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

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, July 1, 2010; B07

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.

"Sadly, the four-by-four has became an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver," Mr. King told the London Daily Mail in 2004. "I find the people who use it as such deeply unattractive."

Charles Spencer King was born on March 26, 1925, in Surrey, England. In the late 1940s, his mother's brothers designed the original Land Rover, a utility vehicle based on an American competitor, the Jeep.

Mr. King began working in the automobile design industry after college as an apprentice with Rolls Royce in 1942. Three years later he joined Rover, where he worked on early models of the Rover and Triumph sports cars.

He also designed vehicles with turbine engines, one of which set a land speed record of 154 mph in Holland.

In 1981, Range Rover made waves in the fashion world after a luxury prototype appeared in a Vogue magazine photo spread accompanying models draped in LancĂ´me and Jaeger.

When the magazine's readers wrote in to find out where they could purchase the car, 1,000 limited-edition "In Vogue" Range Rovers were sold. In 1990, a sporty "CSK" edition was released in honor of Mr. King.

His wife, Moyra Scott King, died in 2009.

Survivors include two children, Christopher King of Maidenhead, outside London, and Penny Walker of London; and two granddaughters.

Later in his career, Mr. King was the chairman of British Leyland Technologies -- a division of the Land Rover parent company -- where he led the design of the Energy Conservation Vehicle, an aerodynamic hatchback made of lightweight aluminum that could get up to 100 miles per gallon of fuel. The ECV was a prototype, though, and never made it into widespread production -- a fact that seemingly disappointed Mr. King.

"When we designed the [Range Rover] in 1970, we gave no thought to environmental issues, as people weren't aware of the impact car emissions had on the ozone layer," Mr. King said in 2004. "I find it distressing that that the popularity of four-by-fours has had such a noticeable correlative effect on environmental damage."

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