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There isn’t a lot to say about Ken Robbins’ Turner 950S that doesn’t end in gushing superlatives.
Through enterprise and pluck, he rescued a car that, at one point, was communing with nature, although returning to nature is probably closer. What’s more, he did a fantastic job of restoring it. That in itself isn’t the curious part, though.
Scroll back to 1958, and the then-teenager helped to build the car first time around – Robbins was an apprentice at the Wolverhampton firm and stayed there until the lights went out eight years later.
As such, he’s full of facts about the marque and the man behind it.
“Jack Turner would have been 100 in 2016,” he says. “Of course, I didn’t call him that when I started. It was ‘Mr Turner’ or ‘Chief’.
“The funny thing is, I wasn’t massively interested in cars when I was a kid. I was into aircraft. I didn’t plan on building cars, but here I am all these years later still involved with Turners.”
Back in the early 1950s, when his trousers were shorter and his voice higher, Robbins had a less-than-glamorous Saturday job: “I used to live near Pendeford airfield, which was just across the canal from my house.
“Derby Aviation was based there and I was maybe 11 or 12 when I started helping out whenever I could.
“I would sweep the floor, or when people had – how can I put it? – been unwell during a flight, it was my job to clean up the mess.”
“I met all sorts of people there, including Ron Flockhart, who was then racing for BRM,” he continues.
“He would fly in aboard his Fairchild Argus when he was courting [BOAC stewardess] Gillian Tatlow, whom he later married.
“During the off-season, he was a salesman for Charles Clark & Son. That was part of the Rubery Owen Group, which of course also owned BRM.”
“Anyway, to cut a long story short, Derby Aviation was taken over by Don Everall Aviation, which used the hangars for servicing its de Havilland Dragon Rapides and Dakotas,” says Robbins.
“A proper manager was installed and it all became very professional. As such, they didn’t want some kid running about the place.
“I remember thinking that all good things come to an end, so I didn’t go to the airfield for a few months. Then one day I cycled over and noticed that one of the buildings had been leased out. There were these sports cars parked outside so I went over and had a look.
“That was my introduction to Turners.”
Robbins showed an interest and the rest is history: “I ended up with a Saturday job and also did stuff during the school holidays.
“I would assist Dennis Pardoe, who was the foreman – during the two-week summer break at the factory, he would rewire the place or put new machines in, that sort of thing.
“I then asked if I could have a proper job when I left school. Jack said yes, and that was how I ended up becoming an apprentice. I went home and told my mum, who then got my dad to go over and have a chat just to see that it was all above board.
“Jack told him not to worry, that he would look after me.”
“I also remember the careers master coming into school and me telling him that I was okay – I already had a job lined up, thank you very much,” he says.
Not that Robbins was quite done with the education system. In addition to his apprenticeship, he also attended Wolverhampton & South Staffs College of Technology.
“Jack was a production engineer,” he tells us. “He wanted me to become one, too, but I pushed to go on a vehicle engineering course.
“Eventually, he relented. In the same class was [future Le Mans winner] Richard Attwood. He was way too clever, though, and almost got thrown out because he kept disrupting the class. I think he was bored.”
Turner was at a crossroads in the late ’50s. At the beginning of the decade, it had been making one-offs, which included a Formula Two single-seater, but had since morphed into a volume producer – all things being relative.
“Jack started out at The Old Smithy in Seisdon,” recalls Robbins, “before moving to Merridale Street in Wolverhampton then relocating to the airfield.
“You have to remember that money was always tight, but Turners weren’t kit cars. Well, strictly speaking they were because you could order them in component form, but everything was brand new.
“Our cars were a step above the many Ford Popular-based ‘specials’ of the period, though. You didn’t have to get bits from a scrapyard or anything like that.”
“When I joined, we were selling more and more cars abroad, and the USA became a very important market place,” he explains.
“Around the same time, Jack was also working on a very special car that had a four-cylinder Coventry Climax engine and gullwing doors.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t become a production model because so much else was going on.
“There were other projects, too, including the Turner GT. We made a few of those in the early ’60s but it wasn’t actively promoted.”
“Sales of existing models were such that there wasn’t the space or time to build what was a much more complicated car than the regular open-top ones,” explains Robbins.
“The GT had a glassfibre monocoque and, as such, was quite laborious to build.
“When I started my apprenticeship, I worked with the sheet metal worker. I was the ‘lad’.
“There was one body jig, one glassfibre mould and one chassis jig. That meant that we could turn out a maximum of three cars a week.”
Having assumed various roles and completed his apprenticeship, Robbins’ world came crashing down: “Towards the end of 1965, Fergus Automotive, which imported Turners into the USA, suddenly stopped trading.
“Without money coming in, people were laid off.
“Jack asked us to be patient, that he needed time to sort things out, but some of the older guys had families so they couldn’t afford to wait.
“People started drifting away and only a few of us stayed on.”
“There were nine cars that should have gone to Fergus – all of them left-hand drive, which we finished off,” Robbins continues.
“Three were sold, but then the buyer reneged when they were on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
“On top of that, Jack was hospitalised so the writing was on the wall. He liquidated the business in 1966.”
With it died an intriguing Hillman Imp-based roadster that could conceivably have created its own niche, but it wasn’t to be. As for Robbins, he ended his career in car-building aged just 22.
He later became a lecturer in Motor Vehicle Studies, but the interest in Turners never went away: “I got to know Russell Filby, who runs the Turner Register, and asked him to get in touch should one ever come up for sale. I couldn’t have afforded one when I actually worked there.
“I didn’t think anymore of it until I heard about this car up in Scotland. It transpired that a guy had been asked to visit a property following the death of the owner, Gwen Simmons, and take a boat away.
“While he was there, he noticed a tarpaulin, which he pulled back to reveal the Turner. He did a little digging and found Russell, who then got in touch with me.”
Fortunately, Ms Simmons wasn’t one to throw things away.
Documentation that spanned much of her ownership proved invaluable because Jack Turner’s original chassis log was destroyed in the late ’50s during an office break-in.
‘Our’ car, chassis 261, is one of the last of this body style. First registered in Surrey in February 1960, 9 NPC had been sold new in component form to Simmons who, according to her sister Edna, also owned an ex-Le Mans Aston Martin.
It was delivered in October of the previous year and built by Gwen and her father.
It was quite a hot little number, too, the factory A-series being bored out to 998cc and fitted with a Sprite camshaft plus other goodies including a Turner-supplied lightened flywheel and competition clutch.
It was used throughout the 1960s, and was retained when she relocated from the Home Counties to north of the border in the 1970s.
It really was a one-owner-from-new car, even if it did spend 30 years out in the open.
A degree of arm-twisting ensued, though: “I think the fact that I worked on the car when it was new – I was in the metal shop at the time – helped to sway things with Edna.
“I went up to Ardrishaig, Argyll on 12 March, 2005 and retrieved it. The north-west of Scotland is quite a long way from Shropshire, that’s for sure, and the car had sunk about 3in into the ground.”
Fortunately, Robbins had access to a full range of equipment with which to restore it: “I was just about to retire, but I thought I’d be a right mug if I didn’t make full use of the facilities.”
“I used to go in at weekends and set about taking the car apart,” he shares.
“The glassfibre body was bolted and riveted to the frame with a metal inner body that sits on a tubular chassis.
“The floor was missing; there really was nothing left of it, so I ended up making just about everything below the sills.
“I knew exactly what to do, though, because I’d cut all of them from patterns when I was a kid.”
“I was keen to keep as much of it original as possible: even the radiator is the same one it had when it left the factory,” he continues.
“I had it pressure-tested and it didn’t leak, so I kept it.
Externally, the car is exactly the same as it was in period, save for having overriders but no front bumper.
So is there anything he doesn’t like about the finished product? “No, not really,” Robbins says, weighing every syllable.
“It’s an unpretentious car that’s fun to drive.
“Some people think the tail-fins look a bit odd, but they were of their day and you have to remember that a lot of cars were being sold in the USA.”
Having waited the best part of half a century to buy a Turner, ownership has served to further cement Robbins’ love of the marque.
“I look back fondly on my time at Turner’s. Jack and Molly didn’t have kids, and I wouldn’t dream of saying that I was the child they never had, but I learned a lot from them and they treated me very well.
“I am still in touch with their nephew, Tim Gibbins, and drove his stepdaughter Elizabeth Fitzpatrick to her wedding in my car.”
Far from cutting ties to the past, Robbins is reliving his and enjoying every minute.
Images: Tony Baker
This was first in our December 2016 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication