Rallying's outstanding era remembered by Stuart Turner

Stuart Turner was one of the many keen and enthusiastic young men who have worked within the pages of our contemporary Motoring News, founding the Verglas rally column, which is still a weekly feature today. He is perhaps the best known of those to grace those pages, leaving to take the post of Competition Manager to BMC in 1961. The succcesses recorded by the Big Healeys and shrill Mini derivatives etched the Turner name firmly in the rallying annals of the 1960s. From 1967-1969 his bespectacled countenance was behind the Castrol Competitions and promotions people in ensuring that Lord Wakefield’s Company continued to enjoy an enthusiastic reputation, but as the 60s turned into the 1970s Stuart Turner began to command even greater professional respect for his achievements with Ford Competitions, masterminding the Essex-based team in their winning assault on the 16,000-mile World Cup Rally of that year. By 1972 Turner had moved further up the Ford corporate tree with much of the final say on the company’s competition policy, and managing what was then the thriving Ford Advanced Vehicle Operation at Aveley in Essex. Today at 42 .years of age he awaits the production of the most recent developments from Ford Advanced Vehicles Engineering team (production of vehicles ceased at Aveley just after the beginning of 1975 and new cars will be made at Halewood in Britain and Saarlouis, Germany), of which only the RS2000 and Mexico Escort derivatives remain to reach public hands.

Dynamic is the word used generally to describe a man such as Turner in best journalese, but it is the restless imagination and forceful, energetic, manner which communicates that this is a man whom sporting legends swiftly surround: he is a quick and clever thinker who gets on and does things, hoping to freshen up motoring sport. Ideas and plenty of opinion pepper his conversation as he ensures that he knows what is going on in most corners of the enthusiast world.

Rallying has been the cornerstone by which the Turner style was bred, but it should not be forgotten that he had plenty of racing contact at BMC (everything from Spridgets and Minis to Sebring Big Healeys and MGBs: he met Jackie Stewart in those days, when Stewart came along to a test day and disgraced all the regular sports and saloon drivers pretty thoroughly, driving their regular cars at Goodwood) as well as the obvious current and past Ford tarmac activities since 1970.

For a man of many talents his Danbury home is a resting place for several Turner wheeled restorations, including such diverse subjects as a Jaguar XK, Gipsy Caravan and a Penny Farthing his memory has the traditional weakness for dates, but the meaning of an era is firmly retained.

“I think the high spot of rally activity might well have been the 1960s, by which I take into account enjoyment and the events: the first international rally I did with John Sprinzel contained endless zig zags to ensure that no Michelin guide recommendations were missed en route!” Thus did Turner begin to impart the feeling of the era, “I remember that files I inherited when I went to BMC demonstrated how different rallying was in the early 1960s with long reports detailing how worthy an effort a 35th overall and 1st in class had been.”

In Turner’s view the big change in rallying during recent years seems almost to have co-incided with an invasion of Norsemen. “Those beady-eyed Finns and Swedes following in the wake of Eric Carlsson all wanted to win at virtually any cost it really was the difference between Gentlemen and Players, all over again.”

Turner was certainly familiar with the Carlsson mystique, winning the RAC in a SAAB with that large and determined gentleman. “When we won in 1960 it was because Erik’s 840cc two stroke had defeated all the opposition on a proper rally stage, not because of some navigational trick of driving test twirls. It marked the beginning of real international special stage rallying in this country and a whole new breed of rally drivers like Tom Trana, Bengt Söderstrom, Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen. It is really rather like international athletics where the best in Britain are put into perspective by a representative field with people who set new standards . . . and that’s exactly what the Finns did for British drivers, for Mr. Hopkirk didn’t like being beaten by team-mates like Rauno Aaltonen. Thus Paddy set to work to prove that you didn’t have to be Scandinavian to be best . . . something that’s still hard to do today!”

Looking at the motivation behind those factory teams of that era, Turner comments, “simultaneously marketing methods became a lot more professional while the traditional Monday morning successs advertising (especially of class victories) began to die out. The emphasis switched to dealer promotions with management showing a great deal more interest in what was happening to the money budgeted for motor sport purposes, swiftly realising that money spent on just motorsport and associated success advertising could be totally wasted if there was no real success trumpet . . . and that means winning outright in most people’s thinking.”

“A second strong factor emerged in British rallying’s growth when the RAC Rally itself progressed from its driving test and road navigation form into 1960’s combination of special stage and tests, which finally gave way to the super all-special forest stage format that decides the event today.” Turner agrees with many of the overseas visitors who contest the event every year that, “the RAC is now one of the best rallies in the World”.

Speaking as many enthusiasts feel, Turner says there is something missing even from today’s sophisticated events, that is, “The 1950’s circus of international works teams. I saw Chenisse (of Renault Alpine-J.W.) recently and he was delighted that we were going to contest rallies in France with British-built Fords: the Press interest will be double that when just French teams are involved, and this is good for all of us. I sometimes regret that I missed the days when Mercedes, Citroen, Triumph, M.G., Routes and BMC joined others in all corners of Europe. Even when I started at BMC the influx of teams for events in the South of France made the hotel situation just as it is for today’s Grand Prix. The great thing about those days was that you could really judge somebody’s performance directly against the best in international opposition. Nowadays the works teams do the events that mean the most in sales and marketing terms for their own ends, and it is a shame we don’t all get together on at least two events per year, one tarmac, one loose.

“I think what really changed the International rally situation was the influx of new team managers within the UK making things less cozy and rather more business-like for the sixties. Don’t underestimate the contribution made by Alec Issigonis and his enthusiasm with the Mini. In fact the Mini-Cooper gave BMC the tool they needed to win outright. If there hadn’t been a Mini-Cooper I am sure the Lotus Cortina and hotter Escorts would have never appeared.” ‘Turner remarked on this point with satisfaction, gazing speculatively at the shining new poster for the latest in the Ford swift Escort line that adorns his wall. In fact the poster reflects the times we live in very accurately drawing enthusiast attention to the RS1800’s fuel economy nearly as prominently as to its undoubted performance capabilities.

Putting the contrast of a decade and more ago and today into words Mr Turner remarks, “I don’t think the climate is right today for a full scale revival of the factory teams. There is not the money to support advertising of class successes, whereas BMC used to boost the whole range, especially things like the A35, A40 and Morris Minor. Today, if you are going to sweat round the Alps for 10 days, and I’m including a proper recce, which is vital for most continental success, then you want to be able to say more than ‘A40 wins class’. For Ford, the advertising of class success is almost an admission of failure after their record in recent years. The only exception to the class-winning rule, from a manufacturer’s point of view, is France where a category win can certainly benefit sales.” That’s one of the reasons Ford were such enthusiastic Monte supporters, where the Escort was a capable fourth or fifih, a touring car win, a lot of publicity and some valuable lessons learned against more suitable tarmac machines.

Some salient points emerged from Stuart Turner’s remembrances of the Sofia-Liege ‘road race/rally’ classic, including the fact that the whole event was constructed around the principle of making every second of each mile pass as quickly as possible, so that any loss of time in 84 hours of tough road mileage could, “eliminate the innocents who dawdled along having interpreted the regulations as allowing the time shown, whereupon the organisers could close a control early and ensure that everyone had to drive flat out to be competitive”.

Turner recalled Pat Moss arriving at a Sofia-Liege secret check just a minute early, whereupon the gentlemanly organisers promptly scrapped that control. “I enjoyed the organisers’ attitude to secret checks as well,” continues Turner, “they would announce that the police wanted secret hideouts to monitor this bunch of rally drivers racing across the country . . but, simultaneously, they would hold aloft a description of where the secret checks were!” Also featured by the BMC team was a mobile 100 gallon petrol bowser and a service aeroplane, from the portholes of which inevitably fluttered most of the servicing schedule papers on one occasion. A special hazard of African rallying!

Turner’s first RAC Rally as a competitions manager probably persuaded his rivals, and a youthful Paddy Hopkirk, that the BMC factory team was the place to be. Andrew Hedges and a mechanic, plus Turner, used an Austin Princess to turn up at the majority of special stage exits, complete with flashing lights so universally adopted today on British events. Today Turner feels that an awful lot of servicing is unnecessary: “I think we would have won most of the events that Ford did win, whether we had extensive service or not.” Except Marathons, he means.

On the current role of the navigator, or co-driver as they are sometimes known in a hangover from the past, Turner says, “on events such as Sofia-Liege the co-driver had to share in the competitive motoring, or you fell asleep. In particular Timo Makinen didn’t like being driven, so today Henry (Liddon) barely kisses the steering wheel. However there are a lot of co-drivers who cover the road miles that connect stage to stage. In fact we have a bit of a shortage at Ford at present for co-drivers, especially younger ones on the way up, who may turn out to be the new Jim Porter or Liddon.” In fact the trouble is finding people who have already shown outstanding talents in home events, then bring them forward to the stage where they can cope with Internationals coolly.

When one considers that a 3-4 car works team can dispose of £40-60,000 to reconnoitre and then contest Kenya’s Safari Rally these days, you might imagine that Marathon rallies such as London-Sidney and London-Mexico don’t appeal to a motor industry suffering recession all over the world in quite the way they did. Turner feels, “I watched the cars arrive in Sidney and thought that their arrival was a great credit to all the organisers, but especially Tommy Sopwith and Tony Ambrose: they made possible a new style of rallying. Later, London-Mexico was great for the team and me, but what I’d really like to see is a rally round the World before I pass on.”

Launching into the press and TV coverage accorded to rallying (and he has been responsible for a couple of rallying programmes on BBC2) Stuart smiles behind the massive framework of his spectacles and advances the theory, “manufacturers could always find some obscure Bulgarian event, take as many journalists as possible and gull everyone that this is the greatest thing East of Watford, with consequent beneficial coverage.”

Why is rallying such a great spectator draw these clays? Turner responds to this frequently-posed question, “well it is not, definitely not, because it is free to spectators. Many spectators come from Birmingham to Wales and there’s no way that petrol comes cheap these days. I think it is simply that they can get close to the sport — remember the Colditz Castle that now poses as pits in Grand Prix racing — and to the leading competitors. All the teams have to push the crowds away at a major rest halt like Machynlleth, but the rallyist has to be pretty hardy to follow the sport into the forests. I am always happy for rallying itself when I discover again how expert some spectators are.” — J.W.