Blog : 30 years on, let’s remember George Turnbull

George Turnbull with the Austin Allegro - the car he helped launch in 1973.

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?

Morris Marina

Keith Adams


  1. 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.

  2. 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!

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

  4. @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.

    • I don’t think the Marina was a failure. Although it never quite achieved anticipated sales it was the second highest selling passenger vehicle in the UK in 1973 behind the Ford Contina. In its 13 year production run it sold over one million cars world wide. Arguably it kept BLMC afloat over that period.

      I agree the Allegro was a failure sales wise and definitely contributed to BLMC’s bankruptcy in late 1974.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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….

  12. 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..

  13. 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”.

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. Calling Iran Motor a producer of ‘ex Hillman Hunter CKD kits’ Paykans is a little simplistic given they assembled the cars concurrently with Rootes/Chrysler U.K. from 1967, using lots of local content, different branding and models in much the same way as Rootes/Chrysler Australia, Todd Motors in NZ and the SA assembler (which used Peugeot engines as the Paykan eventually would, after a spell using the Avenger 1600 engine when 1725 Hunter engine supplies dried up). The later Iranian cars might be described as ‘ex Hillman Hunter’ but not until after 1979 (when NZ assembly ended).
    Turnbull had a highly successful career. I remember the first Ponys reaching NZ, complete with their Mitsubishi engines, not entirely to the local importer/assembler’s liking – Mitsubishis effectively replaced a long line of Rootes models.
    Great article.

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