Always centre stage

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His rallying career encompassed almost every role – not least team boss at BMC and Ford – and Stuart Turner proved adept at them all

Should Pooh Sticks ever become a recognised sport, would it catch on? And would the onset of professionalism and corporate involvement damage it over the longer term? It’s certainly a quandary. Vested interests would likely lead to questionable tactics, maybe match-fixing, and perhaps even life bans for the perpetrators. Who knows? Based on little more than our admittedly pub-centred reasoning, the ‘sport’ would survive only if the rules laid down on day one were sacrosanct. And simple. And enforced. Constantly tampering with them or taking sides would muddy the waters and lead to rumour and counter-rumour. It could get messy. Just look at Formula 1.

It’s a point of view backed up by the orange juice-sipping guest at the table, affable motor sport colossus Stuart Turner. Except he verbalises it coherently. “When did golf, football, cricket, whist, tiddlywinks or even Morris dancing last change their rules?” he asks, we’re guessing rhetorically. “Is it any wonder that the wider public is confused by Formula 1? I have a theory that we should measure a sport’s worth by MoIs – Moments of Interest. Watch sport on telly with someone who’s only half interested and every time a top player hits a ball in a tennis match there’s a moment of interest. In football, if the ball goes near Wayne Rooney there’s a moment of interest. If Paula Radcliffe looks like she’s about to collapse near the end of a marathon, that’s a moment of interest. In F1, there’s a moment of interest on the first lap or two, and then what? Unless it rains there’s nothing. You don’t feel drawn in emotionally with F1 because you can’t see the drivers when they’re in their cars and they’re in their ivory towers the rest of the time.”

Warming to the theme, ever-present smile slipping momentarily, he continues: “Another thing, and I say this as an old-timer, I wish the cars looked different. I’m sure if you took off the paint they would all look the same. And you can no longer identify a car by engine note alone; the distinctive Ferrari V12 wail for example. It’s the uniformity I don’t like.”

And he’s not alone. But then you could never accuse Turner of being a recidivist, viewing motor sport’s past through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror. His career encompassed glory as a competitor and as a competitions manager: he’s nothing if not an over-achiever. Never one to give in to easy nostalgia, he’s deliciously forthright about his views on the sport and it pays to listen. But then he poses as many questions as he answers, so you’re never entirely sure who is the interviewee. What is clear is that Turner loves motor sport, but is frustrated by it in equal measure.

What is remarkable is that his participation began as much by happenstance as planning. “I got drawn in via the North Staffordshire Motor Club. Well, actually my first exposure was auspicious. I was doing my National Service, spending a year learning Russian in Cornwall. We were out on manoeuvres, although wandering around would be a closer description, when we came across an airfield where this blue racing car was being tested. So my first experience of motor sport was pushing Prince Bira’s ERA. But I wasn’t interested in it at the time. My parents couldn’t afford a car. Anyway, my father remarried when I was 18 and I inherited four stepsisters, one of whom had a boyfriend who picked her up for lunch one Sunday and said they were going to do a rally – did I want to come along? Well, Jean got lost so I picked up the maps and it’s been downhill ever since.”

After a few more rallies with future brother-in-law John Bedson, Turner’s aptitude for navigation led to him winning the inaugural British Rally Championship in 1958, sitting alongside Ron Gouldbourn. That and the Autosport Award for co-drivers over three consecutive seasons (1957-59). “It took me a long time to persuade [magazine founder] Gregor Grant to agree that winning the trophy three times in a row meant I should keep it in perpetuity,” he laughs.

“You have to remember that rallying was still an amateur sport back then and the clubs were the backbone of the movement. I used to send our magazine to the motor sport weeklies and gradually started doing reports for them. I put in a footnote to one Motoring News story, something along the lines of could they give me a shout if ever a full-time job was going?” A position became available in early 1960 and our hero left Staffordshire for London and life as a jobbing hack. “It was a brilliant time: John Blunsden was the editor, Darryl Reach was his deputy and I was the third arm.

“I got to experience that notorious publisher – and great character – Mr Tee, and to be in the same building as The Bod and Jenks… They were all legends. While I was at MN I was sent off to Le Mans. I can clearly recall chatting with Jenks in the middle of the night about his pace notes on the Mille Miglia. Anyway, something happened to one of the Ferraris and everyone followed the party line about the cause of its retirement. Everyone apart from Jenks who crawled underneath the car in the paddock to see for himself. He was a remarkable bloke.”

*

Not that Turner’s career as a words monkey would last long. Team management beckoned, but not before further big wins during what was the start of the Scandinavian invasion. “The fortunate thing about events such as the RAC Rally was that the navigational side was still a major element. If you were Erik Carlsson, Wolfgang Levy or whomever, you’d want a local man. And good co-drivers could pick and choose when the
RAC came around. I went with Erik and we won the RAC in 1960. He drove that year with two broken ribs; they didn’t come much tougher than Erik.

“ The shift into managing the BMC Competition Department came about because [team boss] Marcus Chambers was leaving; John Thorley was then in overall control at Abingdon. I’m sure there were more experienced people than me around so when I did take the job it was a gamble on John’s part. I had been on the fringes of the team beforehand, though, and I know Pat Moss put in a good word for me.

“I inherited a wonderful team of mechanics and the atmosphere at Abingdon was great. John also insulated me from interference from the higher-ups. But this was a period when rallying was changing from a gentlemanly pursuit to a serious sport and I was fortunate to have the likes of Pat, Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk on side. And I always maintain that if you’re going to join a competition department, do so after the Mini Cooper has just been announced.”

It holds true in broad outline that the Mini’s wins on the Monte Carlo were the making of the car on the global stage, but more memorable still was the year it didn’t take home the silverware. “In the ’60s the Monte was 20 times more important than it is now. There were broadcasts on BBC radio, coverage on page one of major newspapers. Because of this, companies took out ads in the Monday morning editions: the rally ended on Saturday evening and BMC, Dunlop or whomever would have booked ads in advance so they needed something to put in them. Therefore what Marcus had been forced to do was go on events with several different models in the hope that the Riley 1.5 or whatever would finish second in class – it would be a triumph for Riley. Once we got the Austin-Healey 3000 you didn’t need that multiplicity of models and with that and the Mini it all became a damn sight simpler.

“We’d won the Monte in 1964 and again in ’65, but when we were thrown out in ’66 the furore was extraordinary.” But was the exclusion of the 1-2-3 finishing Minis (along with the fourth-placed Lotus Cortina) really a case of those mendacious Frenchies sticking it to the Rosbifs, as history paints it? “The organisers thought we were cheating and I can sort of understand why. In 1966 we were developing pace notes and incorporating ice notes. This involved going over a stage before it started and accurately marking on the notes where the ice was. If you didn’t know where the ice was you would do the stage on ‘safe’ tyres. If you did know, you could perhaps use racing tyres. Well, we were demonstrably quicker than everyone else on some of the stages and I suspect the organisers thought we were using big engines or had swapped cars around – neither or which is true. They eventually found some infringement to do with the headlamp dipping arrangement. It was all very spurious but overall we did well out of it. Few remember that a Citroën ‘won’.

“When Marcus departed at the end of his seven years, I couldn’t understand how he could leave such a job. After I’d been there five and a half years, I understood. I swear someone was watching over me as not long after I left [Lord] Stokes took over at BMC and all hell broke loose. I don’t think he ever visited Abingdon but he axed the Competitions Department nonetheless. I was on the BMC stand at the 1966 Earls Court Motor Show when Walter Hayes invited me over to meet the chairman of Ford Britain; I hadn’t even met the chairman of BMC. I was offered a role at Ford, which I politely declined. This probably sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t think it was a gentlemanly thing to do to move to our main competitor. I left BMC in ’67 before it all went belly up and joined Castrol.” He finally took the Blue Oval’s coin two years later following a seemly interlude. “My first event was the 1970 World Cup Rally, which we won with Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm.”

On moving over to head the renowned Advanced Vehicle Operations department, Turner cites having to make 100 or so people redundant due to its abrupt closure in 1975 as an all-time low point in his professional life. Seeing out the decade as chief of Public Affairs, he enjoyed witnessing Ford’s success at international level but, by the dawn of the ’80s, it was clear that the marque’s position was waning. So much so that Turner was asked to prepare a paper on the firm’s future in motor sport. He suggested canning the troubled C100 Group C programme and the Escort RS1700T rally car project while they were at it. “The face of rallying was changing and it was clear that four-wheel drive was the future. We needed a purpose-built car.”

So Turner embarked on his second tour as competition chief. “I was incredibly lucky in working with people such as Walter Hayes, in that I could fight to get things like the Sierra Cosworth and the RS200 into production for the purpose of homologation,” he smiles. “Of course, when Group B was cancelled we had a problem. I remember getting a call from [project manager] Mike Moreton who’d been at [subcontractor] Reliant’s in Tamworth. He’d had a major executive decision to make: a building next door had gone up in flames and there was a real danger of the stock of unsold RS200s being destroyed. As Mike put it, he wasn’t sure whether to push them out of harm’s way or closer to the fire…”

There would be further successes, not least with the Escort Cosworth – “That took what must have been 20 internal pitches before we got the go-ahead” – but Turner is not one to revel in past glories. Conversation instead returns to contemporary motor sport, his views on rallying being germane. “For me the barometer is The Sunday Times sports section. These days the World Rally Championship usually gets mentioned in its half-page round-up, often with fewer lines than a piece on a Patagonian bowls tournament.

“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Fleet Street or whatever it is now is going to stop the presses for a rally. It’s not on their radar. If it were up to me, I’d make it so the cars are a lot closer to what you can buy: when Pat Moss won the 1960 Liège-Rome-Liège the car cost maybe £1000 retail, which these days is about £20K.” And if you were starting out today? “If I was a youngster and wanted to be World Champion at something, I’d probably opt for chess rather than motor racing. Talent not withstanding, it’s not as if it costs much to get started, is it?” He has a point. Cue more laughter.

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