Post Racing diagnostics

The source of the engine misfire has now been located and I have to confess the discovery was more by accident that deep found engineering knowledge… Each cylinder has 2 valves, one to let the mixture of fule/air in and the other to let the burned gases out. The adjustment of those valves is fairly critical if you want the engine to perform at its optimum but it will quite happily run below optimum if those adjustments are not ideal.

It transpires that 2 of the 4 exhaust values had decided to slowly un-adjust themselves over time so although I was pretty confident I had adjusted them correctly over a week or two they slowly opened up the clearances which is why I was struggling to get the engine to perform like I thought it should.

The exhaust valve clearances should have been 4 thousands of an inch, but over time these opened up to over 25 thou and then stopped. This didnt stop the engine running but it was not happy.

To adjust the valve settings you loosen a clamp bolt and then turn up/down and adjusting screw which sets the clearance. When I tried to tighten the offending clamp bolts, they both snapped. Oh how I laughed. This of course left both of those adjusters with zero clamping ability and a dead engine until fixed. Resolution necessitated removal of the shafts and rockers from the engine, a full strip down of those components and then a gentle oh so gentle tickle with a tiny grinding disk on the ends of the broken bolts in the vague hope that the resultant machined slot would accept a screwdriver to un-do them. Luckily, with patience (and a fair amount of time) the snapped bolts were removed.

Funnily enough, bolts should not snap, what I found was the thread they were screwed  into was damaged so they were locking up partly but not quite clamping the adjuster screw. At that point I decided to remove all the clamping bolts and replace them with new ones as a just-in-case. All I then needed to do was adjust the ‘tappets’ to the required 4 thou clearance on the exhaust and 3 thou on the inlet.

Except… after 80 years the rockers that push the valves open get worn so inserting a measuring feeler gauge gives you a false reading because the feeler gauge spans the groove worn by the valves. I have an engineering solution for that which requires a Heath-Robinson contraption of steel plates and a highly sensitive dial gauge that measures movement. So if I put the dial gauge on the rocker, I can measure the actual vertical movement regardless of the wear !

Those pesky valves have not un-adjusted themselves since and engine having received some love is quieter and now happily revs beyond 2000rpm. All I need to do now is sort the carburetor settings which are too rich – the car is leaving a hazy blue smoke trail sometimes.

Of course – all this doesnt mean the aging engine is good and will last some years before needing a rebuild, but it does mean…. we are back on the road!

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Birth of a Vintage Sportscar

The Brooklands “Double 12” motor race is steeped in history and dates back to 1907. It initially started as a 24 hour race similar in concept to the LeMans race. Except that in the early days of motorsport, cars were extremely loud and the neighbours complained about their inability to sleep during the night. The event was therefore shortened to run across a weekend in two, twelve hour races – hence Double 12. These days the racing is a mere shadow of the original event with Vintage cars now only completing two timed laps around the Mercedes test track on day one and a series of driving challenges on the day two. It is the second day of the event, the ‘driving tests’ that are a gentle and polite entrance into the world of vintage motorsport.

Entering the car into a Brooklands event has been a dream since I first watched Vintage heroes thundering around the hallowed ‘concrete’ in old black and white videos. Sadly the Brooklands banked circuit is no longer complete and Tesco’s now sits where a steep banked corner used to be.

We have attended a number of the Double 12 events  over the years and I remember once pointing to a Riley and saying to my understanding wife that ‘one day, one of those is going to follow me home’. That one-day of course happened and this blog started when I found the car that I would re-construct to use in Vintage Motorsport.

Having the race date on the calendar was sufficiently motivating to have the car ready and a lot of hours were consumed fixing things, adjusting things, resetting things, tightening things up and in some cases – loosening things. Sunday 17 June 2018 dawned, an overcast day with a light drizzle. Bother! Not the sunshine I had hoped for considering the car has no real windscreen, no roof or no waterproof Tourneau to protect the interior and occupants from rain. A little thing like this wasn’t going to stop us though. The support car got packed with lunch, coats, a few tools and a supporting family and we headed out into the drizzle.

Straight away the car started miss-behaving, coughing and spluttering up the road with no real power to speak of. This had never happened before and my heart dropped. The car seemed to be better at higher revs and under a constant load but accelerating was awful. Twice we stopped on the way to Brooklands to look around the engine but nothing important was wet and I could not see anything amiss. I felt truly awful (and damp) but we decided to push on because the support car had a towing A-Frame in the boot as a just-in-case and even if we only managed to do one of the series of driving challenges, at least all the time and effort I had put in would not be wasted. Half an hour later we arrived and the car was directed straight to scrutineering. The ‘scroots’ poured over the car checking that it is safe to race and we were granted our first scrutineering pass. Hurdle number one crossed. Signing on and drivers briefing followed which was informative and both my wife and daughter were signed on as official passengers to join in the fun. My daughter would navigate for the first set of tests then hand over to my wife for the afternoons events.

As we had around one hour before racing started, I popped open the bonnet (again). This time I noticed that one of the ignition leads was touching the engine – could it be perhaps that the lead was sometimes earthing the high voltage spark meant for one of the four combustion chambers? Crossing multiple body parts, I relocated the lead and fired up the engine. It ‘seemed’ better but I had no real way to be sure. Unfortunately for me, the very first driving challenge was to be a run straight up the ‘test hill’. This is a 3 gradient hill that gets progressively stepper ending in a 1:4 slope. I have been nervous of this hill ever since we tried walking up it and seeing a few cars simply not make it. Would the Riley actually be able to make it up there? It should be fine but I had a miss-firing engine to contend with. With my heart thumping which I am sure all the spectators could hear, we joined the queue and awaited our turn. I can tell you that sitting in a Vintage car waiting to race up a historic test hill with crowds of people watching is an exciting experience, marginally dampened by my engineers fear of the car failing to make it.

Ooh, it was now my turn…

The marshal held a Union Jack in front of the car, asked if I was ready, counted down from three and raised the flag. I floored the throttle, wheels span, smoke plumed, the exhaust roared and we were off. Gradient 1 – easily cleared, Gradient 2 – easily cleared, Gradient 3 – easy then brake hard to stop astride the line as dictated by the rules. But what’s that awful noise? The engine or gearbox sound like a bucket of gravel – that cant be good. Instead of racing on to the finish line, we eased forwards to stop astride the line and collect our score. I handed it to my co-pilot without even looking at it, now I had a miss firing engine and a gearbox that sounded like someone tumbling small stones. On the plus side, even with the engine miss firing, the car had flown up the hill with no fuss at all – it was great fun as can be seen below:

We then drove carefully to the next test with me having constantly swapping emotions; extreme pleasure at being there in the car and competing with my daughter beside me, mixed in with ‘bother – I think I broke the car on the very first test’

Above we await the second challenge. Driving around a very small set of cones in a specifically prescribed route. Sound easy? Ha! Having less than 10 cones laid out in a (to the driver) seemingly random manner which we then had to navigate around several times based on a simple line drawing which swept in a spiral, the drawing advising we had to stop at some cones, going left of some, right of some then turning around and going round the same cones but following a different route is NOT easy. The whole route is completed against the clock and you are given a 10 second penalty if you touch a cone or <coughs theatrically> run one over. Far worse, if you incorrectly navigate around the course you are given a 1 minute penalty on top of your timed run which means you are now instantly last in your class for that particular test. There are 8 driving tests and your time for each one is added together to give you  a total time. The driver with the lowest time is declared the winner.

I think I mentioned that the car was miss firing and now had something noisily wrong with the gearbox so we had two choices, take it easy… or not… I chose not and subsequently missed a cone on two of the next three driving tests. I have to say, my Co-Pilot was very good, she had the routes nailed in her head and gave good clear instructions but I still missed that cone three times in the same test. What a laugh.

Below is an action shot as we navigate a cone and look for the next one. Its much harder than you think, all the cones look the same.

After test 4 we limped the car back to its parking area to have a spot of lunch in theory revisiting all the tests again later in the afternoon. The engineer in my head was screaming ‘retire from the race’, the racing driver in my head was screaming ‘nah it’ll be alright’. The two of them argued back and forth for a very long time whilst ‘friends’ wandered over to laugh and advise me that I had missed a few cones but offered no advice on how to fix the car. I like to think I remained a Gentleman throughout and we wandered off for a very emotional lunch. The Engineer in my head took advantage of this and convinced me to retire early from the competition. So because we only did 4 of the 8 driving tests – the penalty times for not completing each course added a huge amount of time to our already poor score so we were rather last. I would have preferred a status of ‘retired from competing’ but that’s not how they show in the club records.

I have to say the car has a lot of promise, it handled and stopped far better than I ever expected, it was also quite nippy (when it wasn’t spluttering) and I sense we will have a lot of fun over the coming years. I did have a lovely conversation with a fellow Riley owner who started off with a car fundamentally the same as mine but over the years he regularly upgraded the engine and in its current form it has TWO superchargers bolted together and his engine is putting out over 250 brake horse power (bhp). That is five times the output of my standard engines 54bhp. To make that worse the car had 54bhp when it was new eighty three years ago so lets be kind and say it currently has 45bhp. I can only imagine how much fun the car would be if it had nearly six times the power. I do rather suspect his engine cost more than my entire car though.

Next steps: taking a careful look at the engine and gearbox to see what is wrong/loose/broken – the engine and gearbox are both quite expensive to replace so fingers crossed, I can engineer a fix and be back on the road.

In summary, it was a great but exceptionally emotional day. Thank you to friends and family who turned up to support the birth of our Vintage Sports car. Just like a baby it has entered the world kicking and screaming and making a mess, people are saying it looks lovely and wishing us luck as we head down the new road of fettling.

~ Our Vintage Racing days – start now ~

Too cool

Evolution of the sports car starts here:

The original radiator core was replaced with a smaller, modern core when I reduced the height of the radiator by 100mm. Although it was smaller, the new core was always likely to be a lot more efficient than the 30’s design. You may also remember that I reconstructed a water pump from another vintage Riley believing the radiator by itself may not be enough to keep the car cool. It transpires that the ‘upgrades’ are both jolly good at their job and they are too efficient. The car when driving doesn’t actually go above 55 degrees. Modern cars have a thermostat to quickly warm up the engine and that thermostat opens at 90 degrees. What this means is that the engine in my car never gets to operating temperature which effects the efficiency and the power because I need to run the carburetors rich to counter the cold fuel.

Even driving the car in the recent heat wave made very little difference, a 30 mile drive barely moved the temperature gauge off the stop. But I grant you I have not had to sit in static traffic for very long and having no fan, I would eventually have a problem in traffic. However, I need to look at what I can do to improve the situation. Initially I am looking at the cheapest option of inserting an inline thermostat into the engine-radiator hose so that the water in the radiator is basically isolated until the engine warms up. I rather suspect though that this option will simply mean that once the thermostat opens the radiator will rapidly cool down the water too much again.

It is quite possible the final solution may be to remove the water pump reverting the cooling to the principle of thermo-cyphoning (circulation occurs due to hot water naturally rising which pulls cold water into the engine at the bottom) and having an electric fan for the stuck in traffic occasions. We shall see over time…

Playing with friends

Today, the Riley ventured out to join the ‘Pre-War Car Spring gathering’ which was organised by a VSCC friend of ours and held at the Mil House, North Warnborough. There was promise of a genuine old country pub selling local ales and a hog roast. Oh yes and a bunch of like minded vintage car folks. Being as I do not yet enjoy driving the Riley above 50 mph due to the steering making its own decisions without consulting me, I used the ‘winding roads’ configuration in my satnav and set off in full Biggles attire. The drive through the country was great fun and the satnav (although I had no chance of hearing it) directed me to the meeting place with no issues. I will admit to being a little worried when I pulled up at a rather ominous looking ford but soon realised I had just driven past the hidden entrance to the display area.

This was my first outing where there would be a fair number of Riley owners – and I steeled myself for the onslaught of “humph! There goes another great car ruined to make a special”. Sure enough the first person to wander over said exactly that until I showed him the pictures of the car as-purchased. At which point he changed his tune to “well done, at least the car is back on the road and wasnt scrapped”. I am prepared for this and now have a laminated sheet of data and photos that I clip to the wind deflectors so people can see the state of the car when found. This tactic works as people no longer spouted the same old moans and were instead complimentary about the design and overall look.

I have to say though that the restored Riley’s on display, both saloon and touring cars were absolutely fabulous. I had no idea they were all so pretty and so different. All in all, I believe there were around 30 cars on display. I had a lovely chat with a husband and wife who have entered they 1930’s Buick into the Paris to Peking rally. They have only recently purchased the car which is all original (and looks that way) and having got the engine running, decided to take it on a 1000 mile shakedown drive into Europe. I nearly spat by rather nice beer out. Seriously, a 1000 mile shakedown drive in an unknown car – they must be mad, I have tip toed around in the Riley with maybe 150 miles under my belt and I am still not confident about driving it too far let alone entering it into the 10,000 mile rally! His argument was that if it can do 1000, it can do 10,000. I did mention that they may not be too many vintage Buick specialists in the Gobi Dessert but I have to applaud their adventurous spirit. I was happy having driven the 20 miles back home with no incidents 🙂

To be fair, the ongoing fettling of the car is worthwhile, or perhaps its merely driving the car and getting used to it, but it seems to be getting easier to drive as things loosen up. It is still noisy (98db at 1000 rpm), smells of hot oil, is very breezy at any speed and the suspension damping definitely needs to be the next job in order for the car to behave better on bumpy roads but it is jolly good fun and I am still enjoying seeing pedestrians wave as we drive by. Poop Poop.


Rear Seating

I have re-discovered that bespoke trimming a car in leather is an expensive business and sadly it is something that I don’t have the skills or the tools to do so I have no choice but to farm the work out to a professional. But before I can do that I need to build the rear seat so that they have something to actually trim. The seat is fairly basic, a flat cushion to sit on and something to lean your back against. However I need to maintain access to the battery housed below the seat and I need access to the rear axle so that the oil can be changed occasionally. This means that neither the seat cushion nor the seat back can be permanently fixed into position – a challenge, I like that.

My thoughts were to hinge the seat back enabling it to fold forward so that I could use the storage space behind the seat. I grant you there is not a lot of space but it would be somewhere to put the wheel jack and maybe some tools. A removable seat cushion is conceptually fairly straight forward, it merely needs something to stop it sliding forwards onto the floor. The challenge therefore is the folding mechanism.

Luckily for me, last week whilst at the Beaulieu AutoJumble, I picked up a seriously rotten folding rear seat that ‘looked’ about the right size and was so cheap that I simply could not walk past it – I still knocked £5 off the low asking price  arguing it was really junk and not worth taking home with him. It really was in a state – all of the plywood construction had de-laminated so it was bending under the slightest pressure, it was not really usable. The seat therefore was definitely not a keeper but it was very cheap and just what I needed. The high value part for me was that it would give me a template to see how a seat should be constructed AND a genuine seat folding mechanism specifically designed for the job. Hopefully in the short term, it might accept a level of rebuilding to give me a usable rear seat until I was ready for the trimmer to weave his magic. Fingers crosseed

First problem: the seat did NOT fit – it was about 100mm too wide and around 200mm too high. I knew the height would be wrong, that was no big deal but the width meant I would need to deconstruct the seat and modify it to fit. This was no real concern because I had zero intentions of keeping the seat as-is and as mentioned it was so cheap, it really didnt matter.

Below is the seat as purchased, as you can see the seat back folds down flat. Just what I wanted. The vinyl was covering a real mess.

First task was to remove the hinges which was easy as they simply pulled the screws through the rotted plywood. I cleaned them up and dressed the rivets to tighten up the workings. Once each hinge was working smoothly, I bolted them to the platform that houses the battery and would support the seat. All I needed to do now was measure the distance between the two hinges and remove the excess plywood from the seat cushion in order for it to fit the reduced space. This gave me a feel for how the ‘real’ seat base would need to be cut to shape at a later date. I now had a usable seat cushion.

I then turned to the seat back and the original plywood panel was way beyond recovery so I placed a sheet of 18mm plywood in the hinge then shaped it to match the contours of the rear of the car. It was then painted it with a protective coating of wood stain and bolted it to the hinges adjusting things as necessary. With the seat back in place I could try it out. The angle is about right as it supports your lower and mid back area acceptably. These seats will never be used for long journeys but they are fine for the intended use. The seat back cushion was exceptionally basic and I simply removed enough of the thin plywood (or what was left of it) so that the height of the cushion was approximately the same as the seat back. The cushion continues to fall apart but it is very temporary and provides a level of comfort in the interim. It also looks the part as it is old.

So this is what we now have: a temporary but surprisingly usable rear seat. Finishing things off my rear passenger guests – I fabricated a step along similar lines to the one previously made. Access to the rear seat is now a little less ungainly.


I now need to fabricate some form of a ‘lid’ to the storage area behind the seat and work out how to create a couple of locks that will secure the seat back from being casually tipped forward. A job for another day

Let there be light.

….and there was. Well kind of. The headlamps of vintage cars are interesting things. First the shiny bit that reflects light onto the road is silver. Yes really. Silver tarnishes as we know and so the reflectors go yellow. When you try to polish them, it is exceptionally easy to polish the silver plating away leaving you with shiny brass – which is yellow. Secondly the dipping mechanism for headlamps is mechanical. The light bowl literally swivels down when you select ‘dip’ then swivels back to horizontal for full beam. This means the electricals are a bit of a challenge to work out. Main beam is on all the time and there is a separate wire to operate an electrical solenoid within each headlamp. Having managed to get the solenoids to work I then found that the ‘dip’ setting turned the lights off. After a bit of head scratching I worked out how all the contacts and terminals worked together and rewired them.

Oh and another daft vintage idea. Up until 1936 dipping the headlights meant that you mechanically dip the drivers side lamp but turn off the passenger side lamp completely. This results in you only having one headlamp. I am sure this was fine in the 30’s when no-one went over 30mph and the roads were pretty empty but now days that would certainly confuse other drivers. I have therefore modified my setup to have TWO headlamps that mechanically dip. Oh and they operate with quite a solid ‘thunk’ sound. Funny.

Having got working headlights I can now drive the car later at night although I am told to expect them to be near useless so I will be converting them to LED shortly.

The rear lights and number plate lights merely needed connecting into the circuit. I have quite a lot of wires now that all need forming into a tidy loom. That’s a job for another day.

Mitigation plan

The Riley and I are starting to travel further from home as my confidence grows but inevitably, one day it will break down due to sheer age of the car. As a get me home plan, I purchased a practically new towing ‘A’ frame which now lives in the back of the family X5. This device enables me to connect the Riley onto the tow bar without the need for anyone to actually be in the Riley whilst it is being towed. The Riley simply follows the tow car all by itself.

I took it out for a test and it works like magic. It was quite strange seeing the Riley steering wheel turn when we go round corners but apart from that it is really easy to tow cars now. The X5 is perfectly capable of pulling the Riley so we now have the means of getting it home. With a safety net now in place, I will be venturing out to a classic car show this weekend which will be the furthest I have driven the car so far. If we break down – I just have to ask ‘the guvnor’ to bring the X5 to me. We can also take the X5 to race events as a just in case I break the Riley thing.