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By 14 December 2012 23 Comments Read More →

Blog : 20 years on, let’s remember George Turnbull

Keith Adams

George Turnbull - 1972

More cruelty at the hands of the passage of time, I’m afraid. Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of George Turnbull, who without doubt, was one of the UK’s most successful motor industry executives. Okay, so his greatest achievements weren’t actually made in the UK, but his career within ‘the firm’ was nothing if not dramatic.

Turnbull joined Standard Motor Company in 1941 at the age of 15 and, by the time he was 30, he’d been promoted to Divisional Manager. The high-flying landed him in the eye of the storm of the creation of British Leyland Motor Corporation – on the way to which, Turnbull had joined the Standard-Triumph board, overseen the launch of the Herald and 2000 model and, alongside Harry Webster, turned Triumph into a powerhouse that was painfully close to becoming to the UK then what BMW is to Germany now.

He landed the role of Managing Director of the Austin Morris division, and had the unenviable task of returning the former rump of BMC to profitability. Given he was an ex-Triumph man, you can imagine how difficult this will have been – especially as Turnbull knew that he had to ‘deal with’ the corporation’s Technical Director, Alec Issigonis. At the end of 1971, Issigonis had officially retired – although it wasn’t his own choice. Turnbull at the time said, ‘we have had to bend the rules because we do not believe that Sir Alec’s extraordinary talents have suddenly waned or dried up… But, I hope perhaps working slightly shorter hours.’

In fact, Turnbull’s old Standard-Triumph oppo, Harry Webster, had already taken over Issi’s duties – initially putting right the Maxi’s wrongs, then developing the Morris Marina into production reality. It was on this project that Turnbull learned so much about costing new car development efficiently – getting the car into production, including a new factory, for a modest £40m. But as well as grasping the nettle of modernising Austin-Morris’ range, he was dealing with the unions and workers across the factories. According to David Andrews, a former colleague, Turnbull ‘was ahead of his time on communications, internally to managers and employees… and he was good at it’.

However, despite this, he managed to return Austin-Morris to profitability in 1972. Sadly, the politics in the boardroom were getting unbearable – Turnbull found himself fighting John Barber, British Leyland’s Finance Director, and the accession to Chairman that looked assuredly Turnbull’s in 1972, was moving quickly in the opposite direction. Matters came to a head in May 1973, when Barber was appointed Stokes’s deputy – within months, Turnbull resigned.

hyundai_pony_1

He didn’t say idle long – in 1974 Turnbull was headhunted by the South Korean Hyundai Motor Company on a three-year contract to establish a new car-manufacturing facility there. His task was to get the Pony into production within two years. The Pony’s styling was signed off in March 1974 and, by May 1976, it was on sale in the Republic of Korea. A remarkable achievement – beating the Marina’s gestation by a couple of months, and without the benefit of a huge parts bin behind him…

From Hyundai, Turnbull moved to Tehran, where he ran the Iran National Motor Company – the company that built the Paykan from ex-Hillman Hunter CKD kits – and by 1979 by dint of the PSA connection, he was back in the UK as the Chairman of Talbot UK. In troubled circumstances, Turnbull worked hard to get the Horizon production line set-up in Ryton. And key members of the Whitley design team raided the corporate parts bin to produce the Peugeot 309 – which had been planned as a Talbot. Rather like the Marina and Pony…

The Talbot UK gig was a difficult one, and a miraculous turn-around was in order, especially as the company in 1979-’81 was far more ravaged than British Leyland was in 1968. By 1984 it was over, and Peugeot slowly began to wind down its short-lived Talbot adventure.

That wasn’t the end of Turnbull’s money making, can-do, career, though  – he went on to become Inchcape’s Chairman and Chief Executive, where he tripled profits before retiring in 1991. Before he left the business stage for good, he had one parting gift for the UK motor industry – he played a leading role in encouraging Toyota (GB) to establish its factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire. It was a fitting end to a glorious career, as well as being a suitable pointer to the future widespread globalisation of the motor industry.

Who said that BL’s  management didn’t know what it was doing?

marina_02

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams
Posted in: AROnline Blogs, People

23 Comments on "Blog : 20 years on, let’s remember George Turnbull"

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  1. Yorkiebusdriver says:

    the original 2 & 3 door Pony looked very Marina-esque in profile, with bits of Escort and quad headlamps.

  2. Graham says:

    Although Talbot period was short he was instrumental in getting the Horizon production moved to Ryton. Also it was the Talbot UK design team at Whitley which did the Samba and key members of that team which raided the corporate parts bin to produce the Peugeot 309 which had been planned as a Talbot. Not sure how much George was involved in it but certainly simlar to his work with the Marina and Pony.

  3. Keith Adams says:

    Good points, I will add these 🙂

  4. Frankie says:

    If only he could see Hyundai now…

  5. Hilton D says:

    Yes, Hyundai have come a long way, since the first Pony. George Turnbull can rightly claim to be the inspiration for that success. Another case of a dynamic British Manager being overtaken by less competent and over-promoted people!

  6. Simon_H says:

    Looking at the original Pony fastback, I wonder how much of the still-born Marina 5-door hatchback went into it’s design?

  7. Paul says:

    @4 – If only he could see what had happened to British Leyland! – No doubt he had his purple patch at Hyundai. Its a pity his fallow period was in the early 70s just as BL developed its two most important vehicles – Allegro and Marina. The failure of these cars on the market lead to bankruptcy and nationalisation and began the downward spiral.

  8. Tim Burgess says:

    I’m struck by what a neat car that Hyundai Pony is. I know we got them here in later years but in 1976, pitched against Allegros, Mk2 Escorts and Vauxhall Vivas it looks really good IMO

  9. David 3500 says:

    Apparently George Turnbull had made a comment to other senior British Leyland Managers in the late 1960s about “watching the efforts of the Koreans as they will become a serious player in car manufacturing.” Some of these managers laughed and did not believe his prediction. Sadly, for these BL managers, Turnbull’s prediction was very accurate.

    He clearly was not a man who rested on his laurels, but was always looking forwards and identifying potential opportunities, not to mention commercial threats.

  10. David Dawson1 says:

    Seems that George Turnbull’s departure from British Leyland was a big loss to the firm…..

  11. Ian Elliott says:

    In answer to Paul (7) it is rather oversimplifying things to say that Allegro and Marina failed in the market , because they actually sold moderately well in the early years – and in fact could have sold better if IR problems hadn’t seriously disrupted production throughout the 1970s. They were generally in the top ten UK sellers, despite that. George Turnbull’s Sales and Marketing Chief for Austin Morris, Filmer Paradise, admitted many years later that his primary reason for cutting back on the Austin Morris dealerships was a simple lack of vehicle supply. Without all the industrial warfare across the company (and its suppliers), it could have been a very different story.

  12. Keith Adams says:

    Ian, agreed.

    The more archive news stories I feed into this site, the more I’m convinced that had BL been able to actually build the cars it needed to meet demand, things might have been a little (lot) different.

  13. Keith Adams says:

    If you only read the headlines, you’ll still get the idea.

    November 1974
    http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/1974/11/

    December 1974
    http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/1974/12/

    etc., etc…

  14. Richard Davies says:

    Is there any source of BL export figures?

    While most BL models seemed to sell well on the home market, it would be interesting to see how they sold in other markets.

  15. Graham says:

    Thanks Keith for the additions.

  16. Graham says:

    Keith not only the loss in production but the resistance to change in the unions which stopped key issues being addressed such as duplication of engine designs.

    For example the expensive development of the Triumph straight 6 for the SD1 rather than use spare E6 capacity was done because the unions would not have accepted closure of the Canley engine plant on top of The ending of the Trimuph 2000/2500 at Canley.

  17. And of course the unions knew that the management had to give in, as the politicos wouldn’t allow strikes to run on too long before giving BL management a nudge.

  18. Ezeee says:

    So rare to get a good British senior director, certainly as an automotive industrialist.. no one from the UK has matched his calibre since… And these days, they’ve got it easy….

  19. Adrian says:

    If he worked in Iran in the 1970s I suspect he had to make a fairly rapid exit from there after the revolution in 1979..

  20. arelbe says:

    Keith Adams @ 12 & 13. You must do a story from the workforce side! There’s plenty of engineers and managers on this site but how about interviews with the workers, the union activists and the self-proclaimed militants about those strike-ridden years and how they saw things then and view their actions now?
    I think it’d make a fascinating article. A glimpse into “the other side” to complete the picture AROnline presents. It could stand alone and fit into “The Complete Story”.

  21. Sukhee says:

    I miss you! (from South Korea)

  22. I never expected that Hyundai Pony was related with Morris Marina before I learned about it.

    What a impressive story it is.

    p.s As a 17-year old high school student,I was impressived by many British cars behind stories in AROnline. Thanks so much to provide them.

  23. John Duncan says:

    Have only just come across this. Stirs up so many memories of the finest manager I ever worked with. When George took over the reins at Inchcape in 1986, he brought in a new team as part of a massive change in strategy & culture at the Group. It was described by one analyst as ‘100 companies in 100 countries’ which wasn’t far from the truth. He once told the new Executive team in Head Office, ‘Never forget that you are an overhead.’ And we were also told, ‘I want you to be friends, and that’s an order!’

    Thirty years later, many of that Inchcape team get together regularly to play & watch sport & to eat, drink & be merry. I like to think that George approves but would tell us that we should & could be doing it all far better

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