People : Spen King

An interview with the man behind many of the company’s greatest cars – and a few that you might not immediately associate with him….

Interviewed by Keith Adams, 13th December 2002

Spen King

ROVER had enjoyed a very successful time during the 1950s and 1960s – once the company was swallowed by Leyland, Donald Stokes asked King to take over Triumph, whilst Harry Webster moved over to oversee Austin-Morris. King oversaw the latter stages of the development of the Stag and the development of the groundbreaking Dolomite Sprint engine. When Rover and Triumph rejoined in 1971 to become the Specialist Division, King oversaw the development of the SD1 and aborted SD2 – and following the formation of Leyland Cars in 1975 (and the departure of Harry Webster) he became the company’s Director of Design, overseeing the conception of the Metro and Maestro.

Below are extracts from the transcript of the interview, some of King’s comments might be surprising. Not unnaturally, it only seemed right to begin the discussion with a look at his work on the jet-engined cars…

KJA: Who had the idea of putting a gas turbine engine in a car in the first place?

CSK: I suspect it was in Maurice Wilks’ mind all the time, but there was a guy called Frank Bell who was a very good friend of mine in Rolls-Royce who wrote a paper suggesting that if you could make an effective car engine with a gas turbine. I showed a copy of that to Maurice Wilks and, anyway, then Frank Bell and I got employed to try and start on designing gas turbine car engines. It proved to be more difficult than we thought and a lot of other people tried to do the same thing: GM and Ford and Fiat. We got so far but it clearly wasn’t going to work out. There were fundamentally two problems: fuel consumption and throttle response. So eventually, this got turned over into doing gas turbines in trucks and that got knocked on the head because of fuel consumption whilst they got to be quite a lot better, it did not compete with diesel engines and so, when there was a fuel crisis, that got knocked on the head. That was afterwards in the BL days. Noel Penny was very much involved with that.

KJA: I remember a picture of the final product and David Bache styled it – and it looked like a marketable proposition…

CSK: What the, T4 car? Yeah, I did that actually. Well the basic car is a P6, which he styled, but the different front end on it I did myself.

KJA: Funnily enough, I prefer it to the P6… It looks racier.

CSK: Of course, the engine was put in front of the front axle and so it had a bit more front overhang than the standard car so it got finished off in a longer and slightly more streamlined looking way.

KJA: Going off on a tangent slightly, is it true that the P6 front suspension was designed to accommodate a jet engine?

CSK: Well, it’s quite a complicated story and I don’t suppose I can remember it straight, but the original concept of the thing was the structure of the car and space for the gas turbine. That idea without necessarily the transverse lower suspension wishbone, I sketched out and then Gordon Bashford, who was a good friend of mine (although he was not working for me then) planned out the thing, I think for both the Rover 2000 and the Turbine car more or less simultaneously. Then eventually I got put in charge of the car design thing so if I thought it was bad, I would have altered it, but in fact it’s got some virtues. I know when we dabbled with double wishbones on the P7A, which was a running development of the P6, that we put different types of suspension on and so forth.

When we put a double wishbone conventional suspension on that, it suffered quite badly from lift off oversteer as we had it arranged then. I think we could have fixed it. That was the suspension for P8 and because of the geometry that resulted from the P6 suspension, it didn’t suffer from that ever, at all, which was a considerable virtue in that direction. If you lift off, having been driving hard in a lower gear, the weight transfers forward, and if you have a soft suspension that comes down on the suspension, then it’s all a matter of what the camber angle of the wheels does when you do that. In fact, it wasn’t at all bad – it had a road noise problem, which we had to fix, but it is not as bad as I think Alex Moulton tries to make out. Moulton was a professional hater of anything that was not his, but in fact it worked pretty well throughout the life of the vehicle. I think that the McPherson suspension is more sensible 99 per cent of the time, but we were trying to do something different.

KJA: That was the criticism levelled at the SD1 in later years: the rear end behaviour was not quite as consistent as the P6…

CSK: I think that the P6 suspension had the snag that it was packaged badly. It was not complicated, people think that things are complicated if they don’t understand it, but it is not complicated at all – it’s jolly simple actually. It solved a few bad problems, like lock up on splines – the Stag for instance, you would go round a corner with some torque through the driveline, and as soon as you release the torque it lurches, and the suspension moves and the car steers a bit. The P6 was designed specifically to cure that, but it certainly gave a good ride and stuck the wheels on the road well, the geometry was good – there was nothing wrong with it at all. Anyway, the P6 was a pretty successful car, wasn’t it?

KJA: Oh yes. 327,000 built in the end, I think.

CSK: They originally planned to make 350 a week and they succeeded in averaging that over ten years – sometimes the production was up to 750 a week. They certainly made a lot of money.

KJA: (Points to own notes) There’s a graph in there of annual production and what was considered to be a specialised product, 50,000 a year was a very good figure. There was a real lift off in sales when the V8 version was launched.

CSK: Yes. it was a very successful car. Thank goodness. A lot of people though it wouldn’t be – I mean Pressed Steel for instance, didn’t believe in it. They were doing the Triumph 2000 at the same time and they were doing all the body design for that and they… the scheming of the design not in detail for production was done in the Rover company and Pressed Steel made a bit of a mess of it actually. They chopped it up into a lot of little bits and things like that, which was not necessary and the basis of this – they did not believe that the car was going to be successful.

KJA: I suppose it was a daring car to build because it did move away from the traditional Rover buyer I guess.

CSK: The Rover Company’s products were looked upon as being more expensive and upmarket than P6 and the expression used about the P6 was, ‘selling the birthright”. Rolls-Royce did consider building a little motor car once, which I saw bits of… that would have been selling your birthright – using your name to sell a lower grade sort of vehicle. The Rover Company really thought that they were doing that. But they did not quite know where to go when they were doing P6. There was a lot of hard thinking going on… it was a time when BMW were making bubble cars; life was very difficult. There was a feeling amongst the younger generation that if you made an updated version of the Pre-War Rover Ten, which some were thinking of rather than the original P6.

King On the Triumph Stag

The Stag was a beautiful Triumph creation, with one major flaw…

KJA: Triumph Stag then: The V8 engine in that. I guess, when you replaced Harry Webster, the first thing you’re not going to do is say, ‘Right, let’s junk that engine and put the Rover engine in…” You cannot do that, I guess?

CSK: People don’t understand that there’s other reasons for not doing that and the V8 engine was alleged not to go in. I think that you quote that and it’s quite true. 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. There wasn’t the capacity for stuffing them in Stags as well. If you are organized to make something, you have got to have a go at the balance between capacity for making things and what they plan (probably dead wrongly because that’s what they normally get wrong more than anything else) is planned amount of sales of any given future motor car. As planned, as I remember it, there wouldn’t have been the spare capacity for V8 engines from the Rover Company to put into Stags. That was an extra thing that people forget about.

KJA: Yes, I watched the programme that Jeremy Clarkson presented and he said, ‘Oh well, yes, they could have put the Rover V8 engine in and launched it, and it would have been a world beater”. Well, it’s never that simple. If you can only build 50,000 V8 engines in one year, and you’re producing 100,000 cars that need a V8, then it is not going to work. That must have been an interesting situation – I presume that the V8 Stag engine didn’t really come up with all those problems in testing anyway?

CSK: No, a lot of trouble was they were made wrong, I’m afraid. Which was down to the state of bloody mindedness in the workforce, which in Triumph was pretty serious.

KJA: Canley?

CSK: Yes.

And the other problem was that things started getting made in Liverpool. There was an even more bloody-minded workforce there and they didn’t train the people there to do the job properly before they did them. One trouble, of course, was that George Turnbull had been the leader of the Triumph company and he all sorts of big plans for making all sorts of things, and then he got moved over to Austin-Morris. So the bloke who was the leader of this all, disappeared…

KJA: …leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.

CSK: Yes.

KJA: Again, this whole point of having plants in Liverpool and Bathgate and Llanelli was down to the Government. If you’re the MD of Rover, you’re not going to say, ‘I’ve got a great idea – lets build a factory in Scotland…”

CSK: Well yes, and they fought very hard against it – you didn’t get any Government help and, in fact the opposite, unless you went to Wales. The Rover Company didn’t want to go to Wales of course, but you can see why the Government did it, they wanted to get unemployment down.

King on the Rover P8

The Rover P8 was to be the new flagship of the Leyland Motor Corporation; when Leyland then swallowed BMH, which incorporated Jaguar, the car was no longer needed. King did not mourn its death.

…well, I didn’t have much to do with P8 itself at all. I had a lot to do with the machine that went into P8 before it ever happened, and I didn’t ever want it to be as big a car as P8. The thing is that we had in P6 we had straight window glasses and curved side windows were just coming in and you could make a P6 sized motor car with a lot more space in it quite easily without making a bloody great lump of a thing like a Jaguar. I wanted to do that, so the P8 as it happened never had me behind it as it happened.

KJA: I did pick up… I think it was James Taylor who wrote that increasingly you disliked that project because of what it was turning into. It was far too big and far too ‘American”.

CSK: I think if you try and make something impressive, rather than good, you’re doomed, and the P8 was trying to do that. The only way that anything good is going to get done is by trying to do something good, not by trying to do it impressive. You understand what I’m saying?

KJA: Exactly. So what was the rationale behind the car – just to replace the P5?

CSK: The rationale behind the P8 really became big because Dave Bache wanted to make it big and because the Leyland people, Donald Stokes and George Turnbull particularly, came in and because it was before they got hold of BMC, which had Jaguar, started talking about building a ‘Mercedes beater”. You shouldn’t try and beat someone you should try and make something that is good, that the public will want. It was ridiculous.

KJA: I suppose it was Donald Stokes trying to make an impression.

CSK: Indeed… So I was not keen on P8 at all. Eventually, of course, there was this kerfuffle about policy and who was going to make what and they were quite rightly trying to tidy things up. The Rover Company would have liked to make a successor to P6 whether it was like that on one hand, and on the other they would have like to have built a sports car. Unfortunately, both of those got killed on the basis that the Rover Company was having one car anyway at least in SD1. And they got Land Rover. So Jaguar ought to be able to have their saloon car and their sports car. It was this sort of balancing act – the variety of things that each company made. You had to rationalise, I mean it was crazy not to actually. Of course, as soon as they gobbled up BMC with Jaguar, this car would look stupid – I could not argue that they were wrong to stop it.

KJA: In that case, essentially it was the creation of Rover/Triumph that led to Donald Stokes aggrandising the P8 and then,when they took over BMH it was irrelevant, in which case, between 1968 and 1971 while the thing was still being developed, it could be argued that perhaps the decision could have been made sooner.

CSK: It should have been made sooner.

KJA: I think they put over £5 million into the project.

CSK: It was certainly the case that the body pressings were tooled up in a big way. I don’t think it would have succeeded really. But it’s a matter of ‘you don’t know”, really.

KJA: I look at the P8 and think in an ideal world with rose-tinted glasses, you’ve got Jaguar on one hand and the P8 on the other, meaning that you were covering two different types of luxury cars, but of course we did not have the luxury to actually deliver this ideal.

CSK: The other thing was that it was so unnecessary – I mean if it had been a different sort of a motorcar, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t that far from the Jaguar, except that the Jaguar was better looking.

KJA: Absolutely. And more rear legroom in the XJ6 once they extended the wheelbase. That was a criticism of the Jaguar: they said, ‘well the P8 is so roomy compared with the Jaguar”, but then they launched the long wheelbase Jaguar and it made the P8 superfluous.

CSK: I know – and, funnily enough, Jaguar did the same damned thing all over again, because when they had the XJ40, they introduced it with not enough rear legroom again!

KJA: It was styling over function, wasn’t it?

CSK: Yes, it had a drooping boot; Jaguar’s excuse was that the clay model bent on its way down to Pressed Steel! I don’t think it did, I think they just got it wrong!

CSK: You say – and you might be right – that ‘this flexibility meant that the P8 could act as replacement for all P5 and P6 models…” I don’t think that P8 could ever act as a replacement for a P6 model. It is very likely that you are right, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m saying that I would have argued like hell against.

KJA: One of the schemes was in the early days of the P8 was to try and build a 2-litre version of it which frankly I cannot imagine… to replace the Rover 2000.

CSK: That wouldn’t have worked! Another reason why I think the whole P8 thing was stupid: you could have made a car with the accommodation of a Jaguar, not much bigger than the P6 which would have fitted in and been technically beautiful.

KJA: In that context, it was larger than necessary. As we said before, it probably came down the fact that Donald Stokes was trying to make a statement about the Rover Car Company.

King on the P7 and the Buick V8

Rover P7 development prototype. (Picture: ‘A Collector’s Guide – Classic Rovers – 1945 – 1986”, by James Taylor), supplied by Ian Robertson.

CSK: The six-cylinder engine would go into the P6 bodyshell, not just as a P7, which was never considered for production seriously at all. The P7 was purely a development thing. But there was something that we called P7A, which was no longer than the P6 and had the six-cylinder engine in, and double wishbone suspension.

KJA: Is this the six-cylinder engine that was produced by adding two extra pots on the 2000’s four-cylinder unit?

CSK: Yes. To say that it would not go into the car was wrong. In P7, it stuck its nose out and was too heavy and everything.

KJA: Yes, because that car actually still exists – Ted Eves from Autocar purchased it and I believe someone in the Rover Sports Register now owns it?

CSK: That’s quite likely. It’s not a bad motorcar, that engine was a pretty good engine actually. That was too heavy somehow. In other words, if you make a four into a six, you oughtn’t to have to make it fifty per cent heavier because a lot of the stuff there is the same as the four-cylinder. But in fact, somehow or another, it got a very heavy sump or something, and it made the engine very heavy. I batted very hard against the V8 to try and continue that because I believe the BMW policy was right; if you’ve got something, you ought to develop it – that way you have a linear development programme instead of hopping over here and there – doing something completely different. But I was wrong I think… No doubt that V8 was a huge asset.

KJA: Who was it that actually thought of the idea of trying a five-cylinder engine?

CSK: I think it came mostly out of Brian Sylvester, who was head of research. It was a pretty sensible idea. The problem was that you hadn’t got fuel injection then – you need fuel injection to make five-cylinders work, because the carburetion is a bit of a mess.

KJA: Audi made it work in the end.

CSK: I mean the obvious way is doing it with an injected version and this prototype was built with carburettors.

KJA: So the mid-engined configuration of the BS – how did it come about? I mean at the time there was only the GT40 sharing this layout…

CSK: And the Ferraris I guess, and the Formula One cars. They were around and we had the new engine, and there were certain advantages for a sports car – you get more weight on the driven wheels and you can get a low scuttle, so you can see better where you’re going. Unlike the new MG sports car, which is stupid in my mind, because they throw away a lot of the advantages of the layout.

KJA: Yes, when you sit in it, it feels like you’re sat in a saloon car.

CSK: I talked to the guy that styled this car – Gerry McGovern – and he said, ‘well, we want it to be like being in an aeroplane” Well, you know what it’s like being in an aeroplane, you’re all cramped up. I don’t agree with that at all!

KJA: That is one thing that always struck me about the BS, was it’s fantastic visibility.

CSK: I had a big thing going on about visibility…

King on suspension

KJA: Did you design the suspension system (for P8)?

CSK: Yes

KJA: Very, very nice…

CSK: Well, that didn’t have snag of the P6 system – taking up boot space – but it couldn’t do what SD1 did where you got the fuel tank in front of the axle. So when I went away, they designed P10 – whatever it was called. This was the basis of the SD1. And they had done tests, which said that the suspension worked as well as the P6 rear suspension, but I think they may have been kidding themselves. You couldn’t argue that it wasn’t a pretty good thing to get the fuel tank in front of the rear axle.

KJA: Absolutely…

CSK: So SD1 stayed like that. What it did have was the double-wishbone system, and I only used McPherson struts for the SD1. Partly because it works pretty well and is very simple and partly because I thought we might have catalysts up by the engine.

KJA: In an ideal world, how would have designed the suspension system for the SD1?

CSK: Well, I think that I haven’t got an answer for that… Because what I would have like to have had really… Do not forget that the SD1 was intended to be a simpler, cheaper car than the P8. They were taking it downmarket, you see… I was always rather against independent suspension because with any independent suspension, the car rolls at all, the back wheels roll with it and you lose cornering power. And in those days, we didn’t seem to be able to get away with the amount of roll stiffness that they have on cars these days. Cars roll a bit more, and we thought that they would be compromised if you stiffened them up too much. So I haven’t got the perfect answer, and the best answer in fact, in the end, is independent rear suspension. So, in retrospect, it ought to have had an independent rear suspension system, I guess. But it was against what I thought at the time.

KJA: The live rear axle came down to it being a cost-based decision?

CSK: Well, not only that, it was a cost…. No, not a cost-based decision in fact, it certainly played a part in the decision, but also kept the back wheels upright all the time, which was a good thing. And while I was away, they had done comparative testing with the live axle and the deDion suspension – and they reckoned it was good. We did afterwards, we did comparisons between SD1 and Jaguar and actually bearing in mind the cost and so forth, the SD1 was just as good. I remember that we did a long trip in France in icy weather against Mercedes Benz 450 and SD1 showed up extremely well. Perhaps the Mercedes had tyres that were awful in ice and snow…. SD1 is not good on ice and snow…

KJA: I remember that vividly! I have to say that in the context of its day and its mechanical configuration, it showed very, very well… It is a very well-honed version of the system and it is very clever how the rear axle has been arranged.

CSK: Well, it works very well.

KJA: Yes, coming here today, I drove up the M45 (in an SD1) and I couldn’t think of a car recently built after 1990 that rode as well as it on a flat, smooth motorway. I think we’ve lost some of that.

CSK: Well, yes we have – there’s terrific excitement in the motoring press about track performance these days…

King on the Maestro

KJA: Your name has been attached to the early development of the Maestro…

CSK: I guess it was me that decided that it should have that very simple layout – the utterly conventional one actually. We had no good reason for doing anything anymore complicated in fact. It is a Golf layout: simply a take off, that’s all. I think the Maestro was actually a pretty good car…

King on the quality of the product

CSK: I tell you what I want to put to you about the whole story, is that what was really done wrong all the way through BL was a disrespect for the customer, and neglect of real quality and reliability. That was the big thing, and it was consistent. The Rover Company was not guilty of it – the original Rover Company was desperately keen to make good motorcars, and they did listen to the customer all the time. Ever since, they thought that the customers were idiots, who bought things regardless. It was true of Donald Stokes, Whittaker… Derek Whittaker wanted me to be on the management board and I said that I wouldn’t be on the board unless they had the Director of Quality on the Board at the same time. Edwardes was just the same – he did a wonderful job on one hand fighting the war against the Unions to get the management back on terms running the company – he completely neglected anything to do with making cars properly – it was obviously going to be fatal because if customers thought you were going to make unreliable cars, they weren’t going to buy them! What’s the good of the company then? I think you really ought to emphasize this, because this was absolutely the most fundamental failing of all.

KJA: If people can’t depend on their cars…

CSK: We were a music hall joke! Whilst Edwardes was there… and it is not because it wasn’t pointed out to him, but he chose to totally operate on the management level dealing with labour relations. I think he was a hell of a good bloke, did a remarkable job, but he completely ignored the other side of the wall. It was like you’re fighting on two fronts and you ignore one… you turn your back on it and it kills you!

KJA: You think his rationale was the ‘product will have to take care of itself until I can release the Metro and the LC10”?

CSK: I think it was – I think it was wrong.

KJA: The SD1 was absolutely the jewel in the crown of the company – it would have been so of any company – but the quality tarnished the reputation of the car.

CSK: What happened was that they decided that it was going to have big volume, so built the ruddy great factory at Solihull and then there was a lot of stuff going on about how many hours it should take to build a motorcar, and the Austin-Morris people came up with the figure that we should build SD1 in 23 hours. So I think largely on the basis of that, there was this invasion of Rover, in the way the Normans invaded England, or how Triumph invaded BMC at one time. So, the car wasn’t made by the Rover people at all, but by the Austin Morris invasion team.

KJA: I look at the SD1 as Leyland product and not a Rover product.

CSK: Well, it started off being engineered as a Rover product, but it wasn’t made as Rover product at all! It was just awful.

KJA: I suppose it didn’t help that the bodies were made in Castle Bromwich?

CSK: They were built very badly, too. The other thing that happened was that the paint plant was a disaster, too – what happened was that they made the bodies badly, then shipped them across to Solihull, then painted them in a plant with a new acrylic paint process, which was very sensitive to the amount of time it was baked at. If you baked it too long, it became brittle… and then, when they put the cars together, the paint was brittle and then they didn’t fit right, and so they bashed them, and it cracked the paint.

KJA: Leaving the poor old dealers to rectify the faults… and, of course, the dealers didn’t particularly care in those days, either- bloody minded in fact.

CSK: Everyone was bloody-minded in those days. Certainly the discipline was not all there – you cannot afford to leave a body in there for an amount of time, because if there was a strike, then all those things would basically be scrap. So – if you’re going to have a company which is to be successful in the long term you’ve got to make things properly because, otherwise, you’re taking a lot of very expensive material and turning it into rubbish. Something like three quarters of the turnover of a car company goes straight out to the suppliers in order to buy stuff in, but if after spending all that money you bring the stuff in you turn it into something that doesn’t work very well, it is a complete disaster. And that is what was going on. It needed very forceful leadership at the very top of the company to try and get the quality right. I mean, look what it has taken to get Jaguar right. It’s taken all years and a terrific effort from Ford as well to get it there, but if you weren’t even trying then God help you!

KJA: Let’s not forget the money that Ford poured into Jaguar in order to get quality up to the desired standard. Of course, we didn’t have the money to invest in BL – the Government were giving out as little as they could…

CSK: And if they had put that money into making the cars properly it might have been alright but, of course, everyone wanted new models the whole time. When you think about the Japanese – 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. I tried to go to Michael Edwardes – he didn’t want to listen. I bought up the matter at a board meeting and they stopped me halfway through. You can’t run a company like that…

KJA: The whole Jaguar thing: the image improved when John Egan came along…

CSK: … John Egan knew what he was going to do. He knew that the quality was wrong, and I know he tried very hard to get the cars right.

KJA: He knew how to make the customers feel good about their cars – lift the perceived quality, by improving customer care.

CSK: Well, he knew that, but he knew that he had to get the cars right as well. I don’t think he managed, but not through a lack of seeing what the right thing to do was. But the rest of the BL management didn’t even know what the right thing to do was. It was during the Ryder period as well.

KJA: Am I right in saying that there wasn’t actually anyone in charge of overall quality until 1978/79?

CSK: Well, there was, because – you mean the Brigadier. Well, that was because I said I would resign unless he came on the board. In the old Rover Company, we had Ernie Bacon who was a superb bloke. He knew much more about it than the Brigadier did, actually.

King on the Metro

Rushed conception, and a hasty restyle – with mixed success according to King

KJA: Easy one then: the Maestro was a conventionally engineered Golf clone but what involvement did you have with the Metro?

CSK: I had a lot of involvement with the Metro! Because it was a really a Charles Griffin project actually, but I was Director of Engineering of Cars and it was supposed to be a staff job, but I had authority of design… But it was very much done by Charles Griffin. Then there was the styling – you know it had a restyle and was called LC8? You have a photograph of the original here, and I have to say I like the original better.

KJA: It was quite minimalist, wasn’t it?

CSK: Yes, there is not much wrong with that in my opinion. Derek Whittaker got it into his head that the thing should be wider, so he simply fattened the sides out. I didn’t argue about it because it would have put a delay into the process and we wanted to build a lot of prototypes and do some proper proving. That’s what happened, and it was a good thing to do, because we had something like 100 prototypes. So the delay for the restyle was actually a good thing for it – not from the styling point of view, but for reliability.

KJA: You know I am going to ask you about the suspension: Alex Moulton said that ‘Spen King wouldn’t let me interconnect the suspension to release the potential of the Hydragas system”. Is that right?

CSK: I’m trying to remember what happened.

KJA: Because basically, on the Metro, each Hydragas unit was effectively independent…

CSK: Because what you do with the Hydragas things was lower the pitch frequency, to make it soft in pitch. I would have liked to have had it with coils actually…

KJA: But you were picking up a project that was already in place?

CSK: We had to really carry over Mini units because there was no time to engineer and tool up anything else. I knew we should have had a McPherson front end on this thing.

KJA: The car that they originally devised, the ADO74, did have McPherson struts at the front – and was a conventionally suspended car. This eventually led to the ADO88, which retained Hydragas as part of a reduced-costs programme.

CSK: We had guns to our heads. It wasn’t definitely going ahead or not, and then the Ryder thing happened – and they wanted it in a hell of a hurry. The big thing – and the only safe thing to do was to stick with what you’ve got. That’s what we did.

KJA: And in terms of the opposition of the day, there was not an awful lot wrong with the Metro.

CSK: The engine mounts were wrong. It meant that, when you let the clutch out with a bang, you got a kick out of it. Which is because the right thing to do, is to lay… as you apply torque to an engine, it ought to rotate about its centre of gravity, so that it does not move backwards or forwards. And it was wrong. But it was not a bad little motorcar. It’s much maligned these days, but I think it was, in fact, far better than the motoring press choose to remember.

KJA: Indeed – and as I don’t tend to look back on these things in hindsight, but what people were saying at the time. And back in 1980, it competed with the Fiesta and the Polo, which were the two benchmark cars of the time. Again, same thing with the Maestro: knocking copy now, but in 1983, it was a class leader in terms of chassis development. Styling was a bit questionable…

CSK: No, I don’t think it looks too bad even now.

KJA: To me, the Maestro works when it is a fairly plain and simple basic Maestro – but, when they put the alloy wheels on and the body coloured bumpers it was definitely a case of mutton dressed as lamb. No, I like the shape of the Maestro, and I think I am in the minority on that one… The Montego was a lash-up though!

King on BL Technology

ECV3 was a far reaching prototype, and with an interesting relative…

KJA: Around that era you then headed up BL Technology – you were in charge of that and I think the work that you did the resulted in the K-Series and the M-Series engines.

CSK: Certainly the K-Series engine had a lot done at BL Technology, yes. It wasn’t specifically me doing it in BL Technology… There was the ECV3 aluminium car, which you’re beginning to see elements of now. The new Jaguar XJ is a descendent of that.

KJA: The spaceframe with aluminium panels?

CSK: Actually, we worked with ALCAN on ECV3 and, when I got out of the company, I worked for ALCAN, and the people I brought in there out of BL, who are now running the ALCAN aluminium programme, which includes the Jaguar. The techniques are directly borne out of what was going on in ECV3.

KJA: There’s one that needs recording for posterity.

CSK: There’s a real connection. Mike Kelly and Tony Warren are the people in ALCAN who have been connected to ECV3 right from the start.

KJA: The ECV3 was a lovely little car: the 3-cylinder engine gave it similar performance to contemporary 1600cc cars, thanks to the light kerb weight and aerodynamics of the body. I’ve sat in the car and the accommodation is superb – a really, really nice car. I presume it was always going to be too expensive to produce anything that resembled it?

CSK: No, I don’t think so, not fundamentally – but the new techniques involved in the car were not something that BL could afford to do at the time. On the other hand, the politics of the Middle East are a little shaky at the moment and we could well run into another fuel crisis. And in those circumstances, that sort of car is going to become rather important. In truth is that everybody could do their transportation with about the third of the fuel that they’ve got at the moment. And the A2 Audi is the nearest relative of the ECV3 and it’s a perfectly good motorcar. Except that you can’t see out of it!

KJA: It must have been heartbreaking for you, when you developed these cars and you see the end product not being built properly.

CSK: Well, you’re part of a losing army. It’s better to be part of a winning army.

KJA: The one car that did survive all this was the Range Rover. It never really suffered a drop off in image….

CSK: Yes, the extraordinary thing about the Range Rover was that it lasted – seeing as it was tooled up for hardly anything at all. It was engineered from nothing and made a hell of a lot of money for a long time without being updated or improved at all. Which was a pretty big achievement.

KJA: I suppose it was right first time and it had no rivals on the market – a unique product. They did suffer from quality problems, but I guess because the product was so good, it even transcended that! Whereas I suppose the SD1 was very good, but it also had rivals – people could walk away from the SD1, and have an alternative.

CSK: Absolutely right – in fact, the problems were actually worse on it, but the Range Rover was made by the Rover Company and the SD1 was made by a sort of gang of imports from Austin-Morris.

King on the Triumph SD2

The Triumph SD2 had all the ingredients for success, but could BL have built it properly? It could have also looked so much better…

KJA: One final thing: SD2: What do you know about SD2?

CSK: SD2 like you say was going to be a sort of junior car to SD1 – and it was going to be contained within Rover-Triumph. The number one engine for it was really going to be a fuel-injected slant four, which would have been quite a good engine. The styling – there were three attempts at the styling: there was a Michelotti one, which wasn’t too bad, there was a Pininfarina one, which very good… I thought, and many people within the Rover Company thought they definitely preferred it, and then there was the David Bache one, which was the SD2 that actually got built. Which I didn’t like at all, it looked as if it had too much body and not enough wheels. It was a flouncy thing, reminded me of when you have Knights on their horses where they had covering over their hocks…. Well, it reminded me of that. It was too much body, and I didn’t like it. Nevertheless there was a viewing at Solihull, where Donald Stokes, Barber and George Turnbull said, ‘we’re going to use that one” – and that was it: the in-house version won, which was a shame. Nevertheless, it went ahead, and we designed the motorcar really very carefully, and I only remember using the first prototype a bit…. it had a Bosch fuel injection engine, which actually did not seem to be all that good. But the car was beautiful to drive – it was really very nice. I gather you’ve been talking to Malcolm Harbour and he has said the same thing, but it was a very nice motorcar. But what had happened was that there was a panic going on about product policy and there was at one time a proposition that should be the medium size model for the entire corporation. That didn’t last very long.

KJA: Yes, September 1975, they decided to merge it with the Marina replacement ADO77 programme – they were going to mass-produce it, creating a cheaper version with a Morris badge, a saloon. The Triumph would be the 5-door model, and I don’t think that lasted more than about three months and then they suddenly had an attack of lucidity, and decided to go with the LC10 (Maestro).

CSK: I mean it always was right really to go to a front wheel drive platform. But nevertheless, the SD2 could have been a very successful motorcar if it had the styling we all wanted and it had been produced in reasonable quality… it could have been a sort of BMW. It could have been a very good car, but the neglect of quality it would have had meant that it didn’t have a hope. However well we made prototypes, and got European Car of the Year awards, it wouldn’t have been any damned good. An excuse for not using it as the whole corporation’s mid-size car was that you couldn’t use multi-welders on some of the welding on the under-structure. Which, incidentally, I suspect would have cost about a Pound per car, or something. But Pressed Steel didn’t like it because of that.

KJA: Did they call the shots – you seem to have gone back to Pressed Steel a few times. Did they exert quite an influence on car design then?

CSK: I don’t think so, not really. They were very ambitious and were a damned effective company actually and they wanted to take over styling and everything. They wanted to do the total bodywork of everything. They didn’t get it.

KJA: Even though the best designs by BMC were Pininfarina’s! Looking at all the Policy documents about SD2, it would have been launched in late 1977 and it would have made quite an impact for a few years until the fwd cars came along.

CSK: Yes, but styling is very important – you can’t get away from it.

KJA: So that was how it was going to look – the 5-door scheme? You had chucked out all alternatives?

CSK: I think so, it was SD2 after SD1 – and the SD1 arrangement was pretty satisfactory, wasn’t it?

KJA: No arguments from me on that score – SD1, allowing for my own personal bias, is one of the finest cars we’ve designed, post war… styling anyway. Styling is always subjective but you tend to have to please all the people… I agree, all the people I have seen the SD2 are very disappointed with the way it looked, so yes, I guess no matter how well it drove, people may not have got past the looks.

CSK: I think it was doubly doomed – possibly trebly – styling, quality and fitting into the whole range.

Keith Adams


  1. I’ve always been very impressed with Spen King’s work, and after reading this it seems like his head’s definitely screwed on right (no joke intended with the slanted bolts of the Dolly sprint).

    It’s a shame it sounded like such an uphill struggle to bring quality to the products they were designing. I wonder how it would have gone if Rover/Triumph had had the sort of figurehead Jaguar had in Sir William Lyons, protecting the company from a good proportion of the Leyland bureaucracy. In a smaller management circle it would probably have been easier for Spen’s attitude towards quality to permeate the management.

    Also, I’d have liked to hear what he had to say about the Dolly Sprint engine. It really is a fearsome piece of kit. I’ve heard of a chap making 270bhp in race trim, which is very impressive for a 2.0l with identical inlet and exhaust cam profiles.

  2. Great interview – very revealing. I really wish I’d had a chance to meet him and chat about cars for a bit.

  3. I met him in June 2000 at the Range Rover’s 30th Anniversary event held at Gaydon. It was very difficult to get an opportunity to speak with him as everyone else wanted to. However, he was kind enough to sign my copy of the special hardback sales brochure produced for the 25th Anniversary Final Editions, which I had bought a copy of some years before. A very nice gentleman who was not judged by the current measure of being a ‘personality’, but by his logical attitude to recognising real world engineering problems and providing potential solutions for them.

  4. The great man is seen on the telly at the moment on “chop shop”,they try to make a jet one and destoy two lovely p fours.

  5. What a great article – loved every minute of reading it.
    There must surely be a job out there interviewing the remaining great names such as this. A six month contract, expenses paid and a living wage and the mission statement to interview the surviving famous and even the not so famous – as long as they were actually there at the period concerned (pre 90’s of course).
    I’ll send off my CV to you today. I’m fully qualified although I’m not a journalist, can’t spell of a toffee, got a hopeless memory for names, places and dates, hate meeting strangers – er, I think you better get someone else.
    Dam fine job though – and most of the readers of this site would find the content and personal stories riveting methinks.

  6. Spen was a fairly honest man in my opinion but he often clashed with Donald Stokes. The Rover P6 had a great production run and I remember of my friends having one.

  7. “Spen was a fairly honest man…..” There are a lot of people from Canley, Cowley, and Longbridge, who might smile wryly to themselves at this statement. He did more damage to BL than Derek Robinson.

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