Friday, July 23, 2010

Spen King

I noticed an obit the other day reporting that the designer of the Range Rover had died "of injuries sustained in a collision between his bicycle and a van." Although the death has been widely reported, its cause has remained vague. Reporters have contented themselves with repeating the passive-voice phrase I've just quoted and near variants: they say he died of "injuries that occurred during a cycling accident" or "after suffering complications following a cycling accident." None say how the crash occurred or who caused it. As Tom Vanderbilt and many bike bloggers tell us, reporters almost always describe crashes involving bikes and motor vehicles as if they simply happened of their own accord, without anyone bringing them about.

Still, about this particular crash there proved to be even fewer hard facts than usual. After spending a bit too much time on the search, at last I think I've got something. On June 9 the local paper reported that a man had been struck on the head and mortally injured in a collision with a van at an intersection in King's home town. The victim was unconscious when taken to the local hospital and soon after died. Although the reporter was unable to identify him, the description, location, and timing make it almost certain that the dead man was King.[1]

A guy named John Riley, writing to the discussion list called BentRider Online, adds this: "Apparently he [King] was riding a bike because an eye surgery precluded driving. Had a head-on collision with a van, but I can't find out any more about it." Riley then gives this quote: "The accident was a head-on between him on his bike (no helmet) and a delivery van last Tuesday, not far from his home. He had ridden to the ATM to get cash to pay his housekeeper. He cannot drive because of a detached retina operation a couple of weeks ago."[2]

King was in pretty good shape and quite active for an 85-year-old. An acquaintance of his said "If you're wondering why a man of 85 would be jumping on a bicycle, well then you didn't know Spen. He was a very fit, inquisitive, energetic engineer who refused to let the years slow him down.[3] Still, he had been forced to stop driving after an operation for a detached retina and one's reflexes at 85 are quite a bit slower than those of a younger man. It seems reasonable to conclude that his disabilities may, directly or indirectly, have brought about the crash, but, still, it would be good to know whether the driver of the van was speeding, turning a corner unsafely, using a mobile phone, or what.

If it seems ironic that the designer of the prototype of all SUVs was victim of a collision with a delivery van, it's really not, or not very much anyway. King didn't design the Land Rover as the glitzy monster of urban boulevards and suburban side streets. For him, it was a working vehicle for people who owned estates. Almost all the obits quote him as saying that vehicles like the Range Rover he created were "never intended as a status symbol but later incarnations of my design seem to be intended for that purpose." Some accounts say he called such status seekers "stupid."

Eventually, he came to regret having brought a gas-guzzler into the world, saying, in 2004, "I find it distressing that that the popularity of four-by-fours has had such a noticeable correlative effect on environmental damage."[4]

There is some irony, however, in the story of his death. It emerges in that fact that he had campaigned strenuously for improved forward driver vision. He pointed to numerous studies showing that pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists were at risk due to over-wide windshield posts and other obstructions of drivers' vision. One of the obits points out:
The danger was brought home to him when he stopped to let some pedestrians over a crossing. "I thought they were all clear; then, as I moved off, I found some more had followed behind them. They were hidden behind the screen pillar, and I had to jam the brakes on again." Other potential danger spots were junctions, roundabouts and right-hand bends. "Of course, if the driver moves his head he can see round the pillar. However, my observations and experience make me think drivers very often don't do this."
-- Safe Speed, SMIDSY (Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You)
Far from envisioning the celeb-piloted Rodeo Drive SUVs,[5] in designing the Range Rover he simply wished to provide some creature comforts to the gloriously rugged Rover.[6] If you've seen Stephen Frears' movie, The Queen, you'll probably recall the sequence where Queen Elizabeth gets stuck while driving her Rover at Balmoral. Her use of the car is the one King had in mind when he designed it.

{King with his Range Rover; source: Guardian}

{Queen Elizabeth driving her Range Rover; as you can see this is by Tim Graham on Getty Images}

This map shows about where the van crashed into King.

View Cross Ln, New St, Price Rd in a larger map

{Range Rover prototype, 1970; source: Ann Lockley's blog}


See also:

Charles Spencer King, wikipedia article

Father Of The Range Rover Dies At Age 85

Charles S. King, Range Rover Designer, Dies at 85, obit in the NY Times

Article by Spen King, The following is an extract of an article which appeared in: The Electronic Telegraph Tuesday 20 June 1995

Range Rover Creator Charles Spencer "Spen" King Dead at 85

father of Range Rover dies following bike accident

Range Rover Legend, Spen King, Dies after Bicycle Accident

First Range Rover designer dies

Charles Spencer King obituary in the Guardian

Charles Spencer King, British engineer who helped create Range Rover, dies at 85, obit in the Washington Post

Charles Spencer 'Spen' King (1925-2010) on the Classic and Performance Cars web site

Charles Spencer King, Creator of Range Rover, Dead at 85 on

Spen King

Obituary: Farewell to Spen King, the man who made the Range Rover

Creator of Range Rover dies



[1] The report is in the Leaminton Courier and sister papers for June 9th. Here it is in full:
AN 85-year-old cyclist was found unconscious by ambulance crews after suffering serious head injuries in a crash with a van in Cubbington. The collision happened in Cross Lane, at the junction with New Street and Price Road near Cubbington Primary School at 3.20pm on Tuesday. An ambulance, a rapid response vehicle, and Warwickshire and Northamptonshire air ambulance attended the scene. A West Midlands ambulance service spokesman said:
On arrival crews found a bicycle and a van that had been in a collision. The cyclist, a man believed to be 85 years old, suffered serious head injuries and is believed to have been unconscious before the ambulance crews' arrival. The man received emergency treatment at the scene and was transferred by land ambulance to University Hospital, Coventry. The ambulance was met by a doctor who anaesthetised the patient, before continuing en route to the hospital for further emergency treatment. The hospital had been alerted to the arrival and his serious injuries. The van driver was not injured.
Police are appealing for witnesses to the accident, which took place near the school. Anyone who witnessed the collision is asked to contact PC Wayne Knight at the Greys Mallory Traffic base on 01926 415415. -- Elderly cyclist injured in crash with van in Cubbington
[2] Oddly, the link he provides with the quote does not lead back to it:

[3] Range Rover Creator Charles Spencer "Spen" King Dead at 85, British Automotive Legend Dies After Tragic Bicycle Accident, by Bill Baker

[4] Charles Spencer King obituary

[5] I got this from
Celebrity is a state of existential otherness, a kind of hyper-leverage in the world such that in any situation the celebrity has more traction, more weight to throw around, more altitude, a bigger nut, the best seat in the house. Such an advantaged state can also describe life behind the wheel of the Range Rover. All of this, it seems to me, presents a branding problem for Range Rover, articulated by no less than the man who invented it, Charles Spencer King. Mr. King, who died June 26, came to loathe the popularity of "Chelsea tractors" with wealthy urbanites—and he was in good company: several European cities have taken steps to ban SUVs from city streets. "Sadly, the 4x4 has become an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver," several obituaries noted that Mr. King told the Daily Mail in 2004. "To use them for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid."
-- Range Rover: Still King of the Hill

[6] The is the rugged rover of post-war Britain.

These images come from an article, Fit for a Queen, which appeared in Land Rover in 2008.

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