Next week marks the 30th 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 Triumph 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.
Heading up Austin-Morris
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 colleague, Harry Webster, had already taken over Issi’s duties – initially putting right the Austin Maxi‘s wrongs, then developing the Morris Marina into a 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. And as a consequence, he became the ‘face’ of the new car for the UK press.
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’.
From Leyland to Hyundai
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.
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. The Panorama video (below) covering this period was absolutely fascinating.
Building a new industry in Iran
From Hyundai, Turnbull moved to Tehran, where he ran the Iran National Motor Company – the company that built the Paykan from Hillman Hunter CKD kits and much local content – 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 Talbot 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.
A lasting legacy
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?