Spen King : 1925-2010

Spen King (Charles Spencer King), creator of some of the UK’s most influential post-war cars, has died aged 85, following complications sustained from an injury he received when riding his bicycle. He had been riding to the shops as he was unable to drive following an operation to repair a detached retina – his death is a huge loss to the British motor industry.

Spen was a top flight engineer who forged an automotive career by creating ingenious engineering solutions. Throughout his career, he showed that pragmatic design solutions were often the best ones even though his earlier cars, such as the Rover P6, were groundbreaking in their sophistication.

King’s first taste of the engineering life was at Rolls-Royce, which he joined as an apprentice in 1942, and learned very much how to innovate. At the end of the war, he moved from aeronautics into the motor industry, taking a much-deserved slot in the Rover engineering department. He worked on the post-war models, such as the P3, but quickly rose to prominence, taking a leading role in the gas turbine-powered JET1 and T3 prototypes.

Although these cars ultimately missed production, as the turbine never really acquitted itself as a road-going power unit, such was their influence – and Spen’s role in their development – that he was placed in overall control of new car development. King continued to believe in the turbine’s relevance, giving his first car – the Rover P6 – a suspension set-up that allowed room for one of these bulky power units. The P6 was Spen’s first car created from the ground-up and, alongside stylist David Bache, a partnership was forged that led to the Range Rover, SD1 and Austin Maestro.

Following the Leyland Motor Company’s (Standard-Triumph) merger with Rover in 1966, Spen moved over to Canley to ready the Triumph Stag for production. Although he famously continued development of Triumph’s troublesome V8 in favour of just using the ex-Buick engine, he was vindicated in that decision, famously saying, ‘I was told that they tried to put it in and you could not put it in and I believed them. I probably shouldn’t have believed it but, in any case, there were big investments, which had been recently made in both companies for making V8 engines.’

He added that the Triumph V8 wasn’t really the issue at all, a fact that has certainly been backed up in recent years, as specialists have got to grips making it work properly. ‘No, a lot of trouble was they were made wrong, I’m afraid,’ he said.

Before he was seconded to Triumph, Spen had been working on what would become the Range Rover. The V8 powered off-roader was a real leap into the unknown, initially being developed as a stepping stone between the utilitarian Land Rover and luxurious Rover P6 saloon. Of course, Spen knew he was creating a type of car new to Europe, but modestly thought it was a risk. Allying the V8 to a permanent 4WD transmission and a chassis designed for off-road use, led to the creation of a comfortable swift and capable car – on- and off-road.

When Rover-Triumph came under the BL umbrella in 1968, following the merger of Leyland and BMC, King was given overall responsibility for the development of all new Rover and Triumph models. Although the promising Rover P8 never saw the light of day, his SD1 and TR7 did make it into production. Even before these cars were launched, Spen was made Technical Director of BL and oversaw the development of the Austin Maestro and Metro, although both projects were seriously deprived of funds. Despite that fundamental lack of money, both cars emerged to be class competitive – a testament to his capability as an engineer.

Spen’s designs were often hampered by poor production engineering and indifferent build quality – and this was a subject he was passionate about. ‘I used to put it to them when I was at Triumph that the reliability of Japanese cars – back in 1967 – was something we needed to address. British and European cars did not have this inbuilt quality, but they simply didn’t want to listen at all.’

In the lead-up to the introduction of the Metro in 1980, Spen was made Chairman of BL Technology – an advanced research tasked with designing BL’s vehicles of the future. These included the ECV3, which employed much advanced thinking, including a sweet three-cylinder engine and an aluminium spaceframe. The result was a car that would do 100mpg and was arguably a preview of the 21st century economy car.

He left BL in 1985 and was as passionate about the industry in later years as he was in the formative stages of his career. He campaigned for better visibility and lighter weight in cars and continued to question the need for manufacturers to build in such thick A-pillars into their designs – the cause of so many accidents in recent years.

However, ultimately Spen was the engineer’s engineer. Whatever his cars were designed to do, they always exceeded the goals set for them. He also managed to design fine cars in the darkest of times – and, although it’s the Range Rover with which he will be eternally associated, there’s so much more besides.

[Source: Octane Magazine]

Read Keith Adams’ interview with Spen King in 2002.

Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

34 Comments on "Spen King : 1925-2010"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. David 3500 says:

    The British Motor Industry has lost one of its greatest ever post-war engineers. I had the pleasure of meeting Spen King ten years ago at the Range Rover’s 30th Anniversary celebration held at the Heritage Motor Centre, where he openly admitted that he never envisaged just how popular or long-lasting the original Range Rover would be as a production model.

    From his contribution with Rover’s gas turbine technology of the early 1950s to the more ‘attainable’ reality of the Range Rover and Rover SD1, not to mention his engineering vision for the Maestro, Spen King is someone who will be remembered as much for his passion for engineering quality as his desire for innovative engineering. Thank you for such sterling service to both Rover and Land Rover.

  2. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    A great loss to us all, best remembered for his contributions to the motor industry. Our sincere regards to his family, gone but NEVER to be forgotten!

  3. Chris White says:

    Dear Master Engineer

    It has been my privilege to have been able to conduct a 35-year-long love affair with the Rover P6. My passion was born with the first I acquired in 1975, at the tender age of 21.

    This note is to pay tribute to the man that SO impressed my enquiring young mind with the ingenuity and innovation of his automotive engineering that I was inspired to follow my career path as a petrol technician (at first), then motor engineer (fancy title for claims assessor) and gave me a life-long hobby and a lasting love to boot!

    Her indoors often says she wishes she had been my first, but a Rover P6, in the form of 2000 TC got there first. She’s a kind and forgiving woman (the missus, that is) and has now helped me rescue 5 of these beauties from the breakers. Number 6 got MOT’d 3 weeks ago and is convalescing just fine. Should be on the promenade within 2 more months…..

    Our condolences to the bereaved – may your memories flourish in these sad times.

    Mr. King, sir, you did a fantastic job – well done!

  4. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    A great man and a marvellous engineer for some of the best British cars ever. His interview to AROnline a few years back was very insightful. Condolences to the family.

  5. David Knowles says:

    Very sad to see that one of Britain’s automotive heroes has gone: Spen King survived all manner of upheavals at RovTriBritLeyCorpBL with honour, peer respect and integrity intact. I first met him at one of the Range Rover launches (think it may have been P38) and he was a quiet intellectual engineer of a kind nowadays rare in the UK.

  6. pigeons99 Pigeons99 says:

    Rest in Peace. You have brought some of the world’s most iconic cars to the metal. Such a legacy to leave from a brilliant engineering mind… I wish regards to your family.

  7. Anthony Endsor says:

    To a no-nonsense engineer, a tribute most fitting. I will continue to cite King as a role model and try to integrate the lessons taught into everything I do.

    My thoughts are with his family at this time.

  8. Andrew-P AndrewP says:

    One of Britain’s greatest, if not the greatest, engineers – if BL had listened to him it could have been very successful.

    Rest in peace, sir.

  9. Chris Mills says:

    RIP. As Andrew said, one of our greatest engineers.

  10. Mike C says:

    A sad loss… The Range Rover will go down in history as an all time great – it pioneered a whole category of vehicle and is still iconic now.

  11. Tony says:

    One of my engineering heroes. A sad loss to his family, friends and British engineering.

  12. Andrew M says:

    Apt that the Range Rover was AROnline’s Car of the Month.

  13. Miguel says:

    Very sad news indeed, not only for the British Motor Industry, but to the Motor Industry worldwide.

    Now he’s in a better place, driving SD1s in heaven.

  14. Engineermk says:

    The Rover P6, along with the Triumph 2000, invented the Executive saloon but it was the Range Rover that created a whole new class of vehicle: the refined on/off road 4WD which was copied by every other car company.

    Spen should be remembered for the Range Rover just as Issi’ is for the Mini.

  15. Alan C says:

    Just to say how sad I am to hear of Mr. King’s passing. He will remain one of my automotive heroes forever.

  16. DaveH says:

    Very sad news. Along with another departed engineer, Harry Webster, we have lost a brilliant and innovative creator who was not afraid to produce wonderful design solutions. It’s a shame that the production engineers destroyed such wonderful ideas.

  17. Richard says:

    A great innovative engineer – if only management and the unions had listened to him about ‘quality,quality’ AR could be the UK equivalent of VW Group today. So much opportunity thrown away and now we dream of some bland, spurious Chinese-made car to resurrect a great name! So sad.

  18. Eamonn says:

    Very sad news. Certainly a man who will never be forgotten for all he achieved during his long career.

  19. Ralph Ralph Schut says:

    Dear Mr. King,

    I just want you to know that I have a deep respect for you and your work.

    RIP

  20. Ianto Ian Langfield says:

    A legend in his lifetime, and what a legacy he leaves us.

    RIP

  21. Jemma says:

    Requisat en pace…

    I just hope that, when God gives him that new gold SD1, it doesn’t have the ‘automatic choke’ like mine did – I don’t think they allow swearing upstairs…

    Thoughts go to his family.

  22. Tim_Burgess Tim Burgess says:

    Such very sad news, my condolences to Spen’s family. He was the creator of some of the most iconic British cars of all time and his legacy will live on.

  23. Nick Graves says:

    I’m saddened too. Condolences to the bereaved.

    One should have hoped such an inspired engineer would have given himself a little longer to recuperate before cycling! These things happen, sadly.

  24. Andy Harrington says:

    I did not have the good fortune to meet Spen, but I knew enough about the man to admire and hold him in high regard. Spen, if you can read this, we realise that the SD1 was built not by Rover but by ‘an invasion force from Triumph.’ Sad news and condolences to the King family.

  25. Dave says:

    Read a couple of auto sites which didn’t mention the SD1 – just the Range Rover and TR6 (Autoblog).

  26. Roger Carr says:

    A sad loss and condolences to those who knew him personally.

    CSK was clearly an engineer’s engineer, developing practical and effective solutions to real situations, and showing that uncomplicated done well can be as good or better than complicated and expensive.

    Some of the vehicles he is associated with had “issues”, but he can hardly be accountable for the styling of the Maestro or for the fact it was 3″ too long in its wheelbase. The SD1 and TR7 showed what could be done with relatively limited sums and the ingenuity in the Range Rover, and the inherent quality of its visual design, is indicative of a someone truly thinking carefully about what he was doing.

  27. Andrew Walker says:

    A true legend, Spen King will not be forgotten. His engineering is legendary.

  28. Sally says:

    I am organising a tribute run for Spen King on the 21st August 2010. If you own a vehicle that he had involvement with please book in and come on the run. Forms are available on the home page of the Rover SD1 Club’s website. Thank you.

    http://www.roversd1club.net/events/2010/Spen_King_Run_entry_form.pdf

  29. Ashley M says:

    Just to say I was sorry to hear of Spen King’s passing – he was a great man whose achievements have given us some lasting cars. He helped create a whole new range of vehicle class, the Range Rover.

  30. Rich says:

    What a tragedy and a huge loss. The P6 is my all time favourite car – for looks, presence and practicality nothing comes close and it is perfectly useable as a daily driver even now. The early Range Rovers are a true classic – a unique, groundbreaking design which modern car firms with their hundreds of designers, CAD, etc. cannot even approach.

  31. David Price says:

    Surely one of the very best British automotive engineers, and arguably the best, of the post-war 20th century. British cars wouldn’t have been the same, or anywhere near as successful, without him. He will be sorely missed. RIP CSK.

  32. Robert Schofield says:

    I like a lot of people in Australia were brougt up by parents who owned Morris cars.Rest In Peace Mr King.

  33. Robert Schofield says:

    I like a Lot Of People in Australia were brought up by parents who owned Morris cars.Rest In Peace Mr C.S.KING.

Have your say...