People : George Turnbull

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

George Turnbull was instrumental in the British Leyland story following its formation in 1968.

Keith Adams

He who would be king…

IF ever a man was born into the motor industry, George Turnbull was: his father was the manager of the Standard Motor Company’s service and spare parts organization, worldwide.

Turnbull Senior was also supervisor of apprentice training, which was of the utmost significance to his son’s point of view, especially when confronted with the question, “what would you rather be: accountant or engineer?”

Without hesitation, George opted for the latter profession, and then signed on as a Standard apprentice in October 1941 at the tender age of 15. Turnbull senior had also been credited with encouraging the head of the company, Sir John Black to instigate a scheme to take the top apprentice from each year’s intake and place them on a University engineering course – it was called the Sir John Black Scholarship.

Undoubtedly, Turnbull Senior was extremely pleased to see his son become the winner of the first scholarship, which took him to Birmingham University for a three-year engineering course. It would prove to be the beginning of a long and distinguished career in the motor industry.

To Standard-Triumph

The scholarship winner soon made a name for himself and caught the eye of Standard’s technical director, Edward Grinham, who made Turnbull his Personal Assistant. He mentored Turnbull through the final stages of his apprenticeship in the engineering department, and continued to do so once he had earned an honours degree in mechanical engineering.

The PA job was certainly a challenging one – either consisting of mundane day-to-day jobs, or managing any manner of engineering project at a director level, when Grinham could no longer cope. Turnbull would later reflect that, “he was a very difficult man to work for, but I owe a lot to him.”

Still, the job had its upsides, and Turnbull knew that it could prove to be a fast track to great things in engineering: “in fact Grinham had said to me that I would be his chief engineer one day. This sounded very fine, but it was not what I wanted, for even in those days I really had my eye on the managing director’s position.”

Ambitious indeed. Turnbull knew that if this was to be his destiny, then he would need works management experience, and as a result, he left Standard in 1955 to take a job as works manager at Petters Limited, makers of diesel engines. Here, where production volumes ran at some thousand engines per week, Turnbull found his position of responsibility and gained experience rapidly.

Senior management challenges

Armed with his new-found skills, he returned to what had now become Standard-Triumph, at Grinham’s invitation to take the post of car production divisional manager. Turnbull returned at an interesting time: Alick Dick was in the throes of re-structuring the company, and attempted to model Standard-Triumph along the same lines as General Motors.

Turnbull later noted that Dick somehow, “got the scale slightly wrong” – but what it meant was that the company was split into three divisions: sales, manufacturing and engineering – and it was for manufacturing of cars that Turnbull was made Director and General Manager.

Alick Dick also took the opportunity to sell the tractor producing arm of the company, and using these funds, he developed Canley in anticipation of doubling its output to 3,000 cars per week. Expansion was also affected by buying in major suppliers such as Mulliners and Alford & Alders, the body makers, but this could not have come at a worse time – the market went into decline. Soon, the business was running at a loss and with it came the sale of Standard-Triumph to Leyland. With new paymasters came a new manager, and so it was Stanley Markland who was brought in to turn things around.

Rising up the Leyland ranks

Turnbull was embraced as an integral part of the new management team, so when Markland retired and Donald Stokes replaced him as executive chairman, it was Turnbull who followed him up the corporate ladder. In fact, as Leyland grew by acquisition, Turnbull was an important figure on the negotiation teams involved with the take-overs of AEC, Rover and, finally, BMH.

Turnbull recalled: “The pressure for this merger came from the government with Harold Wilson and Wedgewood-Benn and was really quite intense. I believe it all stemmed from the Rootes family selling a controlling interest in the Rootes Group to Chrysler and that alarmed the government, who feared Britain would lose control of its motor industry unless something was done to match the big European companies.” Following the merger, Stokes invited Turnbull to run Austin-Morris, which at the time was losing money – his intention was for Turnbull to make the volume division profitable again.

In the first year of his tenure, Austin-Morris lost £16 million, but as Turnbull later recalled, “…I couldn’t have wished for a better people than the management I had then and the directors I had round me for it was quite fantastic how they rallied round when times were difficult.” Thanks to some tough spending decisions and an improvement in all round communications, Turnbull did indeed turn round the troubled division.

Austin-Morris into profit

In fact, it was so complete a turn around, that by 1973 Austin-Morris were in the black and generating half of the entire profit generated by British Leyland. As a reward, Donald Stokes gave him the Truck and Bus division and made him managing director of British Leyland. However, career rival John Barber was made the deputy chief executive: “In other words, the pecking order had been established of Stokes, Barber then myself. I could see frankly that my likelhood of achieving the chief executive’s role in the short term had been diminished, and though it was probably there in the long term I wanted the chief executive’s role much earlier than that.”

As reported in The Whole Story, it was from this point, that Turnbull decided to resign from British Leyland… His reason for going, in the end was the company re-organization of 1973, in which Stokes moved the company further towards a central management structure.

“I knew how damned difficult it was to run Austin-Morris on a centralised basis. To have some ivory tower in Coventry for all the production people remote from the plants and to control everything from there, well, the whole concept was just unworkable. I knew there was no way I could carry on as managing director under those circumstances. Twenty geniuses could not have made it work and I didn’t even classify myself as one. It may work in Ford but they’re a different animal.”

Leaving British Leyland

So Turnbull left British Leyland, but he did so on good terms. Speaking in 1980, Turnbull stated that, “…my wife and I had dinner with him (Stokes) at his invitation three days after in Bournemouth where we had gone to get out of the limelight, and I’ve always kept on very good terms with him and still see him from time to time”

Following that Turnbull took time out to consider some very attractive offers, but eventually settled on Hyundai in Korea. He went out to the Pacific Rim and set up a manufacturing base, almost from scratch and oversaw the introduction of the Pony model… from zero, Hyundai was quickly established and by May 1976, the company got the Pony on the market. Not bad when one considers that Turnbull joined the company in March 1974.

When his contract was completed in 1977, he was invited back to BL by Leslie Murphy of the National Enterprise Board, but decided against taking up the offer: “I was pretty well out of touch with what had happened at BL, and before I could assist in any way I would need a period of time in which to make my own assessment of what the current position was and the way in which I would suggest BL be directed.” As it was, there were many people within BL that would have been happier not to see Turnbull return to the company, and because of this and his own reservations he decided to accept an offer from Iran National to set-up car manufacture there.

Motorising Iran

This saw Turnbull joining the Iran National car company, where he became the deputy managing director. It was here that he assisted in setting up the Paykan manufacturing deal, where the Hillman Hunter was taken out of retirement to become the Iranians’ new car of choice. It also saw Turnbull become involved with Chrysler (UK). However, Chrysler in Europe were also in crisis at the time, so when PSA bought it out in 1978, it was Turnbull that the French wanted to run the company in the UK.

However no direct approach was made, and he remained at Iran National. When the political situation in Iran deteriorated in 1979, the logical step was to jump ship and take on the newly-renamed Talbot company in the UK and try and re-invigorate PSA’s position here. It was one last throw of the dice for the company, and one which sadly did not work out – Turnbull certainly did play a part in the expansion of Peugeot manufacturing cars in the UK – and that was definitely a good thing for Coventry and the economy in the West Midlands.

No return to BL

A little later on, Turnbull did see the end of Sir Michael Edwardes‘ tenure at BL in 1982 as an opportunity to re-join the company – and to lead it towards profitability in the 1980s. If nothing else, it would enable the man to finally realise his ambition of running the British company… something he still believed in his heart that he could do very well.

It was a view also shared with many people in the industry, and it was a not-uncommon prediction that Turnbull would be brought in to replace the South African. It was not to be… Edwardes was a smooth operator and ensured that the management structure in BL after he left would be of his own design; one in which, sadly, Turnbull would play no part.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created in 2001 and built it up 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 Classics 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 unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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