The cars : Argyll Turbo GT

On the trail of the enigmatic Argyll

Robert Leitch

WHO says the ‘Car Guessing Game’ is no more than a bit of pointless froth? Not long ago, in a Celtic riposte on this now-defunct forum game to the all-conquering Aussies, I posted up a picture of part of the Argyll Turbo GT, built just ten miles from mother’s home town in Kintyre. For the record, it was guessed in short order by one Keith Adams, but searching for a suitable image brought home how little information is published about the Argyll – a road test of the first Rover V8 engined prototype in the September 1976 issue of CAR Magazine, and some rather lightweight and contradictory web articles were all I could find. I decided that learning more could be a worthwhile project.

On my first available free Monday, I set off for Tayvallich, a yachting haven and lobster fishing village on a narrow neck of land between Loch Sween and the Sound of Jura given on a website as the address of the Minnow Fish Carburettor company. Having taken in the scenery and a good meal I made local enquiries about the whereabouts of Minnow House and learned a quick lesson about the reliability of website information.

Tracking it down…

Where the action took place...

Where the action took place…

A call from the post office phone (Tayvallich may be less than 100 miles from Glasgow, but it remains a stranger to mobile communications…) and I’m speaking to Bob Henderson himself, turbocharging guru, developer of the Minnow-Fish carburettor and creator of the Argyll Turbo GT. Enquiring as to his whereabouts, I was told ‘where we’ve always been’. Lochgilphead, on a fiord off Loch Fyne, is only ten miles away – I was off down the road as quickly as is prudent on single-track roads at the height of the tourist season.

Bob Henderson appeared from behind his XK120, parked in the Minnow House yard, with a variety of other interesting machinery – a Nissan Pulsar GT-R, a Rover P4 105R, and several non-GM Saab 900 Turbos. I had arrived at a good time. Minnow Fish’s dynamometer was being recalibrated, necessitating a break in the workload.

It was an absolute privilege to spend an afternoon with a true automotive and engineering luminary. Subjects discussed included the A and K Series, his previous career as Chief Engineer of Short Aviation, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, colonial Malaya, Jaguar under Leyland, Lord Stokes (A Henderson villain!), the relative importance of thermal and volumetric efficiency, and, just occasionally, Argylls.

I’d arrived just a fortnight too early to see a road-going Argyll. The silver example owned by Andrew Smith, former Scottish autocross champion and partner in the original venture, would shortly be readied for a return to the road. Even in a dark corner of the rambling former laundry which has been Minnow Fish’s base for over 35 years, the striking proportions and clever design features, such as the ‘optical trough’ for rear vision, and the ingenious fixed louvred headlights, were clearly evident.

An interesting set-up

Despite its development in the forests of Argyll and rally stages in the Grampians, this is no Stratos-like compact rally weapon. It is instead a generously proportioned grand tourer, with a longitudinally mounted V6 engine and 2+2 seating accommodated with in its 3.0 metre wheelbase. Other key dimensions are: length – 4674mm, width – 1826mm, height 1220mm, front and tracks – 1575mm.

The complex bird-cage chassis...

The complex bird-cage chassis…

Several examples of the chassis were available for inspection, a complex bird-cage fabrication of box sections and square and hollow tubes, rigorously triangulated and braced, and possibly owing more to the Clyde shipyards than the ‘add lightness’ philosophy of Colin Chapman. The weight of the completed cars was around 30 cwt (1500kg). Not particularly heavy by the standards of today’s bloated hatchbacks, but comparable with the Rover SD1. The reason for the over-engineering was a design intent for the cars to last 20-30 years – ‘protecting the initial investment of the discerning’ is how the 1983 sales brochure puts it.

Suspension is double wishbones all round, the rear system following racing practice with wide-based purpose built wishbones and the facility for adjustment of the geometry which never required to be used. At the front there’s a modified proprietary subframe with rack and pinion steering. Bob Henderson is occasionally given to mischievous reticence and wouldn’t reveal its origins. In the Argyll’s various iterations the spare wheel and fuel tank positions were varied to achieve as near to a perfect 50/50 weight distribution as feasible. The steering column is from a Dolomite, the Marina door handles of the prototype gave way to Volvo fitments, and that windscreen is another Henderson Guessing Game.

The 1976 CAR article, by one Jim Dunn, praised the turbocharged Rover-engined prototype’s performance, its controllability, neutral handling and unexpectedly comfortable ride, but the interior trim was described as, ‘virtually non-existent…Henderson wants the customers to have them detailed to their own requirements elsewhere’. In the years which followed Avon Coachwork of Leamington Spa were engaged to produce a suitably luxurious interior. The use of Scottish leather partly compensated for this being one of the few areas of specialist input sourced outside west-central Scotland.

Luxury interior has a familiar feel...

Luxury interior has a familiar feel…

As a matter of record, the CAR article refers to a Saab engine option, also turbocharged, but none was ever made. In 1976, this would have been a turbocharged Saab engine, not a Saab Turbo engine, production examples of which were still over a year away. Bob Henderson has been prescient throughout his career – his 1974 book ‘Theory and practice of turbocharging and supercharging’ appears to have been the first generally published work on turbocharging written outwith the United States.

Launching it

In October 1983, an official launch for the Argyll Turbo GT took place at Inveraray Castle. A number of advance orders were already in place, production capacity was stated at 12 cars per year, and the first customer car was being readied for delivery. A price range of £25,000 to £30,000 was quoted. At that time a Lotus Esprit Turbo cost £18,913, a Porsche 911 Carrera £21,464, and a Ferrari 308GTB quattrovalvole £26,181.

The production car remained close in principle to the 1976 prototype, the major change being the adoption of a blueprinted and turbocharged version of the Douvrin V6 from the Renault 30, along with its own transaxle, as the core engine, and refinement of internal and external detailing. The sales brochure lists an alternative 3.5 – 4.2 litre turbocharged ohv V8, no manufacturer is named but it was clearly Rover-derived. In this specification the ZF transaxle, shared with the Maserati Bora and De Tomaso Pantera would be used and the rear seating was omitted.

Bob Henderson told me at the outset that the two things he never discusses are power outputs and production numbers. I fully respect his reticence on this – each Argyll produced was a bespoke product with a customer to manufacturer relationship more akin to the creation of luxury yachts than to the norms of the motor trade.

What is certain is that a steady flow of Argylls left Minnow House over the following seven or eight years. No Rover-engined customer cars were ever produced, but some were made with the Lancia Beta engine and transmission in place of the Douvrin powertrain. The most intriguing development came when Argyll managed to secure a small batch of Buick V6 based engines, intended for Indy Car racing but never fielded in competition. With specially cast “Argyll Turbo GT” cam covers, and extensive re-working for road use, these engines were used in a small run of production cars, once again using the ZF transaxle, while providing 2+2 seating, albeit rather diminished by the space for the bulkier power unit.

What could have been... the Indy engined Argyll... or at least, part of it.

What could have been… the Indy engined Argyll… or at least, part of it.

And the final Argyll? Still some way off it seems. Bob Henderson’s to do-list includes completing the final Indy-engined car, its chassis presently sitting in the workshop. He hints at the possibility of further cars – the production infrastructure remains largely in place and the latent demand exists.

I said my farewells, and made my way down the A83, trying in my mind to sum up this enigmatic and idiosyncratic car. I’d hoped to identify some numbers and a timeline, but it was clear that this information was going to remain with the Argyll’s creator. No matter – some terrible cars were produced in their millions, some of the most memorable and influential were one-offs.

With some form of written record of my findings in mind, I endeavoured to pinpoint the Argyll’s identity. Labelling it as a Caledonian Ferrari or Porsche was crass and lazy. Another thought was the ‘Anti-De Lorean’.

The parallels are intriguing. The two cars used the same engine, the Argyll was introduced for public sale just as De Lorean production came to an ignominious end at a production base very different from Minnow House, but fewer than a hundred miles distant. Where they differed was in design principles and ambition. The De Lorean was compromised by its emission equipment strangled rear-mounted engine, the high level weight penalty of its gull-wing doors, and various untried technologies. The company’s estimates of demand were wildly over-ambitious, and the squandering of UK government funding became an international scandal.

Bob Henderson talks Argylls with our man Leitch...

Bob Henderson talks Argylls with our man Leitch…

Engineered in principles…

The Argyll design was founded on sound engineering principles, refined in competition and enhanced by the ingenuity of its creator. Production projections were always modest, and the 1983 launch coverage reported that ‘Astonishingly, the entire project has been privately financed, and has been neither aided nor funded by the Highlands and Islands Development Board, or any other government agency to date’. Bob Henderson had earlier that day noted with pride that this remained the case.

The designer’s aeronautical engineering background, the uncompromised application of well-understood engineering and aerodynamic principles, the disregard for fashion or change for change’s sake, brought a different idea to mind. Look beyond the mid-engined configuration, and the Argyll could be summed up as Scotland’s Bristol.

And then I thought of the title of LJK Setright’s late-career ‘account of the Bristol’ – ‘A Private Car’. An inspired and succinct epithet for Setright’s subject, it seems many times more true of the Argyll.

Bob Henderson proudly stands alongside his very singular creation...

Bob Henderson proudly stands alongside his very singular creation…

Motor‘s 1984 article all about the Argyll…


Posted in: Turbo GT

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18 Comments on "The cars : Argyll Turbo GT"

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  1. nathan r says:

    there is an argyll prototype for sale here! I had never heard of them, hence afterwards finding this article!

  2. DB says:

    I vividly remember an article on STV News at 6 about the Argyll cars. I am 40 now and it must be 20-30 years ago. I’m sure it was a woman reporter. Would be great to see again, I’ve always loved the look of the Argyll cars.

  3. Dcanmore says:

    I remember reading an extensive article on this car and its history in The Scots Magazine, published by DC Thomson & Co, must have been early to mid 90s.

  4. Dermot Healy says:

    Hi ..interesting to read your account of the Argyll. I owned a red Renault V6 engined example in the late 80s. Bought it in Birmingham where it had suffered minor damage due to things falling on it in a warehouse & then sold it on to an adventurous motor trader (self proclaimed ‘best bodyman in the business’) in Hyde. it remained (unused) in the Manchester area, sitting outside a garage until about 5 years ago. Some/many aspects of the Argyll were pretty awful & all the claims should be taken with a very large pinch of something or other. Pretty sure front subframe was Mk5 Cortina or Granada (can’t remember which) & seats were Volvo….suspect no more than 3 or 4 completed cars. …Dermot 07703-162409

  5. Mikey C says:

    Ah yes, I’d vaguely remembered what it looked like, but my memories weren’t very accurate, as it’s much more hideous than I remembered. At least the DeLorean looked good…

  6. Jemma says:

    Would that be the 2.4 litre Turbo Douvrin engine as used in the 25?

    On balance I’d prefer the 25 – the comparison between the Argyll & shipbuilding is somewhat evident in the ‘styling’. Interesting article though.

    I wonder, did anyone ever take the straight six SD1 engine and slap a turbo on it?

  7. John says:

    My pal served his time with Minnow Fish at the time of building the Argyll we spnt many hrs watching the car come together, there were only approx 6 cars built, the engine was indeed the 3 ltr renault with trans axle, seats and dash on the finished cars were Volvo, the prototype had mrk 1 cortina rear lights but the completed cars had granada lights.. I am not sure if anyone noticed but the tyres were 195×65. Bob once told me that this is all the car needed and that low profile tyres give slightly better grip but have no feel on the limit ??.This he managed to prove very well when he took journalist for drives around either Knockhill or Ingilston and beat all the current supercars of the day !!! i have spoken many times with bob can tell you he has had a varied career, including racing driver, engineer and several other interesting jobs, he is great to listen to when he tells stories about his life.
    A great car man and a fantastic car, I wish I could buy 1 today.

  8. Douglas Currie says:

    I saw the car on the Argyll stand at the Scottish Motor Show in the Kelvin Hall in the late 70s. It was a stunning car, especially since it was built in Scotland on a budget far removed from other supercharge manufacturers. Bob is a very talented engineer, the evidence is there for all to see. I’ve never forgotten the car and would love to acquire one now.

  9. mr robinson says:

    i have one in a garage thats been there for ten years maybe the same red one from manchester becouse thats where it came from. i would be interested in selling the car if anyone is interested.

  10. Argyll fan says:

    Does anyone know/ have any recent pictures of survivors? I’ve scoured the internet and have only seen pictures of the prototype that was for sale last year. It would be amazing to hear a few more details about these amazing motors!

  11. Ronnie Lloyd says:

    I would definitely be interested in buying one if on came up for sale. I have always been interested in them, but at the time they were new, they were well out of my price range!

  12. Steve Cline says:

    Hello Mr Robinson…This is Steve Cline from Manchester who has been trying to reach you by telephone for ages, ive allso sent you many emails..As you and i have been freinds for 25 years and the fact that the car your offering for sale was left in your hands for safekeeping…can you contact me on 0031 629 393 293…or
    Obviously theres something very wrong here mate!! hopefully its a joke and never would you pull a stroke like that on a best freind…Kind regards from Amsterdam Holland

  13. Paul says:

    Looks like a stretched limo version of that 1970’s French sports car with the 3 seats abreast. Matra Bagheera or something like that. Very interesting car.

  14. Richard says:

    I would like to hear from Bob (does he have email?) regarding how the turbo system worked which he says is lag free. It would be good to get this information on record as well as his view on how the Minnow Carburettor functions.

  15. RG says:

    Does this system work yet?

  16. RG says:

    Ah it did. Tried 3x b4 and it failed. Does Bob have an email address I can use, please? I would like to know more about the apparent Lag Free turbo system Bob designed. Also like his views on how the Minnow carburettor works.

  17. Boo says:

    Wasn’t the ‘lag-free’ turbo setup just done by using a dump valve fitted between turbine and pressurised carburettor, instead of using a waste gate?
    That’s certainly the setup that was used on a VW 1302S Beetle turbocharged by Henderson / Minnow-Fish in the early ’70s. I remember an article and road test in ‘Safer Motoring’ magazine.

    PS.. I saw a silver Argyll parked up in Ramsbottom, Lancashire in the late 1980s. I thought it looked great in the flesh.

  18. Alistair says:

    Browsing a classic car magazine in the doctor’s waiting room, I turned a page and a poor quality image of this car appeared and sparked a glimmer of recognition. The account here is interesting and credit to the author for making the effort and writing a very readable account of the car and it’s creator’s history.

    However and not withstanding the fact that technological advances have allowed car stylists to tidy up so many details like gutters and shutlines, the basic rules of proportion and balance pre-date the invention of the car.

    My glimmer of recognition was that I had added this to my list of all time design low points. It’s a clumsy, naive and heavy handed design from every angle.

    I also love the notion that a no doubt talented and hard working chap in a shed in Scotland developed a ‘lag-free turbo’, something that seems to have eluded the simple folk of every major international car manufacturer globally to date.

    I wonder if I can fit this as an after-market kit on my dull but worthy 520d, a car whose lag can be measured on a calendar if you floor it at low revs?

    I enjoyed the article, appreciate the guts it takes to market such a car, but you have to admit it was terrible looking and you just know it would have made a Wheeler era TVR look like a paragon of handling and reliability.

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