Dorsal – An introduction to Thomas Harrington Ltd’s streamline coaches of 1930s.

When he isn’t wrestling with the intricacies of modelling Art Deco cinemas, ADSUK member Paul Smith likes to takes part in coach rallies. Here he tracks down a lost style of south coast streamline travel. Read on and relive the romance of thirties coach travel! With guest appearance by Miss Marple.

Transport in the 1930s conjures up images of the LNER steam locomotive Mallard and her 126 mph world speed record. Mallard and her class looked like no other locomotives of the time due to her boiler being hidden behind a ‘streamline’ cowling.

The need for speed led to several attempts at breaking the land speed record, and cars such as Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird; and John Cobb’s Railton Special pushed that record beyond 300mph. These were beautiful streamlined racing cars which romanticised speed and record-breaking.  The motor industry therefore started using  streamline designs for production models.

With this in mind, you couldn’t imagine speed, streamlining and the back of a bus being used in the same sentence; however, Thomas Harrington & Sons of Hove, East Sussex did just that!

0a Harrington 1939 letter heading
Harrington Ltd Letter Head (1939)

Harrington of Hove  – from ‘osses to chassis

Established in Brighton in 1897, Thomas Harrington began building horse drawn vehicles. As motorised vehicles became popular, Harrington built car bodies, and later, commercial vehicle bodies as a sideline.

Passenger bodywork was already being produced by 1913, mainly for operators in the Brighton area. Harrington built a large number of bus and coach bodies for the main operator in Sussex, Southdown Motor Services, and also for neighbouring Kent operator Maidstone & District Motor Services; both would stay loyal to Harrington products right up to the end of coach production.

In 1930 the business moved to a purpose-built factory known as  Sackville Works at Old Shoreham Road, Hove.

Very few photos exist of Sackville Works, Hove.

Harrington typically built single deck buses and coaches. Buses were generally used on services around town, whilst coaches were more luxurious, with comfortable high-backed seats used for longer journeys or excursions.

Chassis design during the 1920s had developed from the horse drawn days where the driver sat at the front of the vehicle, open to the weather, to the driver in a separate cab, positioned alongside the engine. This arrangement would make the maximum use of passenger seating space within the vehicle. A typical chassis of this era would have a 30′ long body with the entrance situated either at the rear, or immediately behind the front wheel. Typical seating capacity would be 31.

Popular chassis produced at the time were the AEC Regal, Leyland Tiger and Tilling Stevens, although other manufacturers such as Albion, Dennis, Gilford, and Thorneycroft also offered similar chassis, depending on the operator’s  preference.


Holidays for all!

Contemporary coach design of the 1930s would see sleeker designs featuring fully enclosed fronts, flamboyant paint designs, and tapered stripes running front to back in order to project the idea of speed through streamlining. This is ironic given that the maximum speed for such vehicles at the time was just 30mph!

The Road Traffic Act of 1930 would see an increase in coach use throughout the decade. It outlawed the ‘Pirates’ – those who ran their vehicles ahead of the licenced operator in order to ‘steal’ those passengers for their own gain – and divided the UK into ten traffic areas, each with the authority to issue licences to bus  and coach companies. This gave rise to Express Coach services linking towns and cities throughout the country. It was necessary for coaches on these services to be more comfortable and luxurious than before.

In 1938, the Holidays with Pay Act entered into force, meaning that for many people a week’s paid holiday was now possible. This created more opportunities for coach use, and coach companies looked to purchase the most luxurious or glamorous coaches money could buy in order to entice people to use their services.

Harrington’s dorsal gambit

Making the overall height of the body slightly lower, and tapering the rear sharply downwards created a sleek design, but this would be at the expense of headroom for passengers seated on the back seat of the vehicle. Construction and use regulations dictated a uniform height inside the coach from floor to ceiling.

In order to combat this issue, Harrington developed the ‘Fishtail’ or ‘Dorsal Fin’ as it is more commonly known. In profile the dorsal fin would look like half a fish-tail protruding from the roof of the coach in the centre of the body at the rear. A standard coach body without the fin would have one rear window. The design with the fin meant that the rear window was now in three parts: fin in the centre, with two separate windows either side. This feature made the Harrington body unique, and stand out from other manufacturers’ products.


The first coaches to appear with this feature were built in 1935, and continued to be available until the late 1950s. Initially the distinctive fin was a means to increase headroom in the central gangway at the back of the coach, especially where the roof curved sharply downwards. At the time, smokers were asked to sit at the rear of buses and coaches; so the next development of this feature was to incorporate a ventilator fan to extract used air through the fin.

Thomas Harrington registered this design in 1935, no. 30575, and also a patent was obtained (no. 461026).

Tragically, no record of bodies built by Harrington has survived, although work carried out by the PSV Circle has produced a list of most of the bodies built. It is therefore not clear how many bodies were produced with the dorsal fin.

Some coach companies such as Gliderways of Birmingham and Silver Star of Salisbury continued to purchase coaches with this feature through to the late 1950s. The last body built with a dorsal fin was for Silver Star in 1958.

Surviving vehicles seem to be those supplied to smaller Independent companies, for whom the feature would have been a selling point to customers when it came to booking excursions and day trips: using the latest and most fashionable vehicle. I am not aware of any major company, such as Southdown or Maidstone & District, specifying this feature for its coaches.

Bowing out

After World War Two, chassis manufacturers continued to build modified pre-war vehicles, suitably updated with larger engines, and a number of  coaches with the dorsal fin were built during the 1950s.

As with all industries, the bus and coach industry was looking to evolve; and light-weight chassis with under-floor engines were the next development. This style of bus and coach would have bodies made of aluminium;  and a higher chassis frame which was completely flat, meaning that the completed vehicle was slightly taller than those built on the  previous type of chassis. Use of fibre glass meant these bodies could be built and styled differently and with greater height inside; so there was no need to increase headroom over the rear seats. The resulting vehicles would be lighter and faster, and also deliver better fuel economy. On this new style, the dorsal fin looked like an afterthought, and not an integral part of the design.

In 1960, Harrington was acquired by the Robins and Day Group, which was owned by the Rootes Group, whose stable of car brands included Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam and Commer commercial vehicles. Harrington was then involved in building special versions of the Sunbeam Alpine and Tiger cars, and developing its dealership along the south coast.

1963 Legionaire – one of the last designs Harrington built. Image;

Although Harrington continued to build buses and coaches, in 1965 a decision was made to concentrate on the garage and car sales side of the business. The factory closed on completion of final orders in the Spring of 1966.

Sackville Works were sold, and occupied by the Post Office Telecommunications division, later British Telecom,  and was demolished for redevelopment in 1999.

Since the closure of the factory, there has been great interest in the vehicles produced by Harrington. In 1986 the first specific rally for Harrington vehicles was held at the Chalk Pits Museum, Amberley;  known as the Harrington Gathering, it is held every five years.

 The author would appreciate any information leading to capture of vintage photographs of the Old Sackville Works, dead or alive.

Some survivors – photo gallery

At least five coaches have survived into preservation with the dorsal fin feature.-

EYA923 is a Leyland Cheetah LZ5 with 29 seat body, built for Scarlet Pimpernel Coaches in July 1939. The body on this coach has windows in the cove panels in the roof, giving passengers on an afternoon excursion a better view of the passing scenery. The coach operator clearly used this as a selling point, as it has ‘Observation Coach’ on the rear illuminated panels below the rear windows. The roof canopy does not extend over the engine cover; and the body moulding tapering downwards at the rear gives the impression of speed. It is currently in Blue Motors livery, and I photographed it in an un-restored condition at the second Harrington Gathering held at The Chalk Pits Museum, in June 1991, and later in fully restored condition where it is seen parked in front of the Clubhouse at Brooklands as part of the London Bus Museum’s Spring Gathering show in April 2016.

JYC855 is a Leyland Tiger PS1/1 with 33 seat body, built for Porlock Blue Motors – Porlock Weir, Porlock & Minehead Motor Services – in March 1948. This coach was built with a half cab body, again without the roof canopy extending over the bonnet. This was known as the ‘Harrington Look’. It is shown at the London Bus Museum’s Spring Gathering show in April 2016, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Harrington Coachworks’ closure. It is currently restored in Scarlet Pimpernel livery.

KDD38, an AEC Regal III with full front 33 seat body, built in June 1950 for Soudley Valley Coaches, owned by FOJ & RJ Bevan. This coach was built with a full width cab as a visual attempt at streamlining; however in practical terms  this was at the cost of access to the engine. The coach remained with Bevans until 1980 when it passed into preservation. I photographed it in Madeira Drive, Brighton having completed the Historic Commercial Vehicle Society’s London to Brighton Run in May 1983. It was also an entrant at the very first Harrington Gathering held in June 1986; and this view clearly shows the full width cab.

MYA590, is a Leyland Comet ECPO2/1R with a 29 seat body, built for Scarlet Pimpernel Coaches  in July 1950. The Comet was essentially an export truck chassis, and only very few became coaches. Unlike the other coaches featured here, the Comet has a separate bonnet with the engine ahead of the main body. This coach appeared in the BBC TV adaptation of the Agatha Christie ‘Miss Marple’ novel Nemesis, starring Joan Hickson, dating from 1987. The coach appears in the cream/blue livery with ‘Historic Homes & Gardens’ fleet name seen in the first photo, taken in August 1986.  It has subsequently been restored in Scarlet Pimpernel livery in which it is seen at the London Bus Museum’s Spring Gathering show in April 2016.

MYA590 in the BBC TV adaptation of the Agatha Christie ‘Miss Marple’ novel Nemesis

HVJ583 Leyland Tiger PS2/3 with 35 seat body joined  Wye Valley Coaches, owned by WE Morgan,  in May 1951. It  remained in service with Wye Valley until February 1972, when it was saved for preservation. It is seen here at the first  Harrington Gathering at the Chalk Pits Museum in June 1986, and was also captured at the second Harrington Gathering in June 1991.

DKT16 is shown here as a comparison to the standard coach built by Harrington. DKT16 is a Leyland Tiger TS7 32 seat coach, with body by Harrington in 1937. It was operated by Maidstone & District from new until 1968. It is a  typical 1930s  luxury coach with full length roof luggage rack/rowing scull carrier. Note the rear window arrangement without the dorsal fin. It is seen here at the HCVS London to Brighton Run in May 1981.


Web site:

A web site devoted to the products of Thomas Harrington.


BBC TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s  Miss Marple novel Nemesis starring Joan Hickson, filmed in 1987. Featuring Leyland Comet MYA590.

Band of Thieves, (1962) starring Acker Bilk & his Paramount Jazz Band, with cinematography by Nicholas Roeg. Features a 1950 Leyland Tiger with Harrington dorsal fin body LUW61. After their release, a band of convicts goes on tour as a cover for a string of robberies. Has a great soundtrack of Trad Jazz music.


B1001 Fleet List of Thomas Harrington, PSV Circle, May 2012. ISBN 978-1-908953-04-9. Detailed history of the company, plus lists of vehicles produced. Illustrated.

The British Bus Scene in the 1930s,  David Kaye; Ian Allan 1981. ISBN  0 7110 1137 0. Although this book consists predominantly of photographs of buses, there are also some great street scenes.

Add in a snap from this site

3 thoughts on “Dorsal – An introduction to Thomas Harrington Ltd’s streamline coaches of 1930s.

  1. I was delighted to read this article and the link to the Harringtons website as my dad worked at the factory in Hove from his apprenticeship at 15 in 1947 till its closure in 1965/6. What a small world that my joining the Art Deco Soc would bring me back to my dad. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Karen, what a small world indeed! I’ll pass your message on to Paul. 🙂


  2. I was wondering if it’s possible to see the black bus in the tv series Foyle’s war episode all clear. Love these old buses so much caricature.


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