Turner Sports Cars   Articles

Autoweek magazine
May 6, 1991, page 64

Courtesy of Stephen Agins

[The article was re-created by re-typing to make down loading time quicker.]

Think back to the 1950's: What British manufacturer developed and produced an entry level, no-frills basic sports roadster using components that had been mass produced for other cars ?

The Austin Motor Company is generally credited with filling the then-vacant niche.  Its "Frogeye" Sprite, known here as the Bugeye, debuted in 1958 and almost immediately captured the hearts of first-time sports car owners and then serious enthusiasts as well.

But the pioneering work in building inexpensive two-seat "component" sports cars was done by Jack Turner, a Welshman who in 1955 was already building a low-priced sports car incorporating Austin parts on a simple tube frame.  An engineer, Turner had designed a unique rear suspension which incorporated transverse torsion bars with trailing arms to the rear axle assembly, tubular shocks and a panhard rod.  So successful was this rear suspension that he used it in three successive generations of production sports cars - 670 vehicles - built between March 1955 and April 1966.  He wrapped these parts in what he believes to have been the first mass-produced fiberglass car body.

Turner assembled and sold his early cars from a blacksmith shop known as The Smithy, with a workforce os six.  At peak production, the workforce numbered 25.  His first production car, the series 803, totaled about 100 units, and used the 30 hp Austin 803 engine.  When Austin boosted the size of this engine to 948 cc, Turner adopted it and built an additional 150 vehicles known as the 950.  As every Sprite/Midget owner knows, this engine is extremely responsive to tuning, and the more powerful cars received 8-inch drums in the rear, and discs in front.  The added power and braking ability combined with Turner's rear suspension to make the model 950 into an extremely successful club racer.  Turner 950s won the United Kingdon's Autosport Team Championships for production cars outright, in both 1958 and 1959.

But behind the scenes lurks an untold story of intrigue.  Between 1955 and 1959, as Turner was building the 803 and 950 models, he believed that Austin was coveting the niche that his specialty cars was carving.  Sometime during this period, Austin commissioned Donald Healey, who had been doing the development work. to build Austin's own entry level car (which we know as the Austin-Healy Sprite).

"I find it curious that their car should come out on very similar specifications," says Jack Turner, now retired in Crickhowell, Wales.  "I've no doubt that Healey had a good look at ours one way or another."

Both cars shared Austin components on a simple chassis (the Sprite used a platform), both were spartan (let's put it this way, heaters were an option) and were - to be chartiable - unusual looking.

But here the plot thickens.  By either coincidence or design, Austin's managing director, George Harriman, cut off Turner's wholesale-priced supplies of Austin engines, steering mechanisms, brades and gearboxed from the factory.  This forced him to purchase these components at retail prices.  As a result, the relatively streamlined Mark I Turner came onto the market in late 1959 at about £575, or about £100 more expensive than intended.  And, coincidentally, more expensive than the early Bugeye Sprites.

Now faced with his major supplier as a competitor, Turner made a wise decision to offer several additional choices in running gear and power.

The Mark II, debuting in 1960, utilized the Triumph Herald front suspension which included optional disc brakes, and a basic Sprite engine.  But one could also purchase a Mark II with 1340 cc or 1500 cc Ford Cortina (non-cross flow, pushrod) engines.  This 80 hp engine (in its most conservative form), transformed the 1300-pound Mark II and Mark II Turners into formidable street or racing machines.  Smoother body lines, and wide grille opening and a more graceful rear section gave the car an attractive appearance that hardly looks dated today.

By the end of 1964 however, the Mark III was on the market with the 1500 cc Ford Cortina engine, larger discs and 8-inch rear drums as the primary setup.  Ford's 997 cc and 1340 cc pushrod fours were options.

Throughout their 11 years of manufacture, Turners retained the original tube frame, the rear suspension Jack Turner developed in the '50s and his own lightweight fiberglass bodies.

And while Turner's diminutive two-seater never won any prizes for beauty, it attracted an almost cult-like following.  Approximately 25 percent of Turner's early production run was exported.  Of the last 145 cars, some 68 were shipped to the States.  He shipped cars to India, Australia, South Africa, West Germany, Holland and France.  Of the 670 two-seat sports cars constructed between 1952 and '65, about 317 survive.  That's 47 percent.

There are numerous 20-plus-year owners, and a couple of 30-plus-year owner, some of whom still use them for transportation and frequent competition.  In fact, Skip Barber made his early SCCA racing mark in one.  Two won thier classes at Sebring in 1960.  Marny are being raced in SCCA and various vintage races in the States today with a great deal of success.  Larry Mouton of Sandy, Utah, won the SCCA F-production national chanpionship in 1984, 1986, and '89.  Fred Leib of Nashville, Tenn., purchased a new Turner 950 in 1958 and completed Sebring in 1959.  Before the 12-hour race, Beib's car had never even benn of a racetrack.  After the race, he says he flat-towed the car home and drove it to work the following day.  Just this past autumn, Leib won his class at the Road Atlanta SVRA in the same car.

All this from a car that was built as a sports - not race - car, with no R&D department, no sponsorship, no dedicated aftermarket manufacturers, no high-tech engineering assistance and no factory.

A Turner register is incorporated into the Fairthorp Sports Car Club, along with the Rochdale & Tornado Registers.  David Scott, 21 Ellsworth Road, High Wycombe, Bucks, England HP11 2TU, is the registrar.  The U.S. club can be contacted at 135 West 94 St., New York, N.Y., 10025.

Note: The current (Nov 2000) address for Stephen Agins is:

1530 Palisade Avenue #11S
Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024

Telephone 201-944-4037
Facsimile 201-944-0692

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