Interviewing Jon Turner
Show Notes for Podcast Episode #31
Interview from the Field with Jon Turner: Engineer, Overland Traveler, and International Businessman
From the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, Scott Brady interviews Jon Turner, accomplished expedition camper engineer, traveler, and global business leader.
Guest Bio: Jon Turner
Jon is the Founder and Chief Engineer of Nimbl Vehicles. A lifetime traveler with a taste for adventure, Jon made his first international trip when he emigrated from England to the USA at 6 months of age. Since then he has traveled, lived, and worked as both soldier and engineer throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal and is often credited with popularizing overlanding in North America. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and includes three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar expeditions include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. @scott.a.brady
Matthew is a leading expert in automotive adventure. He has extensively explored the world's most remote places by 4WD and is considered an industry authority on overland travel. He is the only American to ever become an editor of a major Australian 4WD publication and has over 15 years of competitive auto racing experience. @mattexplore
Scott: John, Thanks so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it. How fun is this? We are out in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, literally in the middle of the Playa after having driven hundreds of miles of trails and backcountry roads just to get here. I just thought it would be really interesting to have you on the show because you have this really storied background that I think our readers will enjoy. So kind of give me, what was the first thing that sort of sparked that desire to see the world. And not only see the world as a traveler like you have, but you have also worked around the world as an executive and as an engineer and as a product planner. I mean this is a really interesting path you have taken.
Jon: So I grew up traveling. My mother was English, my father was American and I was born in London. I emigrated to the U.S. when I was six months old. My parents both had a love for travel. And also growing up in the U.S. in North Carolina, my mother felt it was very important to understand the British part of who I was. So there was a lot of travel, usually every two years between the U.S. and the U.K. My dad was a University professor so he had summers off. So we were able to do some travel. Some extended trips to the U.K. where I even went to school there, things like that.
Jon: I just kind of grew up with travel and going places was really just kind of being a part of the DNA. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else other than that.
Scott: And I remember you mentioning how much your parents also enjoy traveling and they wanted to instill that in you. What were some of the first trips that you did with them?
Jon: It really was a lot of travel to Europe. England, France and Switzerland mainly. And then a lot of trips up and down the U.S. east coast. Growin up with my parents we were a good family, we were not an especially wealthy family. So travel meant we would go and visit friends at peoples houses we could stay at. So I grew up, we didn’t want for anything. Something like going out to eat, or going to restaurants or going to a hotel would have been a completely foreign experience. So we grew up going to travel to visit with people and make new friends and experience with them and their culture and just kind of learn about the world. Everywhere we went we would go to the museums. We would go to the historical landmarks and national monuments. That sort of thing so I grew up loving that. Later on that expanded to my love of nature and the backcountry and things like that. When my parents got married, they got married in England. For their honeymoon they did a tour around Europe in an old Volkswagen beetle and then when in the U.S. several years later, they did the same thing. They traveled all around the U.S. again in a Volkswagen beetle.
Scott: That not only sounds formative for your parents but those experiences for you seem very formative. And if i remember from your story, you transitioned into going into the military. Was that the first time you got to, as a single person as a young person, leave your parents and go travel?
Jon: Yes, absolutely. I tried going to college and it was just something that I wasn’t ready for. I had spent the last twelve years of my life sitting in classes. So when it came time to actually have a choice I decided you know what, education is important to me but there are some other things I want to do now. My father had served in the military, he was a WWII veteran. My mother's family was a British Naval family, so military service tends to run in the family. At least it certainly did for me. I viewed it as a great way to kind of unplug from moving through the education system, to do something different but also have the ability to come back and complete it and not be a negative on my resume or anything like that. America is great about this compared to some of the other countries, there is always a great respect for military and military service. I can say nobody ever held it against me that I didn’t go straight to college. I went into the military and then pursued a college degree.
Scott: That was exactly the same for me. I was hopeless for my first couple semesters out of highschool. I definitely recognised that I needed to grow up. I needed to expand my horizons and I needed to find my way. And the military was a really great way to do that. And as a traveler having been in the military, where did you get to travel in the military and what were some of the things that you have learned because if I remember you were doing reconnaissance, fixed wing reconnaissance in the Army. So that's a very interesting job. How did that start to translate into the next steps for you?
Jon: So I was a military intelligence, so it was aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare signals gathering. Where some people take photographs, or take infrared pictures, I was looking for radar signals and emitters. Meaning that every missile system has a radar system associated with it. If you can figure out where the radar system is and the characteristics of it you can say what missile system is associated with it. Really neat stuff and I really enjoyed it and I got to travel a lot of places. I spent a lot of time in Key West, because when I was in the military there was still a Soviet Union. They still rotated trips in and out of Cuba every six months. So every six months we were in Key West, checking out what was going on in Cuba. Fortunately one of our rotations was, we were there for forty five days twice a year, one of those rotations always coincided with Spring Break.
Scott: So it was memorable no doubt. *laughs*
Jon: It was great! So I was twenty one years old and I was Getting Paid to go to Key West for forty five days during Spring Break. So this is when you think life is not so bad. *laughs*
Scott: Again, formative years, right? *laughs* for sure.
Jon: Later on I ferried our aircraft all the way from Savannah Georgia, up the east coast up to Goose Bay in Greenland. Keflavik Iceland, Prestwick Scotland, Stuttgart, then down into southern Europe. Then into Egypt and then into western Saudi Arabia then to eastern Saudi Arabia. Where we then brought our intelligence gathering systems online. That was a great trip. Lots of great travels and you wish that you could spend more time in each place. Just great things to do.
Scott: And how did you go from fixed wing reconnaissance to being an executive and director positions and product planning and development for G.E. and Sony and Johnson and Johnson, to around the world. How did that transition happen?
Jon: I was a lot more successful at my second attempt at college then my first attempt. You know the military teaches you that it's not a matter of either or. You can go out and have a personal life and party hard, and you can be in great shape. But you can also work twelve hours a day seven days a week. And it teaches you that you can accomplish all of these things. You don't have a choice, you kind of have to do them all. And so when I went back to college I was President of the Engineering student body, I did really well in my classes, and graduated in really good standing. When I graduated, it was an electrical engineering degree so it tied in with my electrical technician degree experience so I had that in the military, and so I got hired on by G.E., General Electric into their Edison Engineering program. Which is their technical leader development program. It was a pretty prestigious placement. It meant that they felt that you had the potential to do something. They backed that up with a lot of training and a lot of really good experiences. Getting into that program at G.E. really helped me. G.E. sent me to Budapest to work, along with my wife. So that was my first international assignment. Working in Budapest which was phenomenal.
Scott: And was this during the Jack Welch years?
Jon: Ya, that was the Jack Welch years.
Scott: And what were some of the key takeaways for you? We talk about the podcast leadership and management, because it relates directly back to us as travelers. If you were traveling in a group or team or traveling with a partner or learning how to manage ourselves and manage risk and what were some of the key takeaways for you during, because Jack Welch was quite notable at the time. WHere were some of the key learnings?
Jon: He was a real transformational leader. His impact was felt throughout the businesses. One was that G.E. felt that they had to renew their employees and if you were at the bottom 10% then you were gone every year. People kind of new and understood that and I helped people with cleaning out their desks after they worked for G.E. for many years and it was just kind of acknowledged that I was no longer the guy they needed me to be. Which was really hard but G.E. had some phenomenal results during the Jack Welch years. Giving me the chance to go and work in Budapest, which again you know, young kind of wet behind the ears electrical engineer, to be sent over there and really get a chance to get a feel for that business and what was going on and really impact the direction that it took. I had a sponsor for that who was a great general manager, one of the best leaders that I have worked for, and I have worked for a lot of great people. It was just amazing. You know, you got to work with really smart people. And I got to appreciate that. You know being able to work with the right team and working with really smart people you can do amazing things, and it's really energizing work. You're just excited to go to work everyday.
Scott: So you’ve got all this leadership training you got in the military, all these experiences that gave you confidence out in the world. Now you’ve worked with G.E., what comes next for you?
Jon: So, I worked for Sony electronics in Pittsburg. My wife was pursuing a degree at the University of Pittsburgh. So there really wasn’t an opportunity for me to stay with G.E. Sony was setting up a new technology center, so I went and worked for Sony and helped set up that technology center. This was the time when General Electric and a lot of other businesses were getting involved with something called Process Improvement. So I was on the ground floor of that as a General ELectric blackbelt. Sony started to do that and I ended up having a broader role with Sony and this whole thing of Process Improvement. How do improve businesses so that they are more focused on what the customer wants. And then I went on to Johnson & Johnson and did kind of the same thing. So I was kind of able to ride that wave successively into more senior positions. So it worked out really well for me.
Scott: Perfect. So all of the business experience and not only that but international time in business. You start to come back to the U.S., you start to travel more, you start to develop a little bit of love for Land Rovers and other things. What was your first four wheel drive vehicle that you started to explore and travel in?
Jon: Well my first four wheel drive was a 1975 K5 Blazer, a great piece of Detroit garbage.
Scott: *laughs* oh ya..
Jon: I mean you love it but it rusted as you were looking at it. I still have a great deal of affection for it. That K5 Blazer, you know a lot of vehicles reflect what was in that K5 Blazer. So that was the first one that I had. The first vehicle that I started to really get in trouble with was a Range Rover that I bought. I bought it while it still had the temporary tags on it, managed to get it stranded in Death Valley, in the Panamints having destroyed two tires. And in the process kind of did, and my wife was with me, we pretty much did everything you are not supposed to do. You know, you are supposed to stay with the vehicle. We didn't do that. You are not supposed to split up, we didn't do that. So we got lost separately and separate from the vehicle. But we survived it and everything you survive you learn from.
Jon: There is a great saying that I love: Good judgement is a result of experience. Experience is usually a result of poor judgement. And so I would say that I have displayed enough poor judgment to have gained a lot of experience.
Scott: *laughs* me too. Absolutely.
Jon: But it’s all about having the right attitude. My wife and I were stuck here on the Playa several years ago. In our Fuso based expedition vehicle where we buried it up to the frame rails. An 18,500lb vehicle and it took a mini excavator and a bulldozer to get us out because we had done such a good job of getting ourselves stuck.
Scott: Thoroughly so, ya. *laughs*
Jon: But the thing is when you tell stories, nobody wants to hear about how everything went great. The great stories are when things went really, really badly and you somehow struggled and figured out how to make it work. I’ve always loved those challenges, and I’ll probably continue to give myself those challenges because I just like to try different things. If you’re not pushing the envelope of what you think you can do, then you are not getting better. And that kind of brings us full circle to why I am here with you and why I have the Nimbl Evolution behind us.
Scott: Absolutely, and you can see it in our time today driving it. You could see a lot of experience and a lot of lessons learned from that. What were some of the lessons you've learned in the design of your Fuso Camper that you then thought about that you wanted to do differently with the Nimbl Evolution?
Jon: So the Fuso was really really heavy at 18,500lbs. That we offroaded vigorously. So we broke the frame, both frame rails completely. And it was in this odd position where the camper and the sub frame were actually supporting the frame of the vehicle. Not the other way around. And it had a lot of flex. So I ended up doing a complete frame replacement on that vehicle. It really sensitized me to the weight and also the base vehicle. Because weight is so important and choosing the correct base vehicle you're going to build your platform on. I've just seen, especially in the truck camper world, you know suspension is done improperly, vehicles lifted improperly, there's a lot of work that goes out there that just doesn't hold up. And I believe that a real overland vehicle needs to work on the road. Because let's face it in the U.S. 90% of our miles are going to be on the road, a lot of it's going to be at 75-85mph, so you got to be comfortable and feel safe with that. And then, but it also got to work with where we were today. Where we went all over the Black Rock desert.
Scott: Ya, low range. Differential locks. Steep climbs and everything else.
Jon: And I think part of my love for Land Rovers and especially the solid axle era of Land Rovers, it that there really was that passion that had to work in both worlds. It’s easy to build a very capable off road vehicle. It’s easy to build a really great car for cruising down the highway. The challenge is how do you make those two things happen, and for a real overland vehicle you have got to have both. It’s got to work in both worlds.
Scott: You're right. Because we have so much distance to cover and if the vehicle isn't, if it can’t go fast enough it takes us that much longer to get where we want to go play. Or if you're gripped the whole time that you are doing it, and the driver is fatigued, and you have the opportunity for accidents, and we've both seen that, certainly.
Jon: Coming here we probably did 200 miles of asphalt, 50 miles of fairly good gravel. Which you want to be able to drive at 50mph on.
Jon: Otherwise it’s just going to take you forever. But then, you know the road gets twisty and it starts to climb, then you have to change modes and have a vehicle that really functions, especially carrying a payload. You know that really gets to be a challenge, and I really like a challenge. Because I really think it’s got to work in all those different environments to really be the right stuff.
Scott: You’ve kind of developed a little bit of a love for the Ford platform. Share with the listeners why have you kind of settled on the F-350 for the Ford F Series super duty as being kind of your weapon of choice for travel?
Jon: So we will build on whatever chassis anybody wants. A 1-Ton or greater that meets certain specifications, but what we really like and what we really advocate is what Ford is doing with their F-350. You look at the Super Duty where they have the Tremor package you look at the half ton, where they had their Raptor, they really seem to be taking the off road, the people that off road these vehicles seriously. And to really be looking at that for the 1 Ton trucks is amazing. I like that. I like that Ford is being creative, you look at what's coming down the pipeline and look at the reception for the Bronco. You look at this magnificent 7.3L motor, which is meant to be a long life motor, a fleet motor that construction companies and municipalities that utilities are going to use. It’s an old school push rod V8, normally aspirated just a fun motor.
Jon: Tons of torque. It has almost 500ft pounds of torque. A couple of years ago you’d have to buy a diesel to get that. Torqey, fun to drive, none of the emissions concerns with a diesel. I have a couple of old school diesels myself, no particulate filters and I love them. We’ve talked about my van..
Jon: Fantastic. But if I were looking at a new vehicle, I wouldn't buy a diesel. It’s just too much hassle, I’ve heard too many stories of people who’ve had their diesel go into limp mode, they had to get it towed to a dealer, took them five days to look at it, and it ended up being a blown fuse or a little $.50 cent sensor. It’s just absolutely immobilized. A little thing immobilizes you and I don’t want that if I’m out in the backcountry.
Scott: Ya, very true. And also the challenge internationally, is finding ultra low sulfur diesel and that's another reason why so many more international overland travelers are picking gasoline engines. I think about a little Ranger that I have been driving for a while now, it’s got plenty of power, And torque and it gets well into the 20’s mpg even slightly modified. And I think a lot of that comes down to the fact they're getting so much more power out of small engines. It’s not the case of the 7.3L but, a lot of these motors are turbo charging them, then they are bolting on a 10 speed transmission, and that is what I noticed most about driving the 7.3L. With that 500ft pounds of torque, I’m from first to second all the way up to ten gears and it’s keeping me in that power band, in the sweet spot of the torque range. It was very evident this is not the 5.7, it’s not the 5.3L, it’s not the engines of the 302's for example. The 350’s that came before it, these are definitely motors that have evolved.
Jon: I think that vehicles should be fun to drive. And honestly can i ask you is that F-350 with the 7.3L fun to drive?
Scott: It’s fun to drive.. *laughs* especially when we hit.. Umm… really fast speeds on the playa. *laughs*
Jon: So, it's just fun right? Did you miss the diesel?
Scott: No I didn't. Especially one of the things that I did notice, now at very low speeds off highway, and you’re in technical terrain a diesel does have that reassuring torque to it. But this isn’t far behind it. Again at 500ft pounds of torque it would be similar to one of the earlier 7.3L diesels for actual torque output. They've just come so far and the fact that you have that flexibility of a much broader RPM range, the vehicle is able to be much more responsive in my mind.
Jon: Ya, it’s fun to drive.
Scott: It totally is. So what were some of the other things that you have learned from the Range rovers, Now you had P-38 Range Rovers? *laughs*
Jon: We joke about it but it was the last solid axle Range Rover. It’s the last of its kind. And kind of just an unsung hero, I’ve really loved mine. It had some truly innovative technologies on it for the time. H-gate shifter, andan actual hydraulic traction control system, instead of an air powered one. So just really really strong. There was a lot of innovation in that platform. I have one that is twenty years old. I still drive it and four wheel it on a regular basis. I’ve got a twenty year old Magiollina roof top tent on it which performs well and if I’m going to Moab that's what I’m taking. Because I’m driving the trails in comfort, I’m camping in comfort and it can go everywhere I want to go.
Scott: One of the other vehicles you have had and have talked about and have love for, we both have some love for the Suzuki’s, talk a little bit about your Samurai.
Jon: I mean for a day tripper, just to go out and play it’s hard to beat the Samurai. It’s a 2,000lb vehicle, 1.3L engine, it just put-puts along you know. I’m used to driving these big heavy vehicles, I can drive through things where I would sink to the axles or the frame usually and I could bounce along on top with the Samurai. The Samurai is a great, great platform. Where I live I am surrounded by BLM land. There's lots and lots of ATV trails, side by side trails, and my Samurai is smaller than most side by sides.
Scott: Ya, they've gotten big.
Jon: Right. And I’ve got a licence plate on it, so I can actually drive it to the trail legally.
Scott: In your mind what are the most important attributes when you look to design an expedition camper?
Jon: So we look at it in terms of comfort and capability. The comfort is the habitat and also the driving positioning as you mentioned because the distances are huge in them. You have a lot of highway miles in them so having a really well appointed cabin is nice. You have less driver fatigue, in fact these new vehicles will even tell you if they think you're fatigued ..
Scott: For sure.. *Laughs*
Jon: This F-350 will literally tell you it's time to stop and have a cup of coffee. Because they are watching you as you drive down the lane and all they see is you start to wander. And so one of the things that we’ve put a lot of effort into is maintaining all of those comfort, convenience, safety features that these vehicles have. It’s why we have this bumper built by Dissent Off Road for us instead of a huge brush bar thing. Because we wanted to maintain the stock approach angle, we wanted to maintain the stock sensors, both the vehicle position sensors, the forward view camera, the active cruise control, because those are all great amenities that I like and you shouldn't have to give those up. That and then also the comfort of the cabin. For me having a separate bed, a real bed, and we have a memory foam mattress in there that is really nice and comfortable. As you can say….
Scott: Ya! For sure, I slept in it last night.
Jon: But also having it separate from kind of the day use area, the diner with seating and things like that. We have a little map table where you can actually plug in your GPS and plan your next day or review what you did that day. Having a full shower. With enough water to do that. We have a 75 gallon water tank. Making it simple. One of the changes that we’ve been able to make is that you don't have to settle for diesel appliances if you have a gasoline vehicle. So we match the appliance to the vehicle. We run it directly from the vehicle fuel tank, so if you want to buy the F-350 with teh &.3L which we really like, then your appliances are going to be gas. If you want to buy a Ram with a Cummings diesel, your appliances are going to be diesel. You don’t have to worry about it. It's going to be the same, it's going to work and it's going to be kind of worry free. I think that is important. ANd using name brand components. We really make an effort that everything we use is of top quality. By brands that you'll recognise, with warranties that you will like. The lithium battery ion packs that we use now come with a 10 year warranty.
Scott: Ya, that's amazing.
Jon: Ya it's crazy and we try to buy local. And that's a local company for us. Battle Born does it and they are an hour away from our shop.
Scott: One of the things that I noticed was that the vehicle has a lot of emphasis on performance. Particularly off highway. The onroad is a given and it works how you would expect it to. But what I was really surprised by was the off road performance. For me it really came down to the suspension set up. So, what are some of the things you see being critical around suspension set up.
Jon: Having good partners because we're not a suspension house. We assembly, spec it and assemble it. To find the right people and make right choices because really that is what our customers are relying on us for our expertise. So we work with ICON. ICON has a really nice coil over, front suspension that we really like. We use their shocks all around, we use their wheels. And then rear suspension is the trickier part because there is no off the shelf leaf spring package that you can put on. We are lucky that Sacramento still has a large agriculture community and there's a company called Sacramento Spring that does a lot of agricultural repair in addition to custom springs for folks like us. And they've been doing it for 60 years plus. They really know what they are doing. What we do is we build our flatbed, we put 4,000lb of concrete on it, we take the truck down to Sacramento Spring and say alright set up these springs to work for this load. And they do it and they do amazing work. Sacramento Spring is local to us and we really like them. A couple of others come to mind. Deaver Spring, I use them on my FUSO and there are a couple of others. But it's almost kind of a dying art. Springs are just throw away things now. So to find a company that can forge or reforge springs is tough. But to get it done right that's what you got to do.
Scott: Ya, it doesn't hold up. At all. That's all really good advice. There's a couple questions that I like to ask during these interviews. Do you have a couple books, books that have been influential in your life? Either in business or as a traveler. Are there any books that come to mind that are sitting, or even that you have given away as gifts?
Jon: That's hard to answer because it seems like I get so much of my content bite sized on the internet.
Jon: You know some of the best training and guides that I have had and this is actually more of a DVD series but the work that Bill Burke has done. I’ve done over the years months and months of training with Bill Burke. For me it's more experiential than just reading a book. But having somebody that can actually teach you. And I’m a big fan of Bills. They're other great trainers out there. But it's kind of the equivalent of when people say I know how to drive off road. Nobody can teach me something. That's kind of to say, suppose I was able to set you up with a Formula One driver, for a week. Do you think you would learn something from that person? Or do you think that your automotive skills are so good that you couldn't learn something from a Formula One driver. Some of these trailers out here, these four wheel drive trainers are so good, they are just at a different level. In the course of a day or a week you can just soak up that information from them and become a much better, more confident driver. Where you are able to take on more obstacles and basically just enjoy yourself.
Scott: That makes so much sense. We invest so much in the vehicle. And these trips are sometimes the trip of a lifetime and for it to be cut short because of the lack of driver skill or a lack of awareness because of the right technique I think that is money well spent, absolutely, I would agree. And if someone is just getting into overland travel or they are just thinking about their first big trip, what would be the first piece of advice that you would give someone that wants to go travel?
Jon: Stay local. Put training wheels and even though you are planning to go across the country, or something like that or you're going up to the Arctic Ocean, or going south down into Mexico, down into Guatemala or whatever. Start local. You start with training wheels GO and camp at the closest campground you can camp find.
Jon: Because that is going to be enough of an experience for you the first time out. And then ease into it. Especially if you have partners that are maybe a little bit unwilling or you know whatever, take baby steps because it's going to be enough. You know you are going to find out that you forgot stuff. The first time out you are going to find out you forgot something ridiculous. That could completely sink the whole event. But if you're in town you can just go where the Wal-Mart is or the Target is the REI and you can go and solve that problem. So ease into it. You know there are going to be great adventures ahead but you know get ready for it first.
Scott: That step by step is great advice because even on this trip I’m always learning and I’m so grateful for the fact that every time I travel I take away some realization of something that I could have brought that was different or something that I could have left at home or something that I could have done different as a traveler. You are right, every single one, even the local trips you learn so much from it.
Jon: It's either that that worked really well I’m going to have to remember that or its the wow i’m not going to do that again.
Scott: *laughs* Ya I have had a lot of those don’t do that again moments for sure. John, thank you so much for the time and thank you for showing me northern Nevada and the Black ROck desert. I mean what was the trail that we did today? When we were up in the mountains?
Jon: It was the Calico Mountains that we went up to.
Scott: Wow. That was amazing.
Jon: Not even one of the popular trails.
Scott: But I like that.
Jon: Ya, you know I think I told you that I love the lesser known trails, the things where you just get out to see what you can find. Verses to say where we have this obstacle and this feature when you’ve got a guide. It’s just going out and exploring.
Scott: Ya, I agree and we did that today and it was really fun. Well thank you again, thanks for being on the show I appreciate it John. Everybody, we will talk to you next time.