Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Driven Personalities - Spen King

In 2009 Charles Spencer (Spen) King died, and the British motor industry, indeed the global motor industry lost one of its most original thinkers, one of its most innovative engineers, and a man whose achievements represent an enviable legacy.

The easiest way to place Spen King in the minds of most ‘car people’ is to say he was the man who brought us the Range Rover. However, over a 57 year career he contributed much more than the world’s most successful luxury SUV.

I first met him in 1978 when his employer, British Leyland, sent him to Australia to promote the newly-launched Rover 3500 (SD1). We became firm friends at our meeting in Canberra, and over the next 33 years I had the pleasure of staying with him and his charming wife Moyra, many times at the Old Manor House in Cubbington, in the English Midlands.

On those visits we often talked about his life in the automotive industry. He was apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in 1942, later moving to Rover in 1945, working for his uncles, Maurice and Spencer Wilks. Spen worked on the famous P6 Rover, helped develop the Rover-BRM gas turbine-powered sports car which competed at Le Mans (and also setting a land speed record), then later he worked at Triumph on the Triumph Stag and the Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

One of the projects he was most proud of was a concept car called ECV3, a three cylinder small car – about the size of a Toyota Yaris, but fast and economical. At its first press outing in 1962 it accelerated from 0-100km/h in just over 10 seconds, but at a steady 60 km/h returned almost 100 mpg! Sadly, British Leyland at the time said no-one would be interested in such a car! Would that Spen was here now – the industry would be begging him to develop the concept! He was way ahead of his time.

In the mid 60s he was given responsibility for developing an SUV, which was faster, roomier, more powerful, more comfortable and more habitable than the utilitarian Land Rover. The result was a car often described now as the iPad of the car business – meaning “Everyone had to have one “.

Spen was an original thinker (in fact, a true genius), and after he retired he was snapped up by the aluminium industry to help develop new technologies. He died as a result of a cycling accident near his home. It is a sad end to a life of monumental achievements.

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