America's king of cars

I suppose that to own a car called the king might have had some social significance in certain quarters, except that it was an American make, from the land where they have Presidents – and look what they can get up to! However, I suppose also that the agents here for this automobile may have seen it as the King of Cars, against the Rolls-Royce’s claim to be the best in the world. These agents were Salmons of Newport Pagnell, well known for their ingenious drop-head convertible bodies in which a handle wound the hood down, and who also made the NP car. Maybe I am romancing, because presumably they must have known that the car’s name derived from that of Mr Charles B King, a pioneer car builder who as early as 1915 had turned to vee-eight engines, which featured in all the Kings from 1916 onwards, achieving quite a fair sales output from the Detroit factory.

Outwardly the King looked like a large edition of the typical American 1920s car, with round-top radiator behind a dummy aluminium shell, fendered running-boards and cape cart hood. But it was out of this common rut and has always rather interested me. Newport Pagnell was more recently associated with Aston Martins, but Salmons also had premises at 6-9 Upper St Martin’s Lane in London in which to display their wares, and prior to that the King Motor Company had the car at the first postwar London Motor Show, in 1919. Those who went to look on stand 104 would have seen a car with a well presented, neat vee-eight engine of 76x127mm (4609cc). The Ball and Ball carburettor was in the angle between the side-valve cylinder blocks, with valves on the inside of each cylinder block. The exhaust pipes were attached to the back of each cylinder block and large water pipes connected each to the radiator, which was served by a belt-driven fan. The distributor for the coil ignition system was driven by a vertical shaft, which also drove the oil pump. Transmission was via a fabric-lined cone clutch to a unit three-speed gearbox and a spiral bevel back axle. Springing was by half-elliptic front and cantilever rears. A refinement was a gearbox-driven tyre pump, and unusual on an American car were wire wheels. The King had a wheelbase of 10ft and a track of 4ft 1014in, and a torque rod was fitted to the back axle.

At that 1919 Show were a smart two-seater, a tourer costing £975, another tourer and a coupe. There was not complete novelty in a vee-eight car at this time, for Cadillac and Talbot had copied the pioneering De Dion Bouton in this respect, and a few other USA makes had such power units, while Guy in Wolverhampton was having a tentative stab at it. But pricewise the King came between the Apperson and the Cadillac, at a time when the new V8 Talbot-Darracq chassis cost £950. Although the King Company had offered vee-eight engines much earlier, post-war development, in time for the 1920 Olympia Show, was proclaimed to cover 100 improvements. They included lighter con-rods, and substitution of aluminium for cast iron pistons. The starter and dynamo were now Westinghouse, but interchangeable with the previous ones, and chafing of the electrical wiring on the chassis frame had been eradicated. Much larger fabric universal joints replaced the older metal ones and the chassis frame was strengthened with two extra cross-members. The rear road springs were lengthened and petrol capacity was increased.

It was a good attempt to attract buyers to a multi-cylinder car at not too high a price. After a rise in 1920, when the cars began to arrive here, the King sold for £595 by 1925. Production was up to 3000 a year in 1918 but fell to 240 in 1923, causing a move to a smaller factory in Buffalo, and imports here had ceased by 1926. After which the King began to move into the mists of motoring memory.