Head Turner

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Gone fishin': This soft-top 90 is an ideal leisure wagon : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
Worcester-based Turner’s Off-road is making a name for itself after building a showstopping 90. Its secret? Engineering mastery, as Alisdair Cusick finds out

Once upon a time… In a galaxy far, far away… All the best stories have distant beginnings. In that vein, my journey to our head-turning cover car didn’t start this morning, but rather last year, 30 October 2022, at LRM’s Malvern Spares Day. The magazine’s Associate Publisher, Steve Miller, spotted the car whilst setting up. The lights weren’t even on in the Avon Hall, the car was on a trailer, but from a distance, in half-light, the 90 shone. Steve could tell already it was one day destined to be a cover car, and he wasn’t alone: throughout the day, there was a bustling crowd around this chic, eye-catching Land Rover.

Which explains why I’m now in rural Worcestershire, standing next to the immaculate 90 in glorious spring sunshine. An unpredicted overnight downpour may have meant the car arrived on a trailer, but the smooth thrum of a 200Tdi heralds that this is no longer a mere static display. The Defender belongs to Michael Hesketh-Turner and James Scott, who have built it under their banner of Turner’s Off-road.

The immaculate 200Tdi  gets its first proper warm-up during LRM’s photoshoot

​​​​​​But the real origin of today’s story has a very distant beginning, to the days of Michael’s grandfather. “He used to repair, service and build lots of Defenders, Series and Range Rovers,” explains Michael, who grew up around green oval badged vehicles. “He only had one arm – one-armed Mick they called him,” Michael adds. His sphere of influence wasn’t limited to the family, because James also started helping Mick when he was just 16, tinkering on his old BSA motorbike.

More recently, as Michael outgrew a career in sales he decided it was time to finally start the Land Rover business he’d always wanted, inspired by the time spent with his influential grandparent, who passed away in 2013. After first year buying, repairing and selling cars to build up some capital, the point then came where James also decided to come on board. Thanks to the inspiration of one-armed Mick, Turner’s Off-road now had a like-minded team.

Stunning 200Tdi rebuilt in-house and is fully balanced, ported and polished. Looks gorgeous, sounds deliciously smooth

James’ career had evolved from pottering with motorbikes into major league automotive engineering. He worked in Powertrain for Land Rover, Rover and other manufacturers on everything from engine development – notably the 3.5 EFI in the Discovery, with stints in the US – right through to installing test beds and rolling roads for China’s largest car maker, SAIC. That is precise, thorough work and 40 years of it. “His mechanical knowledge is something I haven’t experienced in this kind of industry,” adds a proud Michael.

That’s the approach the pair are taking with Turner’s Off-road. “It’s about making something as good as it can possibly be,” Michael explains. James’ working life has been spent on tight-tolerance engineering, and that sort of work involves a certain level of expectation. “If you’re building a prototype engine that may have cost £250,000,” says James, “it has to be right, because if it isn’t, it won’t do its job.”

Relatively new on the scene, this is Turner Off-road’s first car. “We’ve done four cars now for customers, including some Series IIIs,” says Hesketh-Turner, ”with more in the pipeline.”

Laser-cut company logos in the headlight bezels are backed with leather. Exhaust in line with crossmember. Nothing has escaped the attention to detail

The cool 90 pictured here happened because a trade contact called up, explaining they had a completely rotten example to offload. Uncertain what to do with it as a sales car, Turner’s Off-road was offered it for just £3000. It may have been about to be weighed in for scrap, but it was just right for the duo’s intentions. The chassis was too far gone to save, so the car was built up using a genuine 200Tdi chassis which was then galvanised. “We wanted to try to keep it as original as we could,” Michael continues. “The ethos was to take a car that was ruined and make it into something beautiful.”

Many things in the car are original; the engine, gearboxes and axles, for example. The 150,000 mile block was completely rebuilt by James to his fastidious OEM-tolerance standards. It was rebored to +0.20in, using Genuine Parts pistons (keeping standard big ends), then was additionally ported, polished and balanced.

Series-style simplicity, but with restrained touches of luxury

James explains the company’s approach: “I’ve done nearly 40 years in an OEM engine prototype development environment. What we’re trying to do is put that level of precise detail into our cars.”

The 200Tdi has been taken to within 95 per cent balance, James reveals, whereas a production Land Rover is roughly 75 per cent. That lower figure isn’t a lower standard, it’s merely an inevitable result of mass production where there is a  variance between parts, because tooling is made to produce and assemble them to an accepted tolerance. “In a development environment, everything has to be spot-on,” James says.

Why the 200Tdi, I ask, not a beefy V8 like everyone else seems to be using? “The big purpose of this build was to take something that was rotten, ready to scrap and reuse as much as we could and create a showstopper,” explains Michael, wanting Turner’s Off-road’s talents to be the theme of the build.

Defender seats get Italian leather upholstery, complete with embroidered company logo

I ask where customers go with their choice of specification. “We’ve done the same level as our car, but if anything, more so,” James replies. Customers have even arrived with mood boards, ready and set to spec a build. However some, having seen the oh-so smart 90 demonstrator, have instantly changed tack, wanting a similar look for their car. There are people who are out-and-out purists, James tells me, but increasingly there’s a market who aren’t au fait with the history of the brand and simply want a special car to go shooting, or enjoy of a weekend.

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Galvanised factory chassis, with axles refinished in bronze powder coat. And just look a those brake lines...

​​​​​​“One thing we try to do is focus on fixtures and fittings, attention to detail, to get things to fit beautifully,” enthuses James. The duo’s insistence on tight tolerances shows in every detail, such as the brake lines – a real giveaway as a marker of workmanship. It’s almost an obsession for James, who jokes about striving to make his already neat lines even tidier.

The original axles were rebuilt in-house and refinished in bronze powder coating. Standard shocks, bushes, springs and brakes went on, but where possible with stainless steel fixings. The wheels are noticeably banded, which wasn’t the original plan, but after trying them on the car, the pair was convinced. “We tried spacers, but it looked ridiculous, whereas these look great,” says Michael. Wearing 265/75 R16 BF Goodrich All-Terrains, the demo appears purposeful and eye-catching.

Iroko teak rear flooring offsets Italian brown leather seats and Cappuccino Beige paint nicely

On that subject, the 90’s Cappuccino Beige paintwork was inspired by a Fiat 500 colour that Michael admired, and makes it a real head-turner. Laser-cut company logos on the headlight bezels with leather backing behind may have been an experiment, but are staying, Michael informs me. The seats, recovered by local Nationwide Trim, are upholstered in Italian leather, as is some of the dash for an extra touch of luxury. The Iroko wood used in the rear goes well with the chocolate-coloured canvas.

As the 90 pootles about for my camera, James teases that the engine isn’t yet fully run-in, and in fact has only ever been idled around while manoeuvring. Inside, he’s wincing at it being saturated in rich fuel mixture, rather than steadily pulsing at operating temperature on longer runs. It starts each time with that characteristic single puff of smoke 200Tdi engines have, but the beat is noticeably smoother. There’s light injection knock, but beyond that, notably little else. Thanks, undoubtedly to James’ time with the weighing scales, balancing the components to work so harmoniously.

As beautiful as it looks, the 90 is still a true Land Rover

The enthusiastic duo are rightly proud of their work. As an attention-grabbing showcase the 90 has already justified the amount of work and expense of creating it. We’re a small company, and doing most of the work clearly reaps many benefits. Their quality control is incredible as they understand and manage each other’s level of workmanship. The proof is in the pudding - its details are exquisite and crowds gather each time the vehicle is showed off.

Turner’s Off-road is attending a few shows this year, including LRM’s Malvern two-day event back in May – if you went, you’ll no doubt have spotted it. If you missed it and want to find it at a future event, you won’t have to look hard; it’ll be the one hogging the limelight.

 

Spec list      

Engine
• Genuine matching numbers 200Tdi (ported, polished and balanced, all internals OE)
• Full Turner’s Off-road rebuild
• Reconditioned Genuine turbo
• Reconditioned Genuine fuel pump and injectors
• All plated engine fixtures including fuel lines
• Samco cooling and induction hoses
• Aluminium radiator and intercooler

Driveline
• Reconditioned steering box
• Fully reconditioned genuine (numbers matching) LT77 gearbox and transfer box
• Fully reconditioned axles and differentials, finished in bronze powder coating
• Full stainless steel exhaust system from Demand Engineering

Suspension and brakes
• Standard suspension and bushes
• Brand new standard brake discs and calipers all-round

Wheels and tyres
• BF Goodrich All Terrain tyres (265/75 R16)
• Banded steel wheels in Cappuccino Beige

Body and chassis
• Painted in Cappuccino Beige
• Nakatanenga front grille
• Galvanised front bumper
• Galvanised genuine chassis
• Galvanised genuine bulkhead
• Galvanised door hinges
• Turner’s Off-road light surrounds
• Turner’s Off-road wing grille set
• Cappuccino Beige mirror backs
• Undercover Covers chocolate hood
• Purely Metal heavy-duty roll frame
• Defender Rear Tubs rear tub
• All new galvanised cappings
• Series-style doors

Interior
• Italian brown leather dash and seats with stitching to match exterior colour
• Turner’s Off-road headrests
• Marshall Bluetooth removable speaker
• Mountney wooden steering wheel and boss
• Aluminium knob set
• Original clocks
• Iroko teak rear flooring

 

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