AET Turbos History
Pioneering Beginnings 1958-1974
At AET, motorsport isn’t just our business – it’s our passion, and deeply ingrained into our DNA. Whilst we’ve been directly involved in motorsport since the company was established, our racing heritage goes back even further.
Our founder, Tony Taylor, was one of the key names involved in the promotion, development and early testing of turbocharging for racing.
In this section, we look at Tony’s early experiences, from his engineering apprenticeship and club rallying days, to working with the big F1 teams at Holset Engineering, and his meeting with Enzo Ferrari...
Tony began his career in 1958 as an apprentice at industrial engineering company Mirrlees – learning his trade by working on big commercial diesel engines for industrial and power generation applications.
It was at Mirrlees that he got his first taste for racing, after joining the company’s motor club:
In those days, every big engineering company had their own motoring club – it was a really popular social thing, as all the engineers were into their racing.
I joined the motor club as soon as I started at the firm and was hooked on racing from the very beginning. Soon, I was taking part in club rallying events all over Cheshire and Derbyshire, first as a driver, and later as a navigator. We were pretty successful, and won a fair few rallies, but I was just happy to be involved.
After completing his apprenticeship at Mirrlees, Tony moved on to the Holset Engineering Co. – a British engineering company that’s now part of Cummins Turbo Technologies.
At the time, Holset developed and manufactured turbochargers – mainly for commercial vehicles and industrial applications:
I joined Holset in 1966 as their first Sales Engineer. I was in charge of all their turbocharging, going out to visit customers all across the UK and Europe to provide them with parts, information and advice on the technical side of things
Turbocharging was still pretty much reserved for commercial diesel engines at this point, so most of Tony’s time was spent working with the major truck manufacturers of the day.
However, by the late 60s, Holset had started to move into turbochargers for petrol engines, and Tony began to concentrate on that, becoming Special Projects Manager and getting involved in racing once again…
As Special Projects Manager, it was Tony’s responsibility to help customers who needed support in the development of their turbocharged vehicles. These included innovative test projects for the major manufacturers, and providing turbochargers for a few racing pioneers of the late 60s:
When I was at Holset, petrol turbocharging was really new and only a handful of people were starting to experiment with performance turbocharging for racing. Some of the exciting projects we were involved in at Holset helped to pave the way for turbocharging to become mainstream across motorsport.
In 1968, I started working on a few test projects for the Ford Motor Company – including turbocharging a 1.6 Capri, in an effort to get the same performance as the 3 litre model. This project started in late 1968 at Boreham under Henry Taylor. The 1.6 litre engine was turbocharged and brake tested by development engineer Peter Ashcroft and his assistant Terry Hoyle. 160BHP at 4500 RPM was achieved with the project before it was transferred to Alan Mann Racing for installation in a vehicle. Len Bailey did all the installation work, but the project was suddenly stopped. However, at Holset Ford Advance Vehicle Operations (AVO) Rod Mansfield lent us a 1.6 litre Capri which we turbocharged and developed (using MIRA test facilities) culminating in an unauthorised race at MIRA on the twin parallel strips against a 3.0 litre Capri driven by Ford’s Bill Meade and Richard Hudson Evans. The car was neck and neck for the first ¼ mile then the 3.0 litre came into its own – which certainly raised a few eyebrows at Ford! Roger Clark then drove the car in development tests at Ford Boreham
In 1969, Syd Enever at BMC Abingdon asked for assistance in turbocharging a 1293cc Mini Cooper S, using Lucas petrol injection. The engine was developed and eventually, in 1970, installed in Irish racing legend Alec Poole’s Mini Cooper S – It was really successful, and he raced it all over the UK and Ireland, including a memorable victory at Silverstone. Alec would go on to win the British Touring Car championship the next year.
In 1970, I visited Ginetta Cars at Witham and met the Walklett Brothers. I remember asking them how much BHP they had made when turbocharging and their reply was very interesting; ‘Don’t know but a lot more power than naturally aspirated engine as we keep breaking crankshafts (used three bearing cranks at the time)’.
It wasn’t long before the big Formula 1 teams of the day got in touch with Holset, wanting to experiment with turbocharging for the first time:
When Holset began developing turbochargers for petrol engines, they started to turn a few heads, and we were soon invited to work on one off projects for big names like Cosworth Ferrari and MATRA.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion amongst the Formula 1 teams about holding a ‘Libra Race’ – an event with few rules and no limits on engine capacity – all the big F1 teams were going to enter.
As part of the development and preparation for this event, some of the teams were considering using turbochargers, and I supplied turbos to Cosworth (where a number of meetings were had with Keith Duckworth), MATRA and Ferrari, then visited them to help with the set up and testing.
I was invited over by Matra and visited their engine test bed which was in an old WW2 bunker just south of Paris – a relic from the old Maginot Line, and I clearly remember the noise of the turbocharged V12 engine being tested for the first time – it was absolutely deafening, but fantastic, and a prelude for things to come.
Bear in mind that this was 10 years before the first turbocharged F1 car was launched – we were breaking new ground, and right at the forefront of global turbo technology.
Unfortunately, the Libra race never happened, but Ferrari invited Tony down to the Silverstone Formula 1 Grand Prix as part of the preparations:
I went down to the pits, and met celebrated Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri, who was chief engineer at the time. He wanted me to send over some turbos for testing and invited me over to Modena to help with the set up.
Visiting Ferrari in Modena was a great experience – I toured the factory and had a meeting with Mauro and the engineering team where I gave them some advice about setting up the Schwitzer turbo on their big V12. After that, I was told that Enzo Ferrari himself wanted to speak with me!
He didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak Italian, so we had a conversation through his PA. I think he wanted to keep a handle on what was happening with the turbocharging project – we went through what I’d discussed with the engineers, and he asked me if I’d toured the factory.
I told him I had, and how marvellous it was, before saying that I’d write him a cheque for a new Dino 206 GT there and then – but it would probably bounce! He laughed, and I went away with several souvenirs, including a full range of model cars. I gave them to my son Andy, who loved them – he still has them to this day.
By 1972, things were starting to change at Holset, and the company was looking to outsource the turbocharger spare part side of the business, which Tony didn’t agree with:
I fought hard against the decision, as I thought Holset should keep the work in house. It got me so annoyed that I started doing some turbo repair work on the side and formed my own company, Mandeen Engineering, with an ex-Holset friend of mine.
I was a bit naïve, as the local paper printed the news – the Holset MD called me in on the Monday morning and told me to decide whether to work for them or myself. I said I would work for myself, so I handed over my company car keys, and he sacked me on the spot!
We ran Mandeen for just over a year, but it wasn’t a huge success. The other lad couldn’t stand the uncertainty of income that comes when you’re starting a new business and we ended up jacking it in at the end of 1973.
After the closure of Mandeen, Tony was approached by Eric Jackson, the MD of a Ford dealership in Barnsley, who wanted Tony to look after his service crew on the 1974 London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally.
I’d maintained a keen interest in rallying throughout my time at Holset, and still had loads of contacts, so when I got the chance to be involved in the World Cup Rally, I jumped at the chance.
Our team was running a Ford Escort driven by local rally drivers Bob Bean and Eric Jackson, and we were up against some really big names from the world of racing, including F1 legends Stirling Moss and Innes Ireland.
I was looking after the service car, and the route took us through Algiers and into the Sahara Desert. Like the majority of teams, we got lost in the desert because they’d changed the road layout without telling the race organisers, and the navigator notes were misleading!
In the end, we had to use a compass to get to the checkpoint at Tamanrasset in the middle of the Sahara, and were the only independent service team to make the trip successfully.
The heat on the rally was almost unbearable at times – we had to do all the service work at night, and the terrain was incredibly challenging. As you might expect, the route was badly marked out and even more poorly maintained, and at one point, we had to hire a Land Rover and rescue Eric from the middle of the desert in nearby Niger
By Tamanrasset, our team was in the lead, but unfortunately, wear and tear was starting to take its toll on the poor Ford Escort. The team started the leg to Niger, but unfortunately, the car was going through struts like nobody’s business and we ran out of replacements.
We also had other problems – Bob wasn’t keen on the local food, so he started cooking his own meals in his hotel room. One day, his stove stopped working, so he threw the canister into an ash can, put a new Primus on and struck a match…which wasn’t a very good idea! He burned his face, hair and clothes, and caused quite a bit of fire damage, but no one was seriously injured, and everything was ok in the end!
Of course, we weren’t the only team to have problems by any means, and in the end, only 5 cars completed the full 18,000 mile distance to Germany. Our team finished in a creditable 7th, and it was an unforgettable experience.
As soon as the rally was over, I went back to the UK to set up a new company – and AET was born…
AET The Early Years 1974-1990
When Tony founded AET in 1974, turbocharging in motorsport was still in its infancy – with only a few pioneering racers choosing to fit their cars with turbochargers.
However, turbos were in widespread use across the commercial vehicle industry, and AET began life repairing and remanufacturing turbochargers for the major commercial vehicle manufacturers of the time.
Despite the immaturity of the passenger vehicle and racing market, motorsport was never far from our thoughts. As turbocharging became more and more popular throughout the late 70s and into the 80s, we were there to help provide turbos, parts, support and repairs on some really exciting projects – and even got involved in the racing ourselves.
Perhaps the biggest early milestone in our racing heritage was gaining the KKK agency in 1976, as Tony explains
KKK were a major turbo manufacturer, and the main competitor to my former employer, Holset. They’d actually offered me a job back at the start of 1974 to look after their business in the UK, which I’d turned down to set up AET
They got back in touch with AET in 1976 and offered us the agency for all their UK turbocharger exchange and remanufacturing work, which we readily accepted.
Whilst I took them on so that we could do all the work on the commercial vehicles, it also opened up a whole new world of opportunity to get involved with more exciting projects on the motorsport and racing side
KKK turbos were the absolute number one motorsport turbos from the late 70s and right through the 80s, trusted by a series of successful teams at Le Mans, and the Special Saloon teams. They were also the turbochargers that were fitted to all Porsches that were dominating the Group 5 racing throughout the 1980s.
Getting the KKK agency meant that the big race teams and major manufacturers started to come to us for advice, parts, and repairs for their turbochargers.
AET got involved in racing early on, by providing support to the few racers who were starting to experiment with turbocharging.
In the 1970s, petrol turbocharging was still a novel idea to most people, and the very few people experimenting with turbochargers didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to get the most out of them.
One of our early projects in the late 70s was for Jim Evans, who had fitted a Holset 3LD turbocharger to the 2.0 Litre Pinto engine in his Ford Escort for the Special Saloon racing – it was the first turbocharged saloon car on the circuit.
He wasn’t getting the most out of it, so asked us for a bit more information and assistance, so we helped him. It was exactly the kind of project I loved getting involved in, and before long, we started sponsoring the car.
We knew what we were doing, and what needed to be done to improve the performance, so we invested in some Holbay modified Formula 3 engines, before turbocharging them with KKK’s 3LEP model turbo. It was hugely successful, to the point that we ended up winning more than our fair share of races that season.
The team was competing against some great racers, and our number one rival was Nick Whiting, who was supported by his mechanic brother Charlie, who is now the Formula One Race Director!
By the early 80s, turbocharging had become much more mainstream in both motorsport and in the passenger vehicle market. AET were often invited to help the major vehicle manufacturers with one off projects and cars for racing and promotional events:
Around 1980, Mitsubishi UK got in touch and asked whether we could help them to turbocharge one of their newly launched Mitsubishi Colts. We fitted a KKK turbocharger and they loved it – they took it to all their dealer days and liked to show it off when they went to Silverstone.
In fact, they liked it so much that they ordered another 5, so we got the parts in and did the installation work.
With a long-standing relationship with the major commercial vehicle manufacturers, and the KKK agency, AET were in prime position to offer their assistance and expertise when truck racing started to take off in the early to mid 1980s:
It all started with DAF, who were looking for us to supply some turbos for their newly formed truck racing team. They had put together a strong line-up and convinced former World Champion motorcyclist Barry Sheene to drive for them.
All the major commercial vehicle manufacturers were having a go, and for a while, truck racing looked like it was going to be big business. We ended up supplying turbochargers, support and advice to both the DAF and Mercedes teams, amongst others.
Although truck racing was a great spectacle, it was never hugely successful in the UK – although it continues to be fairly popular in Europe to this day.
Up to this point, AET had been helping other people with their turbocharging, but after working with Jim Evans and sponsoring his Ford Escort for a couple of years, we decided we wanted to take a more hands-on approach:
I wanted to promote what AET could do by putting together a car for the Group 5 racing. Although there was a commercial side to it, the project was as much of a personal thing, driven by my love of racing.
The chassis was built by John Leek, Jim’s longstanding mechanic, along with Tony Tait who looked after the technical side. We then had a fibreglass body of a Lotus Esprit made by Richard Jenvey, and fitted an FVA Cosworth 1.6 litre engine to it.
Of course, we then fitted a turbocharger to the engine in house, and it became the first AET car, competing in races all over the UK during the late 70s and throughout the 80s. At that time, they were only just starting to develop rules about turbocharged vehicles, and we were competing against naturally aspirated cars – racing against the big V8s and 3 litres.
It was really successful, and definitely helped to push the motorsport side of the business, as well as promoting the use of turbocharging to loads of enthusiasts. At the track days, more and more customers started coming to us to turbocharge their engines, after seeing their big capacity V8s soundly thrashed by our turbocharged 1.6!
The AET Lotus Esprit competed in races throughout the early 80s in the Group 5 category – it was the 1980s equivalent of DTM racing today, as Tony explains:
We took the Lotus to events all over the UK and were even invited to race in the International Series at Donnington. At the time, the car was seen as something of an oddity, and the race organisers invited us to compete even though it didn’t comply with the regulations, as it wasn’t a production based car.
They thought they were doing us a bit of a favour by letting us take part, and never saw the Lotus as a threat with its 1.6 engine – I think they expected us to finish dead last! We had other ideas, and were 2nd quickest after the first qualifying, with a time that was good enough to put us 4th on the grid. We might have qualified in 1st, but technical difficulties prevented us from taking part in the second qualifying section.
We didn’t win the race, but some representatives from the Essen Motorshow were so impressed with the car’s performance that they wanted it to be on show at their event, and even paid for the car to be taken over to Germany, where it was a huge hit with visitors.
AET is a family company and today, Tony’s children Andy and Emma are both involved in the day to day running of the business. Their introduction to motorsport started early, as Tony explains:
Both Andy and Emma grew up around the business, and spent a good proportion of their school holidays here – and they were exposed to lots of racing, as I used to take them with me to all the races we did. I guess you could say it’s in their blood.
Now the MD of AET, Andy remembers these early trips fondly:
I’ve loved motorsport for as long as I can remember, which probably stems from Dad’s influence, going to see the AET car racing at all the events and hanging around the business so much as a child.
I always wanted to be involved in the racing side, and as soon as I was old enough, I started karting. I competed for a few years, and ended up winning the 2002 British Superkart Championship, the Isle of Man Kart Grand Prix, and even competed in the European Superkart championship – all with lots of encouragement from my father.
In the mid 1980s, motorsport was at the height of its popularity, and turbochargers were everywhere. In 1983, Nelson Piquet became the first driver to win a F1 Drivers’ championship in a turbocharged car, and a similar pattern was emerging across motorsport, as Tony explains:
Everywhere you looked, turbochargers were starting to take over, from the Porsches that were dominating the Group 5 racing scene, to the successful Group B Rally cars and all the winning teams at Le Mans.
This was great for business, as the KKK turbos that we had the exclusive UK agency for were quickly becoming the number one motorsport turbocharger.
We provided parts, support and repairs for UK based racing teams, as well as enthusiasts and racers at every level of motorsport. By the 90s, big names like Paul Edwards, Richard Cleare and Dudley Wood were all relying on us for their turbocharger repairs.
By the end of the 1980s, the rising popularity of turbochargers in the passenger vehicle market brought about a series of new challenges for manufacturers. One of the problems they were facing was that engine oils simply weren’t designed to work with turbocharged engines.
At AET, we played an integral part in helping to innovate and develop new oils designed specifically for turbocharged engines:
The problem was that the old engine oils couldn’t stand up to the heat of a turbocharged engine – they used to carbonise and clog up the turbocharger, which was causing serious reliability issues and artificially shortening their lifespans. There was a real demand for new, more robust oils that would work with the turbos.
We ended up working with Shell Research at Thornton on their development project, supplying them with turbochargers for the testing of their new specially designed oils, and helping them to pioneer some of the products that are still in use today.
Whilst the AET Lotus Esprit had enjoyed a series of successes in the early 1980s, the Group 5 regulations were changing, and the car needed to be tweaked:
We developed the car so we could continue to compete in the Group 5 races and bought a new 2.2 Lotus engine from a Sunbeam-Talbot rally car. We made some modifications to the engine, fitting it with a turbocharger, altering the compression ratio and fitting some bespoke pistons from Cosworth.
Tony Sugden won some races in it, but we were never completely happy with that configuration. There were a few reliability issues, and several technical problems. We contacted Lotus, but they didn’t want to get involved, so in the end, we decided to make some much bigger changes…
In 1990, we decided it was time to completely revolutionise the AET race car, both inside and out:
We completely overhauled the car – putting a new Skoda body on the chassis and replacing the old Lotus engine with a turbocharged Ford Cosworth RS500. It was a massive improvement and became an instant success.
With Tony Sugden behind the wheel, the ‘Lotus’, as we still affectionately called it, went on to become one of the most successful and iconic club racing cars of the 1990s.
Marcus Pye road-tested it for Autosport magazine, and said it was one of the best cars he had ever driven, but it was the performance on the track where it really stood out and made its legacy.
Between 1990 and 2003, the AET Engineering Skoda recorded 242 overall wins in the Special Saloons races – and in 1999, it was the 3rd most successful car in the UK! We ended up selling the car to Tony in 2003, who raced it up until a couple of years ago.
Pikes Peak is the highest mountain in Colorado and has been synonymous with turbocharging since the early part of the 20th century, when early pioneers used to test their aviation turbochargers up there.
It’s also the host of The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, also known as “The Race to The Clouds”, an annual automobile and motorcycle event. During the 80s and 90s, we used to provide turbocharger repairs for some of the entrants:
The Audi Quattro was a really popular car with entrants, and they were all fitted with KKK turbochargers. We got involved via one of my old friends, Terry Hoyle, who was repairing the engines on the Audi Quattro Group 5 Rally cars for Audi UK via David Sutton Motorsport, and he used to send all the turbos back to us. These cars were being driven by the likes of Hannu Mikkola, Michèle Mouton and Stig Blomqvist.
The Pikes Peak race is an amazing event, and a real showcase for the power of turbocharging – all the cars use them to bump up the horsepower and counteract the power loss caused by the altitude.
Tony’s son Andy joined AET in 1993, just as the business was starting to change, as Andy explains:
It all happened by accident really. I studied computer aided engineering at University, and was working for myself as a consultant, when my father asked me whether I could give him a hand with a few computer bits at work…
We only had one computer at the time, which was used for stock control – I came in and computerised the whole company. It just grew from there really, I was spending more and more time in the business, and before I knew it, I was completely sucked in!
In 1997, the business became even more of a family affair, when Tony’s daughter Emma joined the business; she is now Company Secretary.
In the 90s, it wasn’t just the company that was developing – the business landscape was also changing, as Andy explains:
The business had always been focused on repairing and replacing turbos for the big commercial vehicle market, but by the time I joined, things were changing. The big continental manufacturers were taking their business back in house, rather than outsourcing it to companies like AET, so we had to diversify.
We shifted our focus to the rapidly developing passenger car market, working with everyone from drivers to garages – much as we do today. As the number of turbocharged passenger vehicles on the road started to rise, a new market was also developing….that of the performance enthusiasts.
In 1997, the business became even more of a family affair, when Tony’s daughter Emma joined the business; she is now Company Secretary.
Innovation, Performance & Power, The Modern Era 2000 Onwards
Whilst the sale of the AET car at the turn of the millennium marked the end of our active involvement with racing, we’ve maintained a strong presence in the motorsport market. In fact, the motorsport and performance side of the business has become even more integral to AET over the past 15 years, we’ve completed many of our most ambitious and exciting projects – pushing boundaries and setting records in the process. The heritage and years of experience have only heightened our passion for motorsport, and we’re more committed than ever to helping our customers to stand out from the competition and achieve their performance goals.