h, Al’s out on his boat,” came the disembodied female American voice some 15,000km away on the other end of the phone line. “You can call him on his cell phone.” Picturing a neat little half-cabin moored alongside a jetty somewhere – it was about 9pm Florida time – I dialled the number, only to find that ‘Al’ wasn’t sitting comfortably at a wharf pottering around with some minor matter, but instead was aboard his 44ft, twin-diesel Powercat catamaran that was sitting awkwardly on a large lump of coral.
This, clearly, was not a man who sat around taking life as it came; he went out and grabbed hold of it in big chunks.
Al Turner would later ask us not to mention too much about the boat: “I had someone else on the helm that evening and he didn’t listen to my instructions about the channel and put us up on the coral. We floated it off a little later. I hardly even use the boat anymore; it’s up for sale now. I’d rather talk about my new engine.”
We convinced him his ongoing engine work and his boating activities were both important aspects of this story, outlining the issue’s ‘Where Are They Now’ theme. AMC readers, we explained to him, would be interested to learn that the American who lobbed downunder 50 years ago to head-up Ford Australia’s racing department was still enjoying an amazingly active lifestyle, aged 85.
This was the dynamo who, under the leadership of Bill Bourke, revived Ford Australia and its performance image in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The then 30-something who set up the Lot 6 skunk works, redefined the GT and refined the GT-HO Falcon, invented the shaker scoop and the front and rear spoilers as run on the Falcons and left a lasting legacy which still precedes him today.
Waiting for the tide to come in aboard the (ironically named) Sea Rose, meant Turner had plenty of time to background us on his professional life, which continues to roll on today.
We began our more formal interview at a later date by asking him about his background with Ford when he first came to Australia in late 1968 – exactly half-a-century ago.
I was the manager of Youth and Performance Product Planning and Marketing at Lincoln-Mercury Division.
And you were involved with a lot of motor racing in the United States?
I’ve been in everything. When I came to Australia it was out of the Lincoln-Mercury Drag Racing Program, but I was a gearhead when I was born. At 16 years old I took a flathead V8 apart and rebuilt it even though I had no idea what an engine was about.
In the military I raced dirt track, and after that I started to drag race. I also worked on road race and Le Mans cars. My background’s pretty diverse in motorsports.
In the drag racing world you’d probably be best known for your work with Fran Hernandez in developing what today we know as Funny Cars.
Fran was a great boss, as the manager of the group. When I started there he wanted somebody to do a drag racing program, and in 1959 I had won the opening event at Detroit Bottom: The American who lobbed in Australia 50 years ago and created the factory Ford team is still enjoying an amazingly active life today, aged 85. Dragway with my dragster – we ran a 9.55 at 146mph with a 283 Chevy with a 4-71 GMC supercharger in a little rail. Once Fran knew what I was capable of he said, “I don’t need to tell you what to do, just keep me up to date on what’s happening.” So I just did whatever I wanted.
You were the one who in 1966 came up with the idea of putting a one-piece flip-up body on what was then called a Factory Experimental car which made it into the modern concept of a Funny Car. You essentially invented the Funny Car. How did that come about?
It came from a racer named Gene Mooneyham who had a [1934 Ford] coupe. He had moved the engine back and had run 160-something mph, in the nines or something; I can’t remember exactly what its elapsed times were, but the car ran extremely well. We were sitting in Jack Chrisman’s [one of Mercury’s
Al Turner and Fran Hernandez