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.
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.