I'm always looking for unusual machines at cars and coffee events, so when I spotted a little green sports car at a Metro Detroit gathering that I couldn't identify, I hustled over to have a look. Others were curious, as well, and the owner, John Ruth, was holding court alongside his machine. What is it, I asked. A 1963 Turner Mark III, he replied.
I still had no idea what I was looking at.
What’s a Turner?
Fortunately, Ruth was more than happy to tell the tale of the little car that could.
The car was created by Jack Turner, a Welshman who cut his engineering teeth prepping race cars for competition. All of his Turner sports cars were built by hand on tubular steel ladder frames and fitted with fiberglass or steel bodies. Initial production models came with Vauxhall, MG, or Lea France engines. Later models were equipped with BMC, Coventry Climax, and Ford engines, the most powerful of which was a Cosworth-modified 1.5-liter Ford. All had fully independent suspension. Turner's rear suspension, which featured transverse torsion bars, trailing arms, tubular shocks, and a panhard rod was considered key to the car's prodigious handling.
The first Turner built on what would become the marque's ubiquitous chassis was the 1950 two-seat sports car. A 2.0-liter Formula 2 car followed in 1954. From 1955–58, Turner built the A30/803 sports car. Some had steel bodies. The 950S, which was very successful in racing, followed in 1958, yielding to the equally successful Mark I in 1959. The Mark II and Mark III followed, each having a three-year production run. The Mark III is the most sophisticated and most potent of all the Turner machines.
Turner sports cars were produced in minimal numbers from 1949–66, but they had a substantial impact on the world's road-racing circuits.
Estimates of total production vary, but the consensus seems to be that fewer than 700 were built. Constructed initially at a blacksmith shop in Seisdon, South Staffordshire, England, Turners were later manufactured at an airport in Wolverhampton. Regardless of where they were built, the little sports cars outran quite a few highly regarded machines of the day.
Agile and lively on the street and the race track, the lightweight machines were adroit in the twisty bits. When production numbers are considered, Turners won far more than their share of races, often showing their taillights to the best of the small-displacement British sports cars, including Lotus, MG, Morgan, Austin Healey, and Triumph.
In 1958 and ’59, Turners took the UK's sports car racing team prize and emerged as class champion in the 1960 Autosport competition. In club racing they were regular winners in both the UK and the U.S., where they developed a sizeable following. At the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959, a Turner completed the grueling event, finishing fourth in class ahead of a Lotus Eleven Climax, an MGA Twin Cam, a Ferrari 250 GT LWB, and a Triumph TR3.
In 1963, John E. Miles drove a Ford-powered Turner to 15 class and overall wins in 17 outings. In 1966, Ron Kistler won SCCA D-Production honors at several national events. In ’84, Larry Moulton won F Production in his Turner at the SCCA Runoffs. A Saab Sonnet was second best and an Alfa Romeo was third. In 1966, Car and Driver proclaimed Turner "an unholy terror" in SCCA production racing.
To this day, Turners are successful in vintage racing, and at least two Turners will be competing in SCCA production racing in 2019. That's serious amateur sports car racing, and both owners are optimistic about their chances. One of the two is the car that Moulton drove to victory at the 1984 SCCA Runoffs. Can the wee sports car beat up some big boys again, 35 years later?
How a Turner turned a Mustang-lover
While Turner remained relatively unknown among the general population, serious sports car racing enthusiasts are generally aware of the marque and its successes. John Ruth first saw a Turner in the ’90s when he was driving a Mustang in vintage road races. He didn't know exactly what it was at the time, but its excellent handling left a favorable impression.
Years later he came across a magazine article about Turner racing and recalled the nimble machine he had seen. That recollection spawned a passion, and Ruth started looking for a Turner. He eventually found the 1963 Mark III pictured here in the stable of a California car collector. Thinking the owner might be interested in his ’66 Mustang, he proposed a trade that included some cash and the Turner in exchange. And just like that, Ruth had his dream machine.
The car is extremely well documented and in excellent survivor condition. The five previous owners kept good records, and one of them put the car in storage for 15 years. With 38,300 miles on the clock, Ruth's Turner has not been driven more than a typical three-year-old car.
An entertaining performer, it's equipped with the original Cosworth-modified 1.5-liter Ford engine. The powerplant's approximate 160 horsepower is enough to make this 1100-pound machine scramble out of corners with alacrity.
In the nine years he's owned the Turner, Ruth has been content to just drive it briskly on Michigan roads in good weather. But he lives only a couple dozen miles from the Waterford Hills road racing circuit, which stages some great vintage races. Don't be surprised if he shows up there sometime soon and leaves onlookers asking, “What in the world is that little green car?”
And so the Turner turns another.
John Ruth's 1963 Turner was driven in amateur racing events by several owners but spent much of its life in storage, so it remains a very nice survivor.