The Return of O.C.’s Gary Turner and His BMX Bikes

Gary Turner returns to his BMX bikes, which are back and bigger than ever.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Gary Turner is back.

After a two-decade hiatus, the GT in GT Bicycles—an Orange County company Turner co-founded in 1979 that became the world’s top BMX brand and a giant in the American bicycle industry—is back in the bike business. The 73-year-old’s name, famous in the bike world, appears on trendy limited-edition oversized BMX street cruisers that Turner and his son Craig make at an Orange workshop. Demand is through the roof.

“Who woulda thunk it?” Turner says. “I had no desire to ever make bikes again. And then …”

Turner retired in 1999, a few years after his business partner Richard Long died and a decade after GT had been sold. He spent the next 17 years dabbling in real estate, helping his wife with her antique store in Orange, and pursuing his hobby tinkering with high-performance dragsters and Funny Cars from his nearby garage. During that time, the only signs of bikes were the old BMX plaques and trophies on his office walls.

“About seven or eight years ago, an explosion of BMX nostalgia on the internet started getting 40- and 50-year-olds searching for their roots,” Turner says. “Lots of them had kids and wanted to ride with them. Others just want to get in shape. So instead of buying a mountain or road bike, they started thinking about their old BMX bikes.”

As many started putting together replicas of the bikes they rode as 10-year-olds, a realization set in: “They didn’t fit on those little 20-inch wheels anymore,” Turner says. “They were 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds now. They needed an adult-sized BMX bike with bigger wheels. A cruiser. ”

BMX cruisers with 26- and 29-inch wheels from a number of brands have become popular in the past few years. In 1979, for just one year, GT made a 26-inch BMX cruiser, and fans hadn’t forgotten. At BMX revival shows around Southern California, where attendees buy and sell BMX parts and participate in restored-bike shows, the same questions were asked again and again of Craig Turner.

“Could your dad build me one?”

Gary Turner said no. But he was willing to teach his son.

Building a bike frame is a lot of work—cutting tubing, welding, painting. “I’ve kind of enjoyed appearing at these shows as a celebrity guest, autographing frames, and posing for pictures,” Gary Turner says. “But if I was going to get back in the bike business, Craig was gonna have to do most of the work.”

So Gary Turner bicycles came full circle, given that it started with a bike that Gary built for Craig.

In 1974, Gary took young Craig and his $29 Huffy banana-seat bike to a dirt lot in Long Beach, where he’d heard kids were flying off jumps and having fun on their Schwinn Sting-Rays. Watching the scene, Gary decided he could build his son a faster, safer bike.

A machinist at the time, Turner used his welding skills to raise the bottom bracket, where the cranks rotate, so the pedals would clear the bumps more easily. He made the frame out of a super-light, strong steel alloy used in race cars. His novel design, which slid the seat post through a port in an oversized top tube, was lighter and better looking than others available in the new sport of BMX. The Gary Turner bike became an instant hit at the Western Sports-Arama track in Santa Ana. Every kid wanted a GT, the nickname they gave the brand.

Turner teamed with Long, an ambitious Anaheim bike shop owner, and they manufactured under the name GT BMX in Turner’s garage. They rapidly outgrew the garage. BMX exploded in the late 1970s, and GT became the dominant brand. The company then became a leader in the booming adult mountain-bike market. By 1996, it made road bikes and was one of the biggest bike companies in the country.

Today, Craig Turner makes bikes a stone’s throw from where Gary made his first bike in 1974. Learning the art from his father, the retired police officer welds and builds up to 50 frames a month. Gary pitches in when necessary and signs them as customers request. Although a few Gary Turners are purchased as completely assembled bikes, 95 percent are sold as frame and fork only.

“That’s because a big part of the thrill for old BMXers is building their own bike—just like they did as kids,” Gary Turner says. “Only now, they can afford a lot more.”

Eric Zimmerman, an account manager from Yorba Linda who raced BMX as a kid, is proof of that. He ran into the Turners four years ago at the Orange Y BMX track and has since bought two 26-inch and two 29-inch-wheel Gary Turner BMX cruisers. He also owns five other BMX bikes and two e-bikes.

The investment is significant. A Turner frame and fork runs $500 to $700 on the website, and a complete bike can start at $1,000 once you source all the parts. “Two of my Gary Turners are well worth $4,000,” Zimmerman says.

Why would he spend that much to ride once or twice a week for 20 or 30 miles?

“First of all, I’m a big guy—6-foot-3, 250 pounds,” says Zimmerman, who rides with his girlfriend and their friends on the beach path from Newport Beach to Huntington and the Santa Ana River trail. “This is my main fitness activity, and I don’t feel safe on a store-bought beach cruiser. I jump down stairs and up curbs, so I need a burly bike.

“And frankly, I love the attention,” he adds. “So many O.C. kids grew up on GTs, so they know the Gary Turner name, especially in the last few years with the adult BMX comeback. It’s the equivalent of owning a Ferrari in the BMX world.”

The modern GT brand, no longer a dominant BMX name, actually tapped the Gary Turner magic a couple years ago. Seeing a public relations opportunity in the heightened interest in old GT BMX bikes, it released a limited-edition version of the 1979 26-inch GT BMX Cruiser in late 2019. It was made by the Turners in their garage and promoted as the first American-made GT in 20 years. All 100 of the $899 limited-edition frame sets sold out within two weeks.

With the pandemic sending demand for bicycles soaring in 2020, sales doubled for Gary Turner frames. Special theme models with unique graphics have been snapped up quickly. Coming this year is the “CEO,” a model to honor the 25th anniversary of Long’s death.

“I thought Gary Turner bikes was going to be a limited-edition project, but people just kept ordering,” says Craig, noting that bike production has taken over the shop, relegating Gary’s dragster to one small portion of the floor space. “Now it’s my full-time job.”

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