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NOTICE OF DEATH - JOHN TURNER (1942 - 2023)

It is with great regret that we have to report the death on Monday 4 December, of Life Member John Turner at the age of 81.  A proud BRDC Member since 1977, the north Dorset timber merchant was a star of the golden era of Special Saloon racing and among the pioneers of its Super Saloon offshoot, campaigning the iconic Skoda-Chevrolet S110R coupe he built with friends in 1974.  John switched to Formula 5000 in 1975 with a Lola T330 and left his mark on the World Sportscar Championship with two-litre class victory and 10th place overall in the 1975 Spa 1000kms, sharing Yorkshire privateer Pete ‘Rhubarb King’ Smith’s Chevron B23 on the fearsome old Francorchamps circuit.

Richard John Turner - known by his second name for disambiguation from father ‘Dick’ - was not the first racer from Stalbridge to inscribe the little Blackmore Vale town into the annals of sporting history.  That honour fell to Stalbridge Colonist [1959-1980], the big-hearted grey horse which, with Stan Mellor up, famously beat Arkle to win the 1966 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.

John’s interest in horsepower was different.  His motor racing career started in the late 1960s at the wheel of a 1000cc Hillman Imp in which he soon excelled.  In 1970, he won both the BARC’s Osram-GEC and Brands Hatch’s Atlantic Petroleum championships.

The following season, John graduated to the British Saloon Car Championship with a Group 2 Sunbeam Imp prepared by local automobile engineer Richard Guy of Marnhull.  While reigning champion Bill McGovern was usually unmatchable in George Bevan’s highly-developed Imp, John won the 1000cc class at Silverstone’s AMOC Martini Trophy supporting-round in June after Bill damaged his car and retired.  Only he and veteran Rootes/Chrysler development engineer Bernard Unett, at Thruxton, prevented the Bevan/McGovern ‘bluewash.'

In Special Saloon events, meanwhile, John battled with Team Hartwell’s engine guru Ray Payne and Cornish farmer Andy Holloway in West Country events, scoring eight outright wins at Castle Combe and Thruxton - equi-distant from his home base - in 1970 and ’71.

John changed mounts during 1972, saddling a Ford Anglia 105E powered by a screaming 1000cc BRM P80 twin-cam Formula 2 engine previously raced by John Macdonald, later of  RAM Racing.  Supported by the Insurance Advisory Service of Bath, John changed its livery from Compact Conversions’ red and yellow to IAS’s beige and white.  A win and a second at Combe cemented the sponsorship relationship through Murray Corfield.

Eager to go faster, John and his team built an immaculate Broadspeed-arched Ford Escort for 1973, into which was installed a two-litre Tasman spec BRM V8 twin-cam engine sourced via Sid Latter who worked in the manufacturer’s engine shop at Bourne.  After another win and second place at Combe the midnight blue machine met its untimely end at Silverstone in October.

“It was a Grand Prix circuit event and John was practising [qualifying in today’s parlance] for the Special Saloon race,” recalls crewman Simon Jeans.  “He was compromised on tyres and lost it coming out of [the old super-fast] Woodcote, got on the grass and hit the sleepers.  It was like a plane crash which ended by the old footbridge.  I was pretty fit, but as I ran towards John, Gerry Marshall sprinted past me to see what he could do to help.  John was OK, but didn’t discuss it... We loaded the wreck and headed home.”

Undeterred, the incident refocussed John and his acolytes on building a more powerful machine for the newly-announced inaugural Super Saloon championship of 1974.  Promoted by Capri V8 pedaller Mick Hill and the intrepid Tony Hazlewood, who had set the first 100mph lap of Thruxton in his crowd-pleasing DAF-Oldsmobile V8, this initiative to unite Britain’s fastest silhouette racers struck a chord with many.

Down in the Stalbridge wood yard, where works engineer Ted Howard - a hugely skilled craftsman [“if he couldn’t fix something, he’d make one from solid,” recalls Jeans] and go-to man for local performance car owners, having learned his craft at the fabled Thomson & Taylor garage close to Brooklands - a plan was evolved.  Much midnight oil was burned over the winter and through the spring the Skoda-Chevrolet took shape.

The Skoda shell was chosen for its rear engine location [regulations demanded a racer’s power unit remained in the same end as in the production model] and wheelbase, which at 94.5 inches was 12.5 longer than an Imp’s.  The Czech steel centre section was retained because John wanted something solid around him and the beautifully proportioned curvaceous wheel arches gave the first Skoda racer its distinctive hunkered-down look.

To underpin it, Turner acquired one of the unloved Formula 5000 Ledas from speed eventer Stephen Cuff in nearby Frome for its Chevrolet engine - in place of an 1107cc ‘four’ - Hewland transaxle and suspension.  “But not before we’d taken it up to the local Henstridge airfield and frightened ourselves stupid spinning it in a straight line,” remembers Jeans.  When the unique ‘hybrid’ emerged from the IAS Racing Team’s old Bedford coach in racing paddocks onlookers’ jaws dropped.  They were wowed at its presentation, and their reaction doubtless helped attract welcome support from Skoda Great Britain.  But the monster required some sorting before it fulfilled its potential.

Debuted in practice for the opening Super Saloon championship counter at Snetterton on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1974, John scratched from the race with technical issues.  Nonetheless, he raced the following day at Mallory Park, finishing eighth.  Oil pressure issues - too little, too much or surge - proved its Achilles heel, but the indefatigable team was rewarded with its first victory virtually on home soil at Castle Combe in July, John leaving the lap record at 99.46mph.

Extraordinarily, John raced the Skoda at more than 20 events over the season, often appearing twice across a weekend, a mammoth undertaking for a band of amateurs with a self-built car. Eight outright wins were notched - with further victories at Oulton Park, Kirkistown outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, Castle Combe - where John equalled Mick Hill’s record, now 102.22mph - Knutstorp in Sweden, Brands Hatch, Thruxton and Mallory Park.  A class win and more lap records bolstered the CV, but second at Thruxton’s TV meeting in November - with an identical race time to Mick Hill after a wonderful scrap, which both led - was another highlight. Ironically, the BBC did not broadcast the race of the day!

Towards the end of the year, 1967 Formula 1 and double Can-Am champion Denny Hulme, newly-retired, was at Brands Hatch on a test day.  “He was having a cup of tea and got chatting with John. Later Denny drove the Skoda and thoroughly enjoyed it,” remembered crewman Jeans.  Very sadly the ‘Yellow Peril’ or ‘Skod Missile’ as some dubbed it, was burned out in a truck fire in the custody of a later owner.

The maths of running what was effectively a full-bodied Formula 5000 car were not dissimilar to F5000 itself, which offered a substantial prize fund.  John thus sold the Skoda to Irishman Arthur Collier - who had ace spannerman Martin Middleton install an 8.1-litre Chevrolet - and bought the ex-Jackie Epstein ShellSport/Luxembourg team Gijs van Lennep/Tony Trimmer/Clive Santo/Ray Allen Lola T300 HU18 which Lella Lombardi had raced throughout 1974.  The single-seater took some acclimatisation, but eighth place finishes at Thruxton and Silverstone were topped by fifth in a depleted field for the category’s swansong at Brands Hatch in October 1975.  The Lola is now cherished by Peter Brennan in Australia, incidentally.

Also in 1975, John contested three World Sports Car Championship races with Pete Smith at Spa Francorchamps, the Nurburgring and Zeltweg in Pete’s Chevron B21.  The following year he drove the Rhubarb King’s Chevron B31 to fourth place in a round of the RAC British Sports Car Championship at Snetterton.  Thus the racing chapter of John Turner’s life came to a close.  A quiet, gentle and understated character, his broad skillset embraced everything he put his mind and energy to.  John’s priorities had turned to reviving the family business - rooted in 1926 by his father and uncle Jim - transforming it from a sawmill cutting local wood to a full-facility timber stockholder.

Turner is survived by son Richard and daughter Penny – younger son Peter died in 2008 – second wife Sue and families, to whom the BRDC extends sincere condolences.

The Club regrets to report on the death of Hugh Chamberlain, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1988
The Club regrets to report on the death of Tony Sugden, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 2002.
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