Edward Turner: The Man Behind the Motorcycles
In any great field of endeavor, there are thought leaders that set trends that last for years—sometimes decades. Great designers are among them. Architecture had Frank Lloyd Wright; the auto industry had Harley Earl; and motorcycling had Edward Turner.
Among Brit bike faithful, Turner has the status of a true legend. Even his least successful designs remain among the most sought-after classic bikes of the 20th Century. Moreover, his engine designs did more than set trends—they set standards for durability, innovation and performance.
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Despite his impact on the motorcycle industry, which extends to this day, there aren’t that many books with details about his remarkable career. Indeed, the most authoritative and complete coverage of the man and his motorcycles is found in “Edward Turner: the Man Behind the Motorcycles,” the official biography by Jeff Clew.
Part of the Veloce Classic Reprint Series, the first edition of the book was published in 2006 as, “Turner’s Triumphs: Edward Turner and his Triumph Motorcycles.” Clew was a motorcyclist from 1946 in both street riding and competition. He was Editorial Director for the Haynes Publishing Group through 1991 and frequent contributor to Old Bike Mart magazine, among others, so he had the kind of experience to do Turner’s story justice.
Clew takes the reader through Turner’s life from his earliest days growing up in London where the family engineering blood line extended from his grandfather who was a blacksmith and engineer and his father who was a formally trained Master Mechanical Engineer. The book covers many little-known aspects of Turner’s personal and professional life as well as the remarkable motorcycles he designed.
Turner’s exceptional independence of mind is shown by the fact that during World War I, he found a way to serve at the tender age of 16 by getting trained as a Marconi wireless telegraph officer and serving in the Merchant Navy. After mustering out of the Merchant Navy in 1920, Turner moved quickly toward his ultimate calling in the motorcycle industry.
By 1925, he had designed his first motorcycle engine and by 1927 he had built his first Turner Special motorcycle and a second by 1928. By November, 1928, he was hired as Designer and Engineer for Ariel motorcycles and not long after, one of Turner’s most epic designs—the square four—was being tested in prototype form.
By 1932, Turner’s long-term affiliation with Triumph began, when he became Technical Director for what was then known officially as the Triumph Engineering Company. Clews recalls Turner’s personal and family life as well as his role and achievements with the company from there through World War II and on up to his retirement in 1964.
One of the most interesting and unique features in the book is the complete manuscript of Turner’s report on his 1960 trip to Japan to gather intelligence on the growing motorcycle industry there. Turner’s report is an unflinching look at why and how the Japanese were emerging as a power in the industry and how the British firms were about to be upended by their competition if they didn’t make big changes; which we now know generally didn’t happen.
Turner’s warnings about how Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki all used more state-of-the-art automation in manufacturing, had huge development staff numbers and could bring new models on line in a very short time with high quality and lower costs than any British manufacturer were softened by his apparent belief that the Japanese manufacturers would remain satisfied with building small displacement bikes not up to the challenge of a British 650 twin. It proved to be a misconception that would be exposed by 1965 with the advent of Honda’s DOHC CB450 and in 1969 with the CB750 as well as other big displacement multi-cylinder bikes from Japan about the same time.
Ironically, Turner’s last design was intended to take on the Japanese manufacturers in their own wheelhouse with DOHC 350cc twins to be sold as the Triumph Bandit and BSA Fury, neither of which made it into production before the BSA/Triumph conglomerate collapsed. Edward Turner died in August, 1973 at his home in England.
Turner’s story turns out to be as complex and as interesting as the times he lived and thrived in. Clew tells the story with clarity in his book that any motorcycle enthusiast—not least those who love classic British bikes—should have in their library.
- Title: Edward Turner: The Man Behind the Motorcycles
- Author: Jeff Clew
- Published: 2006 and 2016 Paperback. 160 pages. Measures 8.2” x 9.75.” 160 color and B/W images.
- Publisher: Veloce Publishing, Parkway Farm Business Park, Middle Farm Way, Poundbury, Dorchester, DT1 3AR, England www.veloce.co.uk Distributed in North America by Quarto Publishing Group, USA. Contact Quarto via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone: 1-612-344-8100 and online at: www.quartoknows.com.
- ISBN: 978-1-787110-50-2 MSRP: U.S. $35.95 U.K. £19.99 CAN $46.95