Spen King – the genius behind the Range Rover
Spen King – unsung genius of the British car industry
Everyone remembers Colin Chapman, the genius of Lotus. The educated remember Alec Issigonis who gave us Minor, Mini and 1100. A sainted few Remember William Lyons, the man behind Jaguar and its most iconic creations – XK120, MkII and E-Type.
Few, if any outside of the nerdier ends of motordom, remember Spen King and if they do they remember him as the man who designed the look of the original Range Rover. Except they’re wrong – King (Charles Spencer shortened to ‘Spen’) was an engineer not a stylist, and along with Rover’s Gordon Bashford, he was engineering the so-called 100-inch Station Wagon, a car which was supposed to be a hard-working farmers’ tool during the week, but which could be washed and waxed and generally spruced up for comfortable road driving at the weekend.
King and Bashford wanted it above all to be practical, hence the hose-out interior and the boot designed to be large enough to carry a bale of hay or a sheep. This was in 1970, and no-one knew that there would one day be such a clamour for SUVs and faux-by-fours that it could come to utterly dominate the global car market. The two men, Rover veterans of old, simply wanted to create a more comfortable Land Rover. This they did, and they decided that the prototype chassis would need a body. They fashioned one, largely from aluminium, leaving the roof pillars black (to save on paint) and bashing big square sections into the end of the bonnet, both to give the driver better sight-lines and also to have somewhere to easily mount the side mirrors.
The engineering hack was then handed over to the actual head of the styling department, David Bache, who instantly saw that the car pretty much already looked as it should. He simply tidied up a few elements, and then passed it as fit. Land Rover called it the Range Rover and the rest is the stuff that automotive dreams are made of.King, ever the engineer, plays down his part in the styling although there’s no questioning the essential rightness of that first-gen.
King, ever the engineer, plays down his part in the styling although there’s no questioning the essential rightness of that first-gen Rangie’s body. According to him, he and Bashford expended 99.9 percent of their efforts on the Range Rover’s engineering and 0.1 percent on creating the bodywork. Clearly, they had eyes for elegance.
King’s engineering genius for the Range Rover was to take the big, hefty and strong chassis of the Land Rover (then still more than a Decade from being called ‘Defender’) and allying to long-travel coli-spring suspension. Landie traditionalists were initially horrified at this, worrying that without the articulation of the Land Rover’s beam axles, they’d get stuck fast when off roading. King, Bashford and the also-legendary Roger Crathorne carefully and studiously proved them wrong.
Speaking to Crathorne (for the latter’s excellent ‘Born In Lode Lane’ autobiography) King would day of his most famous creation that “It was actually a very basic vehicle in many ways, and definitely in the cabin with vinyl seats and rubber mats. We simply said that a Land Rover had less room and less ride comfort and that it didn’t drive that fast. We though it was time to improve comfort, performance and versatility. In the process of working on it, the V8 engine came along. It all came together and nobody stopped us from doing it.”
King would be given tribute by Land Rover in the eighties when the company made a limited edition CSK (Charles Spencer King) version of the Range Rover, final three-door models that were made. Ironically, King (who drove a VW Golf in later life) railed against the very owners of such cars, saying that they were “idiots” for driving big 4x4s in town and that such cars should be kept in the countryside.
Of course, to narrow King’s fame down to merely the Range Rover would be ridiculous. Yes, that car was perhaps his most influential creation, leading directly to the craze for luxury and sporty 4x4s that pervades the car market today. His experience though was so much broader than just one epochal model.
King left school in 1942 and originally apprenticed at Rolls-Royce, before moving to Rover in 1945 (it possibly helped that his uncles, Maurice and Spencer Wilks, ran the company). His first major engineering project was the JET 1 experimental gas turbine car. It seems somehow mad that Rover, a car company latterly associated with the fuddiest of duddy images was, after WWII, fiddling around with cars powered by jet engines, but it’s true, and with King on the engineering team, the car would eventually hit an insane (at the time) 150mph on the Jabekke highway in Belgium.
In 1959, Spen King became the head of new vehicle development for Rover Cars and his next project was in many ways actually his greatest. The P6 (or the 2000 saloon as it was then known) may have been built by conservative old Rover, but under the skin it was properly revolutionary. Monocoque construction was still a relatively new thing in 1963, as were Citroen DS-style bolt-on unstressed panels. Complex DeDion rear suspension gave a combination of ride and handling that was simply astonishing for the time, and while it was originally designed to take a production version of the gas-turbine jet engine, later models would instead take on the same V8 engine as the Range Rover. Fast, smooth, sharply styled and with capable handling, it was everything that marques such as BMW, Audi, and Mercedes today try to create and sell and King was doing it half a century ago. The P6 was good enough for your upwardly mobile business persons, for royalty and for the local constabulary all at once.
King also had a hand in such cars as the shark-nosed Rover SD1, the Triumph Stag and TR6 (and the TR7 but perhaps we should gloss over that one). He also worked on the 16-valve head for the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, a piece of engineering that continues to influence engine design to this day. Although he retired in 1985, his work influenced the design of the award-winning Rover K-Series engine too, one of the few bright spots in the latter years of the ailing company. King turned to other interests including skiing and yachting, but always kept a keen (and often outspoken) interest in car design, often
King turned to other interests including skiing and yachting, but always kept a keen (and often outspoken) interest in car design, often criticising those who did not seem to be working towards lighter, more efficient vehicles.
His death in 2010, following a bicycle accident, robbed the world of one of its greatest engineers and a man who’s expertise and opinions are still sorely missed to this day. We could do now with more of the advanced, but personally modest, kind of thinking that King personified.
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