Back to the Future as Tal-Ko helps Retro Racers

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Written By Grahame Butterworth

Alan with 4-strokes

Tal-Ko is stepping back into the past to help meet the needs of the thriving numbers of drivers who want to take part in the rapidly growing retro historic racing scene.

Over the past few years interest has grown spectacularly and, what was at first exhibition displays from a few enthusiasts with rebuilt machines, is now flourishing into potentially several different race series catering for this market.

With that growth has come the need for engine spares, and inevitably many phone calls to Alan Turney, boss of Tal-Ko Racing, and arguably the UK’s leading expert on kart racing engines.

Over its 50 plus years in operation Tal-Ko has been deeply involved in kart race engines, from initially making components to later becoming a full blown manufacturer – the UK’s only one in the kart industry.

The good news for all those enthusiasts looking at blowing the dust off their much loved historic equipment is that not only does Tal-Ko still have original spare parts on its shelves, but it also has the specialist knowledge, tooling and expertise necessary to make more. And that includes karts too.

So as Alan Turney unlocks his historic vaults he takes time to reveal the inside story of how kart engines developed in the UK and how restrictions on Italian engine availability finally nudged them into creating the TKM brand.

The original company called Get Karts was started by his father Bernie with the help of his wife Elsie at the very birth of UK karting in 1959.

In the early years it was not only involved in the sale and servicing of engines used at that time which were essentially engines designed primarily for other purposes, but also produced various purpose-built kart chassis to match.

In the early sixties the company really started to develop and be an important player in British karting. The first major change occurred when Italian Bruno Grana (then boss of SESIM and now called IAME) developed and manufactured engines specifically for kart racing. Things were moving fast and Bernie Turney wanted a part of that progress.

Bernie travelled with the late Alan Burgess (founder of Karting magazine) and went out to Italy to meet Grana – and came back with the promise that Bernie could be the UK agent for engines like BM, Saetta and Parilla, but primarily the sole UK distributor of the Komet engine brand.

As the sole UK agent for Komet and with a company change of name to Tal-Ko being derived from iTALy and KOmet, the business really started to fly and the engine won just about everything going for a number of years. Interestingly all successful Komet engines had exactly the same short bore and stroke as the current TKM BT82 engine.

At that time the Parilla engine used a slightly longer stroke and, while it had great torque, it was also fragile and unreliable due to the higher piston speed. But over the course of years that fragility was cured and gradually the Parilla took over as top dog.

Tal-Ko also produced a world beating chassis called the Voo-Doo which most UK team members used as well as the World Champion, Susy Raganelli. It was the first time British made karts were sold to the Italians at such a high level of competition.

During this period Bernie learned a lot about engines and karts and this naturally rubbed off on his son Alan who was already tuning and preparing Komet engines as well as racing for the business. The then very young Alan Turney learned how the Voo-Doo Kart and Komet engine performed on the track, later racing in the Junior and Senior UK team with young men such as Terry Fullerton and Nigel Mansell as his team-mates.

After a successful period as a driver, Alan’s engine tuning and preparation really took off with nearly all of the Junior British team using his tuned engines. His tuned Komet engines took the Junior World Champs title with Derek Bliss, beating the likes of Harm Schuurman. The next year it was nearly repeated when Sean Walker, who came 2nd on Alan’s engines, was just narrowly beaten by a young Alain Prost! It was well recognised by all that if it had a round badge on the cylinder fin saying ‘Turney Race Prepared’ then it was a quick and reliable engine.

From buying mainly Komet engines, Tal-Ko now spread its orders across the two brands Komet and Parilla, and while the Komet sold steadily, the Parilla just flew out of the doors. Tal-Ko ordered more and was told they could not have them. Jealousy over quotas it seemed.

Also at that time Tal-Ko was suspicious that Komet engines were being brought into the UK and sold by someone else, despite the fact that they were the sole UK agents. Grana denied this, but then an accidental error over invoicing from IAME confirmed the reality that there was indeed another agent being served. That sparked a history making decision.

Over the years the company had been making more and more components and building their skills at manufacturing. Faced with Italian suppliers not being honourable, father and son Turney made the decision to make their own engine and the TKM brand was born.

Tal-Ko Motori was cast onto the bottom fin of the cylinder to make them sound Italian and also stick two fingers up to Grana, and in 1978 the TKM FF99 went on sale. What did FF stand for? “F***ing Fast” says Alan!

And so the business moved forwards with development of many new engines with different bores and strokes, with piston port and reed valve versions, and even a 125cc water-cooled six speed gearbox engine which took championship victories not only at the British Long Circuit Kart Grand Prix but also at the British Short Circuit Championship at Rissington in the hands of Stuart Ziemelis.

At around the same time that Tal-Ko started producing engines, a young William Hewland of Hewland race car gearbox fame, started racing in Juniors. His father Mike decided to make an engine and so the Hewland Arrow was born and raced to great success.

Although they were a rival engine, Tal-Ko supplied parts to the successful engine and the two businesses raced alongside each other happily. But then came a change. Alan Turney takes up the story: “My mother Elsie took a call from the buyer at Hewland about some parts they wanted, at the end of which he said they had now sold the engine and would probably not speak again.

“She came straight off the phone and told me the news. I rang straight back to ask if the engine had actually been sold already. When I was told ‘No’ I made a date for a meeting the next day.

“I met Mike, looked over everything and agreed to buy the lot – engines, spares, tooling, dyno etc. Mike also had a lovely airbrush drawing of the Arrow engine over his desk, and when I said I wanted that too in the deal he was not sure he wanted to give it up. But when I went back to collect everything and met him in his office with the cheque I noticed the nail in the wall was still there for the picture but hanging from it was a note saying ‘Sold’. He had wrapped the picture for me as a gift!

“So then we also had the Hewland Arrow engine which we re-badged as just Arrow. We produced a further 200 plus engines and still have spares and tooling for that engine today and in fact I have just put an Arrow parts list on our website.

The Arrow engine had some interesting design features that stood out from the Italian engines and the crankshaft balance factor design was used as the basis for the TKM BT82 engine, still used today for the Formula TKM class.

That TKM BT82 engine (its name derived from Bernie Turney and 1982, the year when he died) first became a massive success in the USA winning many titles including the USA ‘World Endurance Championships’. Later, with engine development and costs spiralling out of control from Italy, the engine was selected by the MSA as the basis of the UK’s own class – initially known as 100UK and of course today called Formula TKM.

TKM branded engines have powered so many drivers on their way to the top including Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, David Coulthard, Anthony Davidson, Christian Horner, Gary Paffett, Oliver Jarvis and hundreds more.

So it can be seen with that involvement in kart racing engines over the past many decades Tal-Ko has an incredible wealth of knowledge on just about every aspect. Says Alan: “We do quite literally have spares still on the shelves for the Arrow engine and for the other TKM engines we have made over the years. And what we don’t have we can make because we also still have all of the tooling.

“We still have some complete engines and we will make more if there is a demand which it seems there will be. In particular the two engines which are exciting the Retro racers are the Arrow which falls into the Historic class and the more recent TKM L90 which is in the Classic class. I can’t wait to see them racing again.

“We do also have the ability to make new copies of the original all conquering Voo-Doo kart and we will be going ahead with that to meet the demand.

“I have a personal interest in all this older equipment because it is where I grew up, so to me helping the classic and historic racers is a joy.”