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.