy, does it show. A GTR4 included engine balancing and a gas-flowed head for £35 by Jack Brabham Motors, SAH Accessories or Laystall Engineering. It is believed, in fact, that no cars were built with standard TR4 engines, helping to counter the GTR4’s 400lb weight penalty over its open sister. This car, meanwhile, also benefits from a rollcage, upgraded suspension (including period TriumphTune front anti-roll bar), and a spicy modern-built 2138cc race-cam engine stoked by twin Weber 45DCOEs.

When testing the GTR4 in period, Sports Car Graphic commented that: ‘There seems a definite need to insist on competition-specification dampers when ordering a TR4 with the 2+2 body. The effect of the too-soft front end is curious, setting up an odd twisting motion over uneven surfaces and producing a ‘jelly-like’ effect at the wheel.’ Today, with it sporting the aforementioned mods, these remarks no longer apply to this impressive GTR4, which is one of c25 left. It is the best drive here, building on the TR4’s light, positive steering to make it a fast, athletic and quick-witted GT. Gone is the standard TR4 unit’s asthmatic and almost lackadaisical rev range, jabbering jack-hammer soundtrack and so-so output (100bhp and 127lb ft). Where the MG and Sunbeam feel happy surfing around on obliging peak torque, in the vicinity of 3000rpm, at such engine speeds this GTR4’s 150bhp ‘four’ is still doing its stretching exercises.

Keep your foot in. The angry guttural noise and sizzling performance are self-multiplying – the more you crave, the more you indulge. Its honed stability and handling eradicate weather worries quicker than the flapping wipers swat away fat raindrops. The TR4’s 11 secs 0-60mph time is chopped off at the knees by this 128mph GTR4’s 7.2 secs sprint, while this maniac unit yells its way up to 6000rpm.

 The gearchange of the all-synchro ’box – a blend of short-throw MGB precision and the longer Sunbeam’s baby-oil smoothness – only serves to encourage your inner throttle demon. To the individual whose main consideration is appearance – and many are wooed by a GT’s lowslung provocative appeal – matters are not so clear-cut in the realms of visual appreciation.

The Harrington – one of nine survivors – is based on the oldest design. It’s a captivating mini-me Ford Thunderbird with such rock ’n’ roll fins that they’re worthy of a supporting role in The Jetsons. It’s a coherent, stylish and practical GT that is proud of its endurance-racer roots. Not so the Anglo-Italian Triumph, the top of which looks like a tussle between the almost awkward and simple functionalism. Although I could argue that the rising roofline and steeply raked hatch only add to the brawn of the TR4 shape, giving it a degree of no-nonsense bullnecked toughness. Look quickly and that stylised ‘Dové’ script could even be mistaken for a swallow tattoo. Unless, of course – and I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned this – the damp might have shorted my brain.

Debating gawkiness is something to which the graceful Continental sophistication of the Berlinette will not be subjected. The MG is the most accomplished-looking of these conversions, as well as being the only true coupé present. Bearing a resemblance to another far grander, but less exclusive 1964 GT alumnus – the Ferrari 275GTB – the MG differs with its straight runthrough shoulder-line, pulled wheelarch lips, rear side windows and wraparound back screen. Its taut prettiness manages to ensnare gesticulating aesthetes and, depending on how your eyes work and your inclination to annoy the tifosi, could even be regarded as a less flaccid, more robust piece of design altogether.

Thanks to the owners; Wayne Scott, TR Register:; John Watson, MG Car Club:; David Bradley, Sunbeam Alpine OC:; Nicolas Lecompte.


Clockwise: Dové’s top is least elegant, with a more obviously raised roofline; badge emphasises the accent; extra lamps on this car, which also packs a tuned engine; folding rear seat looks similar to the Sunbeam’s – GTR4 was also built by Harrington; raciest dash groups lots of gauges in front of driver.



Clockwise, from top left: Harrington Alpine is the most luxuriously finished of the trio, with a lovely wood-veneer dashboard; it’s also roomier than the MG; hatchback is built into top; Series III still had the signature large rear fins; neat roof vent; it’s a joy to hustle over bumpy roads, with excellent handling.


MGB Berlinette

Clockwise, from top left: MGB sports the cleanest lines and a well-integrated hardtop – a specialism of coachbuilder Coune; front of cabin is as per roadster; Kamm tail has a touch of 275GTB about it, but it’s less practical than the others with a boot rather than a hatch; back seat is more basic than its rivals’



Car Triumph Dové GTR4 MGB Berlinette Sunbeam Harrington Alpine
Sold/number built 1963-1965/54 1964-1970/56

1961-1964/392 (all Series)

Construction steel chassis, steel body with glassfibre panels  steel monocoque with steel, aluminium, GRP panels (first six all-steel) steel monocoque with steel/glassfibre panels

all-iron, pushrod 2138cc ‘four’, twin SU or Stromberg carburettors

 all-iron, pushrod 1798cc ‘four’, twin SU carburettors iron-block, alloy-head, pushrod 1592cc ‘four’, twin Zenith carburettors
Max power 120bhp @ 4600rpm 95bhp @ 5400rpm 86bhp @ 5200rpm
Max torque

130lb ft @ 3350rpm

110lb ft @ 3000rpm 94lb ft @ 3800rpm
Transmission all-synchro, four-speed manual with optional overdrive

 three-synchro, four-speed manual with optional overdrive

three-synchro, four-speed manual with optional overdrive
Drive driving rear wheels

independent, coil springs, double wishbones, telescopic dampers 

independent, coil springs, lower wishbones

independent, coil springs, double wishbones, anti-roll bar

semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers

semi-elliptic leaf springs; lever-arm dampers f/r

semielliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
Steering rack and pinion rack and pinion recirculating ball
Brakes discs front, drums rear discs front, drums rear discs front, drums rear
Length 12ft 9 ½ in (3899mm) 12ft (3658mm) 

12ft 11in (3943mm)

Width 4ft 9 ½ in (1461mm) 5ft (1524mm)  5ft ½ in (1537mm)
Height 4ft 4in (1321mm) 3ft 11 ¼ in (1200mm)  4ft 5in (1346mm) 
Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2235mm) 7ft 7in (2311mm)  7ft 2in (2184mm)
Weight 2680lb (1215kg)   1920lb (871kg)  2527lb (1146kg) 
0-62mph 10.9 secs  12.1 secs  13.3 secs
Top speed 115mph 112mph 103mph
Mpg 28 28 32
Price new £1250  £1300  £1494 
Value now c£25,000 c£50,000 £10,000


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