Range Rover designer and British motor industry stalwart Spen King has died

Charles Spencer 'Spen' King, one of the British motor industry's most famous, resourceful and prolific engineers, died last weekend as a result of injuries sustained in a collision between his bicycle and a van a fortnight earlier. He was 85.

Spen King was best known as the driving force behind the original 1970 Range Rover, whose amazing balance of capabilities sparked a far stronger demand for the luxurious-yet-versatile – and ultimately iconic – 4x4 than the Land Rover management of the time ever expected. It has changed the way off-roaders are viewed, right across the world, and spawned dozens of imitations.

However, King had many other strings to his bow. Born in 1925, he joined Rolls-Royce as an apprentice in 1942. At the end of the war he moved to Rover, the company run by his uncles, Spencer and Maurice Wilks, to work on the turbine-powered JET1 and T3 prototypes.

He showed such aptitude that by 1959 he was head of new vehicle projects, leading the teams that created the advanced and long-lived Rover 2000. Rover became part of the sprawling British Leyland empire at the end of the 1960s, he eventually took the lead in creating the Triumph Stag, Triumph TR6 and Triumph TR7.

Rover and Triumph were placed under the same umbrella in 1971, so King was once again influencing Rover, leading the work on the much-admired SD1. In 1975 internal BL re-organisation saw King become Director of Design for Leyland Cars, overseeing the creation of the Metro.

Blog: read Steve Cropley's memories of Spen King

Few engineers have been as prolific as King, despite the fact that his efforts were usually hampered by chronic labour difficulties and the inability of successive managements to invest in the research and development, his original car designs invariably needed. The SD1, in particular, could have been much more successful if it had been developed as thoroughly as, say, a Ford of the time, and had been built to better quality standards.

King's was appointed chairman of BL technology from 1979, producing a series of ECV (energy conservation vehicle) concepts which, even 30 years ago, used advanced materials, sophisticated aerodynamics, low weight and ultra-efficient combustion within their specially developed engines to deliver efficiency well beyond that of ordinary cars. Well into his retirement, he was still conducting valuable research into driver visibility, persuading our sister magazine What Car? - and then the government – to investigate and campaign against excessively thick windscreen pillars he was convinced caused many avoidable accidents.

Always a down-to-earth man with his eye only on the results of his work, King was modestly proud of the place the Range Rover has earned itself in the automotive firmament, but always insisted that he had never intended it to become a status symbol. He was a one-off, an engineer who coped manfully with excruciating labour and management problems few chief engineers would meet today, and came out on top. His work will never be forgotten.

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Comments
13

28 June 2010

Tragic news, this. I met him a few years back and found him great company, with so many anecdotes and a real interest in modern car design. His more recent campaign concerned frontal visibility: the inches-thick A-pillars many modern cars suffer? He wanted them outed and righted. More recent design trends show he may well be having some success here, too - saving lives in the process?

A giant of the British car engineering industry who should absolutely remembered with respect and warmth.

Richard.

---

Motoring journalist

@richardaucock 

28 June 2010

Rest in peace. Definitely one of the most influential car designers of the 20th century, & he was definitely right to campaign about the width of car A-pillars, I got into a friends VW Fox the other day & was shocked at the massive blind spot there was.

The original Range Rover design is in my eyes one of the best car designs ever made, it was beautifully simple, well proportioned, & "just right" in every detail. The Austin Rover fan website http://www.aronline.co.uk had an original 1970 model as their car of the month this month, theres some great pictures on there. Even people who hate modern SUVs would be hard pressed to criticise the 1970 original, IMO.

His family must be very proud of his achievements.

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

28 June 2010

[quote roverfan1984]The Austin Rover fan website http://www.aronline.co.uk had an original 1970 model as their car of the month this month, theres some great pictures on there.[/quote]

Last month, sorry. Click on the Car of the Month link on the left anyway & you will find it quite easily.

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

28 June 2010

R.I.P Spen, you were one of the greats.

28 June 2010

He never intended the Range Rover to be viewed as a status symbol, and he was urging research into the current "safety" fashion for too thick windscreen pillars that block visibility - good man, logical and sensible. There's a good deal of irony that he met his demise in a car-bicycle accident, but none more so in seeing his beloved car industry flourish and then disappear to foreign owners. As for his end: There are better ways to depart this life. But he left his mark, nevertheless.

28 June 2010

One of the last connections to the real Rover Company but I do like to think that their heritage does live on in the new Land Rovers http://www.landrover-4x4.co.uk/lrE1/index.php

and not just in the beloved classics:

http://www.landrover-4x4.co.uk/

If there is an afterlife I don't think 'Spen' will rest in peace!

28 June 2010

This country would be a much better place if we had more greats like Spen.

RIP

v8

28 June 2010

Great shame, time for Land Rover to bring out another special edition CSK Range Rover?

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