People : Spen King interview

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Into the future, with Spen King

‘The next Rover model will be very much a Rover car. It will be better than previous Rovers. A lot better, actually.’ Rover-Triumph head of engineering, Spen King (below centre), talks to Philip Turner about the company’s future model plans.  Interview, June 1974, Motor magazine.

When British Leyland was formed, the original idea was that the car companies would be divided into two major groups, with Austin-Morris forming the volume car division, and Daimler, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph grouped together as the Specialist Car Division.

But on further consideration, it was decided that Jaguar should continue as a separate entity and that Rover and Triumph should merge. When I talked with Rover-Triumph head of engineering, Spencer King, recently, I echoed the fears of others that this merger might produce better Triumphs but worse Rovers.

‘No, not at all, the next Rover model is very much a Rover car. It has been engineered by a Rover team and all the facilities to build it have been put in with a Rover background. It will be better than previous Rovers. A lot better, actually.’

Looking into the future, it seemed to me that Rover are walking a fairly narrow tight rope, for their role would appear to be to produce cars that are better than Triumphs but less expensive than Jaguars.

‘I don’t think it’s fair comment to say that Rover will be walking a narrow tight rope,’ he replied.

‘Rover has got a function in its own right, to do things not merely to look impressive, but to provide refinement, reliability and satisfaction for the customer. Not to mention longevity. This in my opinion will succeed in satisfying a very real need. If Rover can meet it, they won’t be walking a tight rope, they’ll be on a ruddy super highway!’

Did he think the current world-wide drop in car sales was only temporary or was it the beginning of a trend? ‘I am absolutely certain that it is a temporary thing, and I have no doubt at all that sales will pick up and will eventually catch up with where the sales charts predicted they would be before the fuel crisis hit us. People will continue to want tin boxes in which they can go from door to door with their families  and belongings, and I am sure they will have the liquid fuel to propel them and their tin boxes around.

Of course, the increasing cost of fuel will tend to make people want smaller motor cars and will make manufacturers look extremely hard at economy. But even should petrol go up to £1 a gallon, the service you get from £1 of petrol used in a fairly economical motor car is far greater than any other service you can get for £1. To be able to cart four people and luggage and the dog for 35 miles from door to door, going wherever you like whenever you like, is pretty staggering for the money.

Even for long journeys the cost of alternative transport such as trains and aeroplanes is going up extremely fast. If, as looks probable in the immediate future, there is going to be less disposable income around, then people will just have to do less travelling, but I think they will still desperately need their motor cars even though they can’t afford to do too many miles.

Quite a lot of travelling that is done is a bit unnecessary and people may have more sense than to want to do quite so much.’
Did he think, I asked, that the Range Rover might indicate the way future cars would go? Present saloons with their long, low shapes had been influenced perhaps too much by the GT car, but for a leisure vehicle might not a more upright design be more appropriate?

‘I am sure there is a lot in that. The only point is that if you make cars more upright they soak up more fuel. But certainly the more useful type of car with a third or fifth door is going to become more and more popular. I think people are going to learn to look on their cars as less of a prestige symbol and more as an absolute necessity to living.’

And for enjoyment too, I suggested?

‘Certainly. It is very important that a motor car should be enjoyable. You spend so much time in your car in a year, it has to be enjoyable. That is why it is so desperately important to pick a nice motor car to live in, one that is quiet and steers nicely, for these qualities are vitally important all the time. I think that people will grow up more in their attitude towards cars. Of course cars will still be a means of expressing their personality, but as time goes on I think people will tend to think of them less from this point of view and much more from getting what they really need from them.’

If fuel is going to become ever more expensive, did he think the turbo-supercharged diesel might possibly be the engine of the future?

‘I do not believe ‘that there will be a big market for diesel cars. Our best petrol engines give results nearly as good as an ante-chamber diesel, and of course the petrol engine is so much lighter and cheaper for the power it gives. Because it is that much heavier, it will have to be bigger to drag itself around, and then it will have to be bigger still to drag around the heavier suspension its weight will make necessary.’

‘Diesel engines are very suitable for low power-weight ratio vehicles where the engine weight isn’t a terribly significant part of the whole, but they are not suitable for car type power-weight ratios and for the sort of performance we have become used to. However, I think there is a place in the world for diesel powered motor cars but it’s a bit limited.’

‘So far as fuel economy is concerned the transmission as well as the engine is vital. It is very desirable to run a petrol engine at its most effective condition, which means at relatively high bmep and low speed, and the secret of so doing is of course a suitable transmission. I think there is room for new sorts of superior and more economical automatic transmissions. You will eventually be able to have an automatic transmission which is not only automatic but is also more economical and gives you a better performance than any manual transmission. It will happen one day, I think.’

Had the drive for fuel economy made them more interested in the shape of a car from the aerodynamic point of view?

‘We always were very interested in the aerodynamics of a car, though I don’t think that external shape makes that much difference to wind noise. The real deciding factor on whether or not you have a quiet car is whether it is sealed properly. What produces bad wind noise is bad sealing. I’m not saying the shape doesn’t have something to do with it, but the shape has much less influence than whether or not you have any holes. Good sealing is very dependent on body tolerances, the key to the whole thing being to make the bodies right relative to the doors, for unless the body is made accurately the seals won’t work.’

‘We specify the body tolerances and the door seal rates and all that sort of thing so that if the body is made correctly the seals will work.’

Rover’s managing director, Bernard Jackman, had told me how Rover intend to double their production in the near future. Now it seems to me that what Rovers sell above all is quality. Will they be able to maintain this quality with increased production?

‘I am quite sure that we can. For after all, the new plant has been built with that very end in view. Moreover, the cars will be made by the same people who are making them now.’

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up 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 Classics 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 unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Spen King —“I think people are going to learn to look on their cars as less of a prestige symbol and more as an absolute necessity to living.”

    Spen King — “Diesel Engines are very suitable for low power-weight ratio vehicles where the engine weight isn’t a terribly significant part of the whole, but they are not suitable for car type power-weight ratios and for the sort of performance we have become used to. However, I think there is a place in the world for diesel powered motor cars but it’s a bit limited”

    With quite a bit of hindsight, the quotes fromn Spen King miss the target on a couple of key points relevant to the modern car market, those manufacturers who press the aspirational brand button are generally the ones trousering the biggest profits

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