Stuart Turner was the competition manager of the BMC and Ford rally teams in rallying’s golden era, and spoke to Martin Holmes about his fascinating career.
He relates stories about the early days of British rallying, and on selecting ‘Flying Finns’ for his teams.
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The Start of the Story
Eighty-five year old Stuart Turner was a guest at the Rally Day event at Castle Combe in the South of England late in 2018.
Best respected, among his hectic life in motorsport, were his days as team manager with the successful international BMC and Ford rally teams. But earlier he was already a successful co-driver in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties.
It was in the mid ‘fifties that his life with motorsport began.
“My sister's boyfriend picked her up one day and said they were going to do ‘a rally’. I thought he meant they were going to be working on a pedal bike (a Raleigh) but he was talking about a car,” Turner recalled.
“They were off to compete in a rally in a Rover 14 and I was invited along. My sister got lost on the maps, I picked up the map – a wonderful old British Ordnance Survey one inch to the mile (63,360:1 scale) map. I don't think I had ever seen a one-inch map, but honestly my life changed from that moment on. I just fell for it all, hook, line and sinker!”
Turner soon discovered the motor club network system and the extent of the sport.
“In those days competitors could do 60 rallies a year. Some events were held on a Friday night, like our big local Birmingham Post Rally, others ran on a Saturday night. You could often get back in time to do a Sunday afternoon rally or a club event during the following week.”
Rallying in those days was budget-level motor racing on normal roads.
“There were two things about the rallies in the '50s. One was there were really endless special stages, but they were run on public roads. They were held at night when it was safer. We were racing from 10 at night until 6 the next morning.
“The other thing, cars were standard. Sixty years ago my driver, Ron Gouldbourn, checked his car for Saturday and found some problem with it. He rang the local dealer, got another car from them and we won the rally. I took the car back on the Monday and found it was immediately put back into the sales demonstrator fleet!
“I'm not even sure we even bothered to check the tyre pressures, that's how standard the cars were.”
Standard sports cars were more competitive than family saloon cars at that time. There might be 50 Triumph TRs on a rally! Turner was in with the right crowd, a highly sought after navigator of note.
There was a lot of support for these rallies. One of the best remembered events was the 1958 Bolton Rally, organised by the Bolton-le-Moors Car Club but run on roads in Wales. First prize was a new Austin A35, with the engine tuned by Speedwell, which was won by Gouldbourn and Turner.
Success did not come easily for navigators, however. Spare moments in life were spent driving round popular rally areas and noting things which would help on an actual rally.
In those days British maps coloured every very small local road marked in white, whereas the yellow colour was reserved for more widely used local roads. Navigators went round rally areas noting whether a white road was in fact a tarmac road suitable to use or a road where it was not safe to venture.
“We used to go out into Wales, when there wasn't a rally on, pottering around the lanes we knew were likely to be used on the next event, noting things the maps did not show. Like spotting if the map showed a straight forward junction where it was in fact a triangular junction.
“Reading the roads was an art form but only if you knew the maps showed every bend. Unmarked bends in the road had to be known about in advance. And importantly if you had a gate across a road, we would note which way the gate opened. Jumping out to open the gate after stopping close to the gate could only be done if you knew which way it would open, it would save a lot of time.
“Such tiny details learned on these British night rallies played an important part in international rallies abroad. The ideas and experience of British co-drivers could not be over estimated.”
Successful British navigators were soon contacted by top foreign teams when choosing their co-drivers for the big annual RAC Rally, and Turner was top of their navigator shopping list.
Inside the BMC competition department in 1967.
When Turner moved on to work at BMC and Ford he found British rally drivers were not valued abroad, but he strongly preferred experienced British navigators to accompany his new breed of super-fast Scandinavian drivers.
One of Turner’s big breakthroughs came when he was invited by the German company Auto Union (later called Audi) to compete with their star 1000 Coupe driver Wolfgang Levy, who after his earlier victory on the Acropolis Rally had a good chance of winning the 1959 European Rally Championship on the British event.
For Levy the problem was that night-time road rallying over secret British roads was expected to play a major role in a successful result. Wolfgang's regular co-drivers didn’t like the English one-inch maps. Turner had finished the 1958 RAC Rally in second place – in a Standard Pennant, no less - and so he was asked to compete with Wolfgang.
“He spoke no English, I spoke no German. The only thing I remember, we had an agreement the word attack meant get your foot down.”
The event turned out to be dramatic when drifting snow progressively blocked the main road route in the Scottish Highlands. Co-drivers needed to use all their local knowledge to choose alternative routes to the following time controls.
RAC Rally 1959, Wolfgang Levy at Prescott hillclimb.
Turner selected a huge detour to return to the route, and depending on how the organisers reacted, Levy stood to win the rally and the international title. It turned out to be a messy situation.
“What I didn't enjoy was appearing at the appeal hearing at the RAC Headquarters in Pall Mall, London, with me defending the Germans, fighting the Auto Union appeal case.
“It really wasn’t so long after WWII and on behalf of the Germans I had to attack good British friends, people like the event organiser Jack Kemsley. I was not comfortable.”
In the end Auto Union lost the appeal and Levy was classified eighth overall. The European Championship that year then got even messier because of a convoluted series of tricks by one of the rival teams, which led to the Saab driver, Erik Carlsson, being denied the ERC title that year.
It was all a good insight into the challenges of international rallying which would soon become Turner’s whole life. The next year Saab invited him to accompany Carlsson, which led to Erik beginning a hat-trick of RAC Rally wins, alongside co-drivers all of whom were trained as road rally navigators on the night-time roads of Britain.
Timo Makinen and Rauno Aaltonen together again in 2010.
Victory with Erik Carlsson on the 1960 RAC Rally represented the pinnacle of Stuart Turner’s co-driving career, the first part of his illustrious motorsport career.
“My rally with Wolfgang Levy the year before made me realise that continental drivers were quick. All the rumours before the 1960 RAC event suggested that the defining sections were to be in Scotland. Erik said he’d never been to Scotland before and said ‘he suggested that we go and have a look at some of the roads’.
“We flew to Edinburgh, hired a Morris Minor. We were driving on a country lane when a fish lorry came the other way. I would have hit it but Erik drove off the side of the road. We rolled a couple of times down a grassy bank and as we were rolling he switched the engine off.
“When we came to a halt the petrol pump wasn't ticking dangerously. I thought that showed intelligence. On the event itself he was the only driver to do the stages without penalty, and we won in the smallest engined car. Wonderful bloke.”
Turner’s day job at this time had been as a rally journalist with the Motoring News weekly newspaper, which was developing as a popular gospel for the rallying clubman.
Then came the news that Marcus Chambers had left BMC. He had been highly respected as a motorsport strategist. Turner was appointed as his successor and this activated his managerial career.
He started work at the Abingdon competition workshop of BMC on 1st September 1961 and immediately embarked on finding new rally drivers, arranging frequent evaluation sessions. Driver decisions were not the only challenges, as he soon discovered.
“One of the problems working with BMC was the sheer politics. Marcus Chambers had later said he would get a call from a Wolseley boss complaining he had entered a Riley car when he could have entered an equivalent model Wolseley. Then came the choice with the Minis, whether to enter an Austin or the equivalent Morris.”
Turner soon found he was working with a new generation of drivers in motorsport, particularly the Swedes and the Finns.
Stuart Turner (left) and Alan Platt, Marseilles Coupe des Alpes.
“I was very lucky because two things soon happened. I was able to reduce the number of different makes being rallied by BMC because only the Healey 3000 and the Mini Cooper S were potential overall, rather than class winners. Secondly, I was able to move the team from employing gentleman to player drivers, like in other sports at that time.
“We needed people who were available to go practising or do whatever was needed. I was also very lucky. The last rally I did as a competitor had been earlier in the year at the Polish Rally, with Derek Astle in a Healey 3000.
“At one stage we were waiting our turn to start. In front of us was Eugen Bohringer’s Mercedes and we saw the co-driver get into the driver's seat. We were puzzled. The co-driver was Rauno Aaltonen and he made the fastest time. At the time I knew I was in for my BMC job, so I came away with Rauno’s contact details.
“The following year I was contacted by the Morris distributor in Helsinki saying he had a promising young driver, Timo Makinen, and could we lend him a car for the 1962 RAC? We found him a car and he won his class.
“Then came the question about the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally. In those days Monte entries closed before the RAC Rally had finished, so how could I get a potential future star into the Monte and in what type of car? All we could offer was a big Healey, but was that suitable for going downhill on snow and ice on roads with sheer drops?
Timo Makinen and Stuart Turner on the 1973 RAC Rally.
“Timo, however, had already competed in ice racing with big sports cars in Finland and was agreeable. Fortunately we had entered the lady racing driver, Christabel Carlisle, in an Austin Healey Sprite as a thank you for her Mini racing successes, so we altered her entry for an Austin Healey 3000 and entered Timo as her driver. They won their class.
“Some drivers I worked with at BMC were British. Paddy Hopkirk, who had been in the Triumph and Sunbeam teams, wrote to me and said he wanted to drive a car that was capable of winning. On his second rally with us, the 1982 RAC Rally, he was second, and then in 1964 he won the Monte Carlo, becoming European Champion in 1965.”
Rauno’s ERC programme focused attention on the issue questioning the promotional opportunities of winning championships.
“The national British press, for example, put Paddy's Monte win in '64 on page 1. We flew the car back to appear on the TV programme Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
“Winning the 1965 ERC title was almost like a very small cherry on top of the cake of individual wins on famous major events. I'm not saying the European Championship wasn't important, but I'd have exchanged winning the European Championship for winning major events.
“The Monte win was much more important than the European Championship in terms of media coverage. What else are you doing motorsport for?”
Monte Carlo Rally 1967: Stuart Turner in discussion with Flying Finn Timo Makinen.
Turner stayed at BMC until March 1967.
“I was glad I got out before it all fell apart. In a way I'm not sure if the Mini, for all the publicity it got and not just from motorsport, didn't actually contribute to the death of BMC. Independent analysts calculated that they made a loss on every Mini they made. The way to go broke is to have a best seller and sell it at a loss!
“The other reason of decline was the effect of the Mini’s designer, Alec Issigonis. How do you have a company where the genius designer isn't in tune with the people selling the stuff? Put all those things together, along with the work of the unions, it was a difficult time for BMC.”
When he left BMC he had an offer from Walter Hayes at Ford. He turned it down.
“It sounds naïve nowadays, it would not have been gentlemanly to move to BMC’s biggest rival. It would have been disloyal to the Abingdon mechanics.
“I had an offer to join Castrol and I honestly thought that I was turning my back on motorsport. Castrol took me on as Deputy Publicity Manager and the first thing they do is give me the address of the advertising agency to learn a bit about the marketing world.
“But then, coincidentally, I was asked to work on the 1968 London-Sydney Rally as a travelling marshal. That rekindled my interest and when Walter Hayes made me another offer and I had already made the break from BMC, I joined Ford. “
Timo Makinen and Stuart Turner in their Ford rally days.
Life at Ford was different for Turner.
“I moved into Boreham and the atmosphere was the same in the sense you could have swapped the team of mechanics. For instance, one of the mechanics from Abingdon who moved across fitted in perfectly.
“I never had any budget problem at BMC, but at Ford there was more attention to finance, which there should be, but also instead of having to go and negotiate the political minefield I had at Longbridge, I could go directly and see Walter Hayes. No minefield there.
“Walter made the greatest contribution to motorsport, more than anybody in the world. Super bloke.
“At BMC we had no specific engineer in the Competition Department as such, but of course the MG engineers were just around the corner to help with things. Although it may not have been MGs they're working on, one or two of them would come out on rallies with us and help feed information straight back to the production line.
“At Ford we had access to its engineering centre at Dunton and it all worked. It was all very much practical common sense.”
Under Turner's reign at Ford there were many far reaching political and unpopular decisions waiting to be made. There was a long list of abandoned projects, like the Escort RS1700T, C100 sports racing car and the GT70, also the enforced premature end of competition with the RS200.
On the happier side at Ford, Turner was working again with Scandinavians and enjoying the way that Finns were happy to help to promote younger Finns.
"I think it was Rauno who recommended Hannu Mikkola, and Timo Makinen who recommended Ari Vatanen.
“Perhaps top of the list for me of special drivers at Ford had to be Ari Vatanen, but then again there was Timo. I've always felt that the secret routes on the RAC Rally is not a bad test of a driver. Timo had a hat-trick of RAC Rally wins at a time when there were a hell of a lot of good drivers in the cars.
“Then Roger Clark was wonderful to have in a team and portrayed the popular spirit of rallying at that time. Roger was such a nice guy.”
Not generally known was Roger’s contribution to Ford’s win on the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally.
“During initial event planning there were two big debates, whether to run two or three car crews, and whether to carry bottles of oxygen for driving at well over 4,000 metres in the Andes.
“From experience on the 1968 London-Sydney, which wasn't a particularly tough event, I was convinced that we should go with two-man crews, but heavy oxygen equipment.
“Roger was sent to practice for the 1970 event at high altitude in Latin America and when he returned he said they didn’t need oxygen. It was big a weight saving advantage.”
Of all Turner’s special events at Ford the most challenging had been the London-Mexico.
“I'll always remember the London-Mexico because it was such an amazing challenge. It was a wonderful event for me, planning how to move people around the world. I did enjoy that.”
Then Turner was drawn into Ford’s motorsport policy decision taking, not the least was the discussion about possibly supporting Cosworth’s Formula 1 engine. Then the debate whether Cosworth would help the promotion of the Sierra and justify the need to build 5000 special production cars for homologation.
This led to considerable success on the racetrack.
“The Sierra Cosworth holds a lot of affection for me, just as much as the memory of Hannu Mikkola’s victory for Ford on the London-Mexico,” he says.
Retirement for Turner came at the age of 58 at the end of 1990. His last project was overseeing the concept of the new Escort Cosworth project, and then he left, taking advantage of a favourable early retirement pension scheme, being replaced by 60-year old Peter Ashcroft.
He immersed himself in many personal projects including various books and giving speeches round the country. His motorsport memoires were entitled “Twice Lucky”, and is a tremendous read.
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