Charles Spencer King, 85

Charles Spencer King, British engineer who helped create Range Rover, dies at 85

Charles Spencer King sits at the helm of an original Range Rover. He led the design of the vehicle, which made its debut in England in 1970.
Charles Spencer King sits at the helm of an original Range Rover. He led the design of the vehicle, which made its debut in England in 1970. (Courtesy of Bill Baker)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Charles Spencer King, 85, a British engineer who was considered the mastermind behind the Range Rover, a hardy yet comfortable off-roader originally conceived as country estate carryall that has since become the swank sport-utility vehicle of choice for royalty, rappers and millionaires, died June 26 of injuries suffered in an accident.

Two weeks ago, he was riding a bicycle on daily errands near his home in the village of Cubbington, England, when he was struck by a delivery van.

Mr. King started working for the British Rover company in 1945 under the direction of his uncles, Maurice and Spencer Wilks. In the late 1960s, he was tasked by his uncles with developing a four-wheel-drive luxury model that would be as at home crawling over rough country terrain as it was jetting across town toting polo mallets and golf clubs.

The result was the Range Rover, an off-road vehicle with a powerful V8 engine, a forgiving coil spring suspension and a top highway speed above 100 mph.

In 1999, Global Automotive Elections Foundation picked the Range Rover as one of the top cars of the century and Mr. King as one of the best engineers. (The Ford Model T was the No. 1 car and Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Mercedes-Benz SSK roadster and the Volkswagen Beetle, was top engineer.)

Since its debut on June 17, 1970, the Range Rover has evolved to become an internationally recognized status symbol and pop culture icon. In the early 1970s, it was featured in an exhibit at the Louvre Museum as an example of superior industrial design.

The vehicle has appeared in several movies, such as the 2008 James Bond action flick, "Quantum of Solace," and in the lyrics of dozens of rap songs, including jams by Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nelly and The Game.

The Range Rover is a garage mainstay for many of the wealthy who revel in its leather interior, wood-grain highlights and expensive price tag. Standard models start at $80,000 and can rise to $115,000 for bespoke editions with unique paint schemes, including Balmoral green, a color named for Queen Elizabeth II's Scottish country estate.

In 1987, the Range Rover was introduced to America, and the vehicle quickly became the flagship model for Land Rover North America.

"It was the iPad of vehicles at the time; everyone wanted one," including celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Willis, Tracey Ullman and Warren Beatty, said Bill Baker, the former head of corporate communications at Land Rover North America. "Nowadays, you can't drive down Santa Monica Boulevard between the 405 and La Cienega without spotting four or five Range Rovers with a blond sitting inside with big sunglasses."

Since its debut, more than 170,000 Range Rovers have been sold in the United States. Washington is one of the brand's top five markets, said Executive Vice President Chris Marchand.

Mr. King, who preferred to scoot about town in a Mini Cooper S, expressed regret about how the Range Rover had become a status symbol.

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