George Turnbull was a key player in the British Leyland story following its formation in 1968, but was never given the top job which he so richly deserved.
His was an impressive career as, after leaving British Leyland, he was instrumental in the transformation of Hyundai into the major global OEM that it has become today.
George Turnbull: 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 worldwide service and spare parts operation. Turnbull Senior was also Supervisor of Apprentice Training, which was of the utmost significance from his son’s point of view, especially when confronted with the question, ‘what would you rather be: an Accountant or an 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.
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 projects at 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 by then become Standard-Triumph at Grinham’s invitation to take the post of Director and General Manger of the newly-created Manufacturing Division. 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 the Manufacturing Division 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 3000 cars per week. Expansion was also achieved by buying in major suppliers such as Mulliners the body makers and Alford & Alders, the manufacturer of steering and suspension systems, 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 negotiating 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 [Anthony] Wedgwood 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 between BMH and Leyland Motors to become British Leyland Motor Corporation, 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
Turnbull oversaw the production of British Leyland’s first new car, the Morris Marina, in 1971, which was modestly well received and aimed at Ford’s highly successful Cortina. However, in 1973, came the Austin Allegro, on which Turnbull had worked with his former colleague at Triumph Harry Webster, who was by then Technical Director of British Leyland.
By 1973, Turnbull had indeed performed a miracle, and Austin-Morris was 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 to run 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 likelihood 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 at this point that Turnbull decided to resign from British Leyland – ultimately, the company re-organisation of 1973, in which Stokes moved the company further towards a central management structure, was what prompted him to leave.
‘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 British Leyland 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 British Leyland who 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.
To Talbot via Iran
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. 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.
In troubled circumstances, Turnbull worked hard to get the Talbot Horizon added to the Alpine and Solara to the Ryton portfolio and laid the ground work to bring the Peugeot 309 (a car that could be built on the same tracks as the Alpine, Solara and Horizon) to the UK, too. It took just £1m of investment in Ryton to move the 309 there, which even in 1985, was next to nothing in the car industry. He was also instrumental in steering the work that continued at Whitley, the Peugeot 104 facelift into the Talbot Samba and the start (it was finished in France with many Engineers flown daily from Baginton to France) of the parts-bin special that became the 309 and which saved the former Talbot factories in not only the UK, but France and Spain.
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.
No return to BL
A little later on, Turnbull did see the end of Sir Michael Edwardes‘ tenure at British Leyland in 1982 as an opportunity to re-join the company – and to lead it towards profitability in the 1980s. If nothing else, it would finally enable the man to 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 British Leyland after he left would be of his own design; one in which, sadly, Turnbull would play no part.
The end of Talbot UK 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 British Leyland’s management didn’t know what they were doing?
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.