People : George Turnbull

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…

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

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.

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 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?

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk 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

Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

9 Comments

  1. I wouod say that without him Ryton and Stoke would not have survived into the next century. He was instrumental in getting PSA to add the Horizon to the Alpine and Solara to the Ryton portfolio and layed the ground work to bring the 309 (a car that could be built on the same tracks as the Alpine, Solara and Horizon, it took just 1million of investment to 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 104 facelift into the Samba and the start (it was finished in France with many engineers flown daily from Bagington to France) of the parts bin special which became the 309 which saved the former Talbot factories in not only the UK, but France and Spain.

  2. Keith, the Paykan production in Iran started in 1967, it was never taken out of retirement to go to Iran, as you said. What happened in the late 70s, was that with the end of the Hunter production in Ireland with them getting briefly the two door Avenger which had been dropped from production in Linwood with the arrival of the Sunbeam, a lot of the Hunter tooling was moved to Iran to increase its local content.

    • Not sure what happened there. An old version of the story was surfaced. The correct text is now in place. Thanks for pointing that out…

      I’ve also added some of your comments about Talbot UK 🙂

  3. The Paykan production was in full swing in Iran when I visited the factory in mid 1975. Most Teheran taxis were orange painted Paykan’s

  4. Whether as separate entities or as part of an alternate BL, it would have been fascinating to see Stanley Markland in place of Donald Stokes at Leyland and Joe Edwards in place of George Harriman at BMC since both come across as very competent compared the likes of Stokes and Harriman.

    George Turnbull is another individual that seems to be cut from the same cloth as Stanley Markland and Joe Edwards, it is unfortunate he did not merit the top position at BL and wonder given his track record what he would have done differently from Stokes, Michael Edwardes and Harold Musgrove.

  5. I have to disagree – completely – with the earlier “love fest” comments above!

    George Turnbull, was an absolutely despicable character.

    His henchman – Filmer Paradise – was merely a fool and buffoon.

    George Turnbull was sinister and Machiavellian.

    Irrespective of his (their) previous “achievements”, it should not be forgotten – and should certainly never forgiven – what they did to Chrysler United Kingdom (CUK).

    PSA’s purchase of CUK for the princely sum of £1-00, was merely to acquire access to, possession of, the established CUK franchised retail dealer network.

    Although the CUK product range did include TWO “Cars of the Year”, the total CUK range was at best competent and overly centred around mid-size “family” models. Even so, with the help and encouragement of the CUK Field Sales Managers, the CUK franchised retail dealer network, consistently achieved sales figures that gave the company a (then) respectable 5 -to- 7% (and occasionally 10%), of the UK market.

    One would have thought, that once the more modern, and wider, range of Peugeot models was added to the UK operation’s “port folio” that the company’s performance would have dramatically increased.

    But, NO!

    Such was Turnbull and Paradise’s distaste for, and disrespect of, the CUK Field Sales Managers, and the CUK franchised retail dealer network, that the performance of Peugeot as a franchise, never exceeded that of (the previous) CUK.

    • Your comment does not reflect the facts with accuracy.

      PSA bought Chrysler Europe for $1.00 US, this was at the request of the French Government, who were concerned about the companies declining sales and financial position of Simca, if they could have done without UK operation they would have, but Chrysler wanted to off load the lot and had no interest in the UK operation, however closure was not an option due the commitments made for Government aid in 75.

      Peugeot themselves were in trouble, the model line up pre 205, was not appealing and there was very little traction that could have been got in the early 80s UK with aged Talbot’s and the 104, 305 and 505 line up, in a UK market where private sales were suffering from the recession and a fleet market, that still wanted RWD, heavy discounting by Ford, Vauxhall and BL for fleet sales and was sceptical of the Series 2 (despite their many improvements and high specs) Alpine and Solara, because they had already been bitten by the poor quality and corrosion issues of the Chrysler years and not open to buying brands such as Peugeot ( I recall how W H Smith’s, fleet manager would not buy the Ryton built Peugeot 309 and 405, as they were “foreign”, but would buy Cavaliers, which had a much lower UK content even in the early 90s).

      Peugeot were however to break into the UK market, with the 205 followed by the Ryton built 405 and 306. The 206 that followed them was to become the UK’s best selling private car for a number of years and a major export success for Ryton, the factory returning to 24 hour 3 shift working for the first time since building Avengers for the 71 Barber boom.

      For all Turnbull’s failings (although it is hard to see what could have been done with a cash strapped PSA and a tired and untrusted Talbot product range), the fact that Ryton and Stoke existed beyond the 1980 Strike, is because of Turnbull’s success in keeping the French onside and getting them to fund the 309 and mist specifically put the car into Ryton and Stoke.

  6. Your say US$1-00 . . . I say GB£1-00.

    “PSA bought Chrysler Europe for $1.00 US, this was at the request of the French Government, who were concerned about the companies declining sales and financial position of Simca, if they could have done without UK operation they would have . . .”, and PSA ungraciously extracted themselves from UK manufacturing and the Chrysler/Talbot “brand” as soon as they could.

    ” . . the 104, 305 and 505 line up, in a UK market where private sales were suffering from the recession and a fleet market, that still wanted RWD”, (cough!) the 505 was RWD, and of a size to compete with Cavalier/Cortina, but not really relevant to how the CUK part of the equation was regarded and treated.

    ” . . fleet sales (were) sceptical of the . . . Alpine and Solara, because they had already been bitten by the poor quality and corrosion issues of the Chrysler years” . . . . and the “chocolate” cam shafts! But again irrelevant, as the CUK sales force and Dealers, knew about such “issues”, and yet still produced sales and remarkable market penetration, that were denigrated by the new “management” installed by Turnbull and Paradise.

    “Peugeot were however to break into the UK market, with the 205 followed by the Ryton built 405 and 306. The 206 that followed them was to become the UK’s best selling private car for a number of years”. And by that time, the deliberate and malicious damage to the CUK legacy, had been done. Linwood had been closed. To my knowledge – every CUK field sales employee was sacked/left, and the loyal and successful Chrysler/Talbot dealers (many of them small family owned concerns), were abandoned by the arrogant and unsympathetic “management” installed by Turnbull and Paradise.

    You say “Turnbull’s success in keeping the French onside”. I say Turnbull deftly manipulated the situation – to maintain as positive an impression to the pubic as was possible – whilst Paradise was “hollowing-out” the talented, legacy, sales and marketing function that had been inherited from CUK.

    (You had to be there – to see it).

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.