Riley History

Few British cars did more than Riley to reinforce the credo of Scots economist John Stuart Mill that “all good things that exist are the fruits of originality”. During a total lifespan of seventy-one years, the genius of the enterprising Riley marque was, for about its first four decades, richly innovative.

True, the “firsts” commonly attributed to Riley weren’t all classifiable as invention in the pure and unqualified sense; but at the lowest estimate they gave a practical and economically successful twist to ideas which other and more timid rivals had failed to exploit effectively.

The first Riley car ever built boasted a mechanically operated inlet valve at a date when the great majority of the world’s designers were relying on piston suction rather than cam action for this vital function. Thus at one stroke a crippling impediment to rpm was eliminated.

It’s a matter of debate among automobile historians whether the detachable wire wheel designed by Percy Riley, the family’s engineering mastermind, and standardised on the 9 hp Riley in 1907, was first in its field. But certainly it scored a commercial success that was the envy of such competitors as Rudge and Sankey. Demand for the Riley wheel became almost world-wide, and no fewer than 183 makes paid for the privilege of using it; these included Rolls-Royce and Napier in Britain, Pierce-Arrow in the US, Benz, Mercedes, RenauIt, Panhard, Hispano-Suiza and Spyker in continental Europe.

In 1919 the first Riley model launched after World War One bristled with novelties, ranging from adjustability for the fore/aft position of the front seats and steering-column rake to turbo-cooled brakes with automatic take-up. At Olympia, London, in 1926, the sensational Riley Nine stood the Motor Show on its ear. Designed absolutely from scratch, its four cylinder engine marked an epoch by bringing the race-proven advantages of the hemispherical combustion chamber within reach of prospective buyers of small, medium-priced family cars for the first time.

The Nine also pioneered a form of rubber cushioned engine mounting no less than seven years before Plymouth in America launched its “Floating Power” system amid deafening explosions of publicity. The way the Plymouth ad-men told it, they’d probably never even heard of Riley, the interposition of rubber between an engine and its ferrous bed was NEW.

The Rileys of the pre war era, although consistently outstanding for workmanship, finish and above-average performance for their class, didn’t neglect mundane practicalities. Realising that in that day and age the majority of owner drivers did most if not all of their own maintenance and servicing work, Percy Riley applied his brains to minimising these chores; the result, in 1930, was a system of centrally grouped and easily accessible chassis lubrication nipples, connected to points of wear by yards of pipework. This feature, like so many of the innovations that Riley pioneered, was subsequently counterfeited by other car makers in Britain and overseas.

The fortunes of the clan Riley were founded by William Riley Jr. in mid-Victorian times. He succeeded his father as head of the family weaving business at Coventry, in the English Midlands, in 1870, and sired five sons, Victor, Stanley, Allan, Percy and Cecil. With the progressive loss of weaving trade to continental countries where labour was cheaper, William Riley gave his old love the brush-off and bought a stake in the newly thriving bicycle industry. Himself, he would have been well content to devote his whole energies to cycle manufacture, but his sons, as they reached man’s estate, saw further into the future and did their damnedest to persuade him to lay his wager on a different runner – the horseless carriage.

A V-Twin engine and a radiator not unlike a Rolls Royce distinguished the 1907 Riley Nine …

His opposition, however, was adamant, so much so that the first-ever Riley car, designed by Percy Riley, had to be built almost clandestinely, behind the old man’s back. This one-off exercise, which can be seen in historical perspective as the starting point of a car making programme that would continue (albeit hesitantly at first) until 1969, was the upshot of an order placed by two high-up electrical engineers who were temporarily based on Coventry.

Company archives reveal few details of Riley car number one, apart from the fact that its inlet valve (the engine was a “single”) was operated mechanically.

But having dipped a toe in the water, so to speak, the Riley’s didn’t immediately take a headlong plunge into car construction, per se. First, for a period of some years, they dickered and compromised, designing and building motorcycles, tricars and quadricycles, none of them in very significant quantities.

Finally, in 1902, three of the Riley brothers, Victor, Percy and Allan, raised a loan on their own initiative and formed a separate firm, the Riley Engine Co., to exploit Percy’s power-unit designs. This concern had two outlets – father William’s Riley Cycle Co. and the Singer company. The two other brothers, Cecil and Stanley, afterwards joined the Riley Engine Co. directorate.

Percy Riley’s services as designer were shared at this period by his father’s on the one hand and the engine factory on the other; for the former he created a neat and robust two speed constant-mesh gearbox for one of the early Riley oddities, a three-wheeled forecar, which gave the passenger the secondary role of buffer to protect the driver in the event of head-on collisions.

The First Authentic Riley Automobiles

The first authentic Riley automobiles (as distinct from motor tricycles and quadricycles) to be produced appeared in 1905 and were powered by V-twin engines driving the rear wheels via single roller chains and three-speed gearboxes. It was on these 9 hp machines, two years after their debut, that Riley, for the first time anywhere in the world, standardised detachable road wheels.

The oval radiator on the Riley 12-18 was a very distinguishing feature.

The car had a twin cylinder engine and spanned the period 1911 to 1913

At a date when punctures were among the motorist’s commonest ordeals, this facility gave automobiles’ an entirely new appeal for thousands of would-be recruits who’d been deterred by the dirty and difficult job of repairing Rats with the tyre in situ.

Having demonstrated on their own wares the unarguable benefits of the detachable wheel, the Riley’s were soon barraged with enquiries from independent car manufacturers throughout the automotive world (naturally the device was fully patented).

This flattering show of interest nourished William Riley’s optimism to the point where he personally was in favour of abandoning all other projects and staking the family’s entire resources on the detachable wheel. Second-generation counsels prevailed, however, and the kinsmen committed themselves irrevocably to automobile manufacture, which was to run parallel with the wheel enterprise.

V-Type Engines

V-type engines were the common denominator shared by most of the Riley cars born in the make’s formative phase. But whereas the 9 hp model recalled above had its cylinders fore/aft and its crankshaft set transversely, the later 12-18 and 10 hp lines reversed this configuration; also, they forsook chain transmission and used a cardan shaft instead.

All three models were water-cooled V-twins with side valves, displacements being just over a litre for the Nine and approximately twice that for the 12-18; significantly, in view of much later trends in engine dimensioning, the intermediate-sized Ten engine was “square”, bore and stroke both measuring 96 mm. Also presaging a fashion that was foreseeable to few engineers of the Riley brothers’ generation, the Nine featured a tubular frame with duplicated longitudinals.

These three Rileys, marketed concurrently, ran the whole gamut of body styles, from a lofty landaulette version of the 12-18 to a rakish two-seater edition of the Nine, known as the Speed Model. In hill-climbs and such dour tests of endurance and reliability as the Scottish Trials, the Riley’s of the day were consistently to the forefront. Victor Riley himself was among the marque’s outstanding competition drivers. As early as 1911, incidentally, the 12-18 Riley sported a refinement that most rival makes didn’t adopt until years later – a carburetor intake silencer. In 1912 the Riley Cycle Co. died a voluntary death and a new firm with the title of Riley (Coventry) Ltd. succeeded to its assets and goodwill.

The above picture shows a Riley Tricar…

The bugbears which Ford were later to abbreviate as NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), were beginning, in the early years of George V’s reign, to exert a stiffening sales resistance. To exploit the new demand for quieter, smoother motoring, the Rileys turned over a whole new leaf, designwise, for 1913, ditching their range of twin-cylinder cars and announcing the first in-line fours in the companies’ history.

These were of two calibres, of which the larger, rated at 17 hp and with 86 X 127 mm cylinders (2,951 cc), made its bow first. The other was a 63 X 88 mm Ten, designed by Stanley Riley (the Seventeen sprang from Percy’s prolific drawing board). Rather confusingly, the Ten powerplant was a product of yet another firm, independent but also founded and overlorded by a family member: Victor’ Riley’s Nero Engine Co.

It had always been a Percy Riley tenet that a quiet transmission was among the greatest blessings of automobilism, and his 17 hp model translated this admirable theory into practice. The result was a four-speed gearbox with its helical-toothed top and third gears in constant mesh. Thus, from the noise point of view, third was indistinguishable from direct drive.

Other notable features of the 3-litre Seventeen were torque-tube transmission with the shaft underslung to minimise overall chassis height, worm type final drive, and simultaneous operation of the rear-wheel and transmission brakes by foot pedal.

In one respect particularly, the Seventeen’s side-valve engine took a spectacular leap forward, for the crankshaft, which incidentally was hollow, ran in five main bearings, anticipating a usage that many makers of four-cylinder engines were to acclaim as a startling advance in the mid-sixties. Visually, the appeal of this very clean and uncluttered engine was enhanced by cross-flow porting, with the carburetor on one side and the exhaust manifold on the opposite face of the detachable cylinder block. Like the V-twins that they had superseded, the 17 and second-generation 10 hp. Riley’s were distinguished by a round radiator shell fronting an almost barrel shaped bonnet. Wheelbase and track of the Seventeen were 124 X 57 inches, the Ten’s being 96 X 48 inches.

The Riley Stelvio sedan of the early 1930’s had a 1622cc hemispherical headed 6 cylinder engine 

Due to the intervention of the first World War, these two Riley models had a shorter lifespan than their technical merit and practical excellence had seemed to promise. It is one of war’s few redeeming features that it accelerates technological progress and, by the time the Armistice was signed, both the extant Rileys could be regarded as obsolete. Neither of the Riley family’s creative engineers, Percy or Stanley, being immediately available for such work, the company made a break with tradiition and chartered an outsider, a gifted operator by the name of Harry Rush, to design its first postwar offering.

Pioneering Turbo Cooled Brakes And Adjustable Steering Column

This was an all-new voiturette officially rated at 10.8. hp under the British fiscal system but catalogued as the Eleven. Points in common with the immediate pre-war Rileys were four in-line cylinders with side valves, cross-flow porting and four-speed transmission. It was on the Eleven that Riley pioneered self-adjusting turbo-cooled brakes in the year 1919, plus fore/aft adjustment for the front seats of four-seater types and provision for varying steering column rake. The turbo-cooling device took the form of a ring of cup-like cowls, attached to the rear brake drums, which forced air into the brakes and out through orifices breached in the back plates; magnitude of the draught was of course proportional to road speed.

Rush, like Percy Riley, was much concerned with saving the owner-driver avoidable labour in the garage. To this end he used self lubricating bushes at as many chassis points as possible, e.g., clutch pedal and hand brake pivots, etc. Only six grease nipples, requiring manual gunning once every six months, were tolerated. The Eleven’s engine capacity of 65.8 X 110 mm = 1,498 cc – slotted the car neatly into the 1.5-litre class, in which several of its lineal descendants were to make racing and other competition history. Again in the Percy Riley manner, Harry Rush was not the man to compromise on the quality of his materials in efforts to keep prices down. Items such as road springs, propeller shafts and stub axles were made from 50/65-ton chrome vanadium steel, at a time when the majority of Riley’s rivals were making-do with 28/30-ton stuff.

The above picture shows a Riley Nine timed in a test during the Bognor Trial of 1929…

Over Multiplication Of Body Styles

His car, which broke new styling ground by abandoning a circular radiator (its nose was V -shaped and carried the diamond pattern Riley badge that the make would retain and cherish until its dying day), was the first-ever Riley to use semi-elliptic springs all round. Like so many of its contemporaries, the Riley company erred, if it did err, on the side of over-multiplication of body styles and types.

These, counting variants that were added as the Eleven’s production life progressed, included a four-door touring car, the so-called “All-season tourer” with four seats and two doors (this was catalogued in two separately priced editions), a cabriolet, a touring two-seater, a coupe, sports models in two and four-seat versions, and a rig known as the Coach. In relation to the total build of Elevens, this, in hindsight, seems a ridiculous excess of diversification, but it nevertheless typified the mania for gap plugging which, at that time, had the British car industry in thrall.

A standout for looks among the many sub-types was the sports four-seater, paneled in polished aluminum. This car was normally fitted with bright red fenders, or “wings” in English terminology, and consequently became known as the Redwing. In 1924, a short-wheelbase Redwing, intended for competitions and lighter than standard, was added to the range.

The 1935 Riley Imp-Nine-engined cousin of the more powerful MPH…

While Riley’s heyday in racing and sporting events generally was yet to come, the Eleven in several of its guises racked up an impressive bag of competition successes, notably at Brooklands track and in the English trials that were then enjoying classic status-the Exeter, the Land’s End, the Edinburgh and others.

It was at a supper given for Riley drivers during the 1925 Edinburgh event that the Riley Motor Club was formed – with an initial intake of twenty-one. In the course of time this was to become the world’s largest one-make motor club, with around 1,700 members.

If we discount the declining years of the Riley, when it was a mere chattel of, successively, the British Motor Corporation and British Leyland, and lost all pretensions to the individuality that had made it great, the history of the marque falls into two chapters. The first ended and the second began in 1926, the demarcation line being drawn by Percy Riley-with help from brother Stanley-when he presented the motoring world with his ever memorable Nine. The heart of a car was its engine, and Percy’s magnum opus of 1926 established the norm for the top end of every Riley power unit built during the next thirty-one years.

The combination of a hemispherical cylinder head and steeply inclined valves was, of course, no new thing in 1926. It had originated in 1904 on a Belgian car called the Pipe, while the elaboration of the concept by the use of dual overhead camshafts dated from 1912 and the Grand Prix Peugeots designed by the great Henry. Nearly all the high end motorcycles of the early twenties, too, employed hemi heads and inclined valves. But it was left to Percy Riley to introduce this formula for better respiration on a relatively inexpensive family car. And Mr. Riley sought the best of both worlds – the good breathing and efficient combustion associated with the race-bred head shape, minus the complication and resultantly high cost of camshafts mounted on the head rather than in the cylinder block. Fundamental to Percy Riley’s masterpiece, then, was its hemispherical combustion chambers and rocker-actuated valves forming an inclined angle of 90 degrees.

The amphibious WD model of 1933 was developed for African exploration.

The porting, reiterating a note that even the side-valve Riley’s 5 of yesteryear had struck, was of cross-flow type, with the intake and exhaust manifolds on opposing sides of the block. Nines of all ohv vintages had plain-bearing crankshafts supported only at their ends, but whereas the cylinder block was detachable from the crankcase on the prototype batch, production examples combined these main units in a single casting.

There were two camshafts, each with two splash-lubricated bearings, mounted high on opposite sides of the block, thus allowing the pushrods to be kept short and light. As an antidote to NVH, valve train loading was evened-out by fitting a “neutral” four-lobed cam at the midpoint of each camshaft, where it worked against a spring loaded plunger.

Early Nines had a single carburetor feeding forward into the tail of the manifold; later ones, using either one or two carburetors, depending on the engine’s designed state of tune, had the gasworks more conventionally positioned at right-angles to the car’s north/south axis, thereby shortening the induction tracts. The cushioned engine mounting took the form of a rubber bushed bar that passed through a tunnel in the front of the crankcase, projecting at either side and with its ends seated on the chassis side members.

In the transmission department the Nine provided one of many examples of Riley’s weakness for technical vacillation. The 17 hp model of 1913 et seq, for instance, had featured torque-tube drive, this being abandoned by Harry Rush on his Eleven in 1919 in favour of the Hotchkiss open-shaft system; but now, on his Nine, Percy Riley re-embraced the torque tube. The Seventeen had what was known as a silent-third box. This vanished (temporarily) when Rush’s smaller Riley took the stage, only to reappear in a modified form on the Nine of 1926.

The Riley Six finished second overall at Le Mans in 1934 – the highest placement ever by a 1.5 litre car. Another Riley was third.

J. G. Parry Thomas And The World Land Speed Record

Most historians agree that Percy Riley, unlike some of his brethren, never raced or indulged in competition activity personally, and indeed he was said to be out of sympathy with the sporting side of motoring. This seems to be borne out by the fact that the original Nine, in spite of its obvious potentiality for high performance, was catalogued as a sedan – the Monaco – and not as a fun car. (see J. G Parry Thomas, the Welsh Wizard of Brooklands).

But the idea of coaxing more horsepower out of Percy Riley’s intriguing twin-cam engine and building a far-out sports car around it immediately occurred to several well-qualified people without direct Riley affiliations. Among these was J. G. Parry Thomas, who had already broken the Land Speed Record three times and was preparing for a fourth attack on it.

Thomas, the Welsh Wizard as he was called, was associated with the well known Brooklands firm of Thomson and Taylor Ltd., and also with Reid-Railton, who was later to design a whole string of Land Speed Record giants. This consortium, with the approval and support of the Riley company, evolved the hyper-sporting Brooklands Model in the winter of 1926/27, but before the job was finished Thomas unfortunately was killed while attempting his fourth Land Speed Record.

On completion, the Brooklands Riley appropriately made its debut at Brooklands, where, driven by Railton in a race only about 6.5 miles long, it won by the sensational margin of one mile. The only flying-start lap of the 2.75-mile circuit that this event entailed was turned at an average of 91.37 mph. The Brooklands Model, starting point in a process of evolution that yielded all the subsequent racing and high performance Riley’s, developed about 50 bhp at 5,000 rpm, compared with the standard Monaco’s 34 at 4,000. The chassis, lopped from 107 to 91 inches and narrowed at the rear, carried an ultra-light two-place body which was so low that the seated driver could easily touch the ground with the palm of his hand.

Three wonderful Riley’s, at top the 1933 Lincock hard-top coupe, next is the Riley March Special open sports 2-seater, and last is the fast MPH Riley, which was offered in three engine size options.

To exploit the power bonus and drastic reductions in car weight and frontal area, the overall gearing was raised. Engine tuning measures included carburetor duplication, a raise in compression ratio and oil pressure and the use of special camshafts and a four-branch exhaust manifold.

For many years, including a considerable time after its production had ceased, the Brooklands Riley in normal and modified forms won countless races and became the world’s busiest record breaker in international Class G (1,100 cc). The firm also catalogued sporting Nines with more habitable bodies and in less advanced states of tune.

It wasn’t only mechanically that the Monaco sedan marked an epoch. Its body styling too was an eye-opener. In Britain, at least, it pioneered what became known as the three-box shape, with a trunk that was designed into and harmonised with the general architecture. The original Monaco also set a fashion, albeit a bad one, for an exaggeratedly high beltline, resulting in slot-like side windows.

The 1926 London Motor Show, at which the Monaco Nine had its premiere, supplied yet another instance of the makers hedging their bets. Apparently not confident that the Nine would blow all opposition into the bushes (which it certainly did) Riley also exhibited a dressed-up version of an earlier model that the Nine was to render obsolete from the moment that the public viewed the two cars side by side.

This was the 11-40 sports job (65.8 X 110 mm = 1,496 cc, same as Rush’s old side-valve Eleven) with vertical ohv operated by normal length pushrods and a supercharger as standard equipment. The 11-40, which predictably never achieved any great fame, was the first British sports car to use a blower, which was of Riley design.

Carburetor Quadruplication

Nines entered for the 1931 Tourist Trophy race were fitted with four carburetors, one to each intake port. Also in 1931, carburetor quadruplication in a modified form was used by independent GeOl’ge Eyston on the 1,100 cc Riley with which he broke the Class G record for one hour at 108 mph.

Wrongly, pioneer-ship of the one-carb-per-port system on racing Rileys is sometimes credited to another of the marque’s famous independent speed men, Freddy Dixon. What he did, later in the thirties, was to improve on an already extant technique.

The first 6-cylinder Riley featuring the celebrated PR (Percy Riley) head made its bow late in 1928, fitted to a roomy family car with, again, no special claims to performance. The addition of two extra cylinders with the same bore and stroke as the Nine gave the six a displacement of 1,633 cc but, probably on account of asthmatical breathing resulting from poor inlet manifold design, it was certainly no fire-eater. Unlike the Nine, it had a three bearing crankshaft. Later, a Brooklands Six, naturally bigger in all main dimensions (track, wheelbase, etc.) than the corresponding four, but not unlike it in its taper-tailed shape, was added to the range.

This famous shot shows Fred Dixon’s Riley leaving the road in the 1932 Tourist Trophy race. Fred was tired after the customary all-night preparation, and nodded off. Luckily he woke quickly once he had become airborne, and had the mind to switch off the ignition before landing.

Victor Riley, managing director of Riley (Coventry) Ltd. over a long and mostly fruitful period, labored under the delusion that his company’s sixes were inherently incapable of a competitive performance. In this he was proved doubly wrong.

In 1934, ERA used drastically modified and supercharged derivatives of the Riley six as the basis for their brilliantly successful racing cars, in sizes ranging from 1,100 cc to 2-litres. Later, when the brainy and resourceful Fred Dixonproposed using unsupercharged but multi-carburetted Riley six engines for racing and record breaking, Victor Riley gave vent to his surprise and incredulity by making Dixon a present of a batch of these powerplants and a stockpile of appropriate spare parts. The results that this brash independent gained with his free gift, mostly at Brooklands, proved that a car manufacturer doesn’t necessarily know better than a perspicacious outsider in such matters.

About the Nines, however, nobody, inside or outside of the factory at Coleshill, Coventry, had the slightest doubts. And they were right. Commercially, they were consistently successful for over a decade. Technically, they were a phenomenon, no less. The highest output ever recorded by a Nine engine, supercharged at high pressure and admittedly modified almost beyond recognition by the introduction of a centre main bearing, was 183 bhp at 7,400 rpm (the car to which it was fitted was the Appleton Special, built and developed for a rich private owner, John Appleton).

The basic design of the Nine engine is sometimes attributed to a non-Riley man, Hugh Rose, rather than to Percy Riley. This is incorrect, though some confusion is understandable. In 1934 there were disagreements on technical matters between members of the firm’s own design team. It had, however, been decided-notwithstanding the magnificent performance of the company’ small sixes in that year’s Le Mans – that four was the optimum number of cylinders for engines circa 1½-litres. Victor Riley therefore chartered Rose, instructing him to base his new blueprint – so far as the engine was concerned – on Percy Riley’s time-tested layout.

A derivative of the Brooklands Nine spins on a corner during a late twenties road race

This he did, retaining such basic features as the two high camshafts, 90-degree valves and hemispherical heads. Many years later, when he was resident designer to Lea-Francis, Hugh Rose adopted a closely similar top-end arrangement for this maker’s engine.

Designated the 12/4, the four-cylinder power unit resulting from the Riley/Rose marriage of minds had the classic bore and stroke measurements of 69 X 100 mm (1,496 cc), a three-bearing crankshaft and an unusual hotspotting system with a crosswise port cored right through the cylinder block to carry warmth from the efflux to the ingoing charge. The rocker shafts, unlike the Nine’s, were mounted directly in the head instead of in separate rocker boxes.

The Lynx, Kestrel and Falcon

This fine engine was fitted, inter alia, to a very pretty open tourer, the Lynx, and two equally attractive sedans, the Kestrel and Falcon. It later powered the Kestrel Sprite sports two seater of the late inter-wars period and, post-war, carried over as propellent for the otherwise drastically redesigned 1½-litre sedan with which Riley made their first attack on the peacetime market.

In the general configuration of the cars, as well as in strictly engineering matters, yesteryear’s Riley’s reflected the makers’ double-think tendency. At one stage in the thirties they made a big publicity outcry about the advantages of inter-axle seating, achieved, of course (at some sacrifice in back-seat legroom) by moving the rear passengers forward in relation to the axles.

Less than two years later, however, they reversed this process, quietly forgetting the merits of “within-the-wheelbase” accommodation but strongly pointing up the newfound gain in leg and knee room … Backtracking to the Nine in its many sporting and racing forms, this car had a brilliant Tourist Trophy career, filling the top three Class G places in the 1929 T.T., then winning outright at record speed three years later. Even this performance was surpassed at Le Mans in 1934, though, when six Rileys started and six finished – a survival rate that has seldom been equalled by so large a Le Mans contingent; four of these were Nines, and they occupied fifth, sixth, twelfth and thirteenth positions. The two remaining Rileys, both 1½-litre sixes, were, incredibly, second and third overall.

The Imp 2 Seater

Last descendant of the Brooklands Nine was the Imp sports two-seater, launched in 1934 and characterised by strikingly flared mudguards. Of the same vintage, and similar in its distinctive styling, was the larger MPH model, with optional 1,458 and 1,633 cc six-cylinder engines. Victor Riley, who had succeeded his father as head of the company when the latter died in the early twenties, was usually credited with a shrewd business sense. If, as one supposes, he dictated Riley’s engineering policy, this claim is open to doubt, for the Coleshill firm was forever changing course design wise. There was never any lack of ideas but pursuing them to a logical conclusion seemed to be foreign to Riley thinking.

Transmissions alone (apart from the systems already mentioned) illustrate the point. As early as 1932/3 the company experimented with the Salerni fully automatic transmission, an Italian invention; in theory it became a production reality, but although it was catalogued, no cars fitted with it were ever delivered. About two years later, Rileys using the new 12/4 engine offered a choice between, on the one hand, a centrifugal clutch in conjunction with a preselector gearbox and, on the other, an all-synchromesh box harnessed to a freewheel. Then, in 1937, yet another combination was listed: freewheel and automatic overdrive by Borg-Warner.

We make far too many models

In an advertisement of the late thirties, Victor Riley confessed: “We make far too many models, of course, but then we have a pretty fertile design department.” Among other examples of its fertility, in 1936, it made a minor sensation with a four-camshaft V8, essentially two normal Riley blocks set at 90 degrees on a common crankcase. The car that it powered, the Autovia, was Riley in everything but name, being built and marketed by a putatively separate company under Victor Riley’s managing directorship. Commercially, the Autovia never really got off the ground.

Getting some serious speed up around the Brooklands track, the racing Riley car twelve lifts the front left wheel.

Jokers used to say that that Riley listed more models than it built cars, and indeed one’s head spins at the proliferation of type names and symbols. Going back no further into history than 1926, there were the

  1. 11-40

  2. Monaco

  3. Brooklands Riley in four and six-cylinders caliber’s

  4. San Remo

  5. Lulworth, Deauville

  6. Light Six

  7. Stelvio

  8. Sportssman’s Coupe

  9. Alpine

  10. W.D.

  11. Plus Ultra

  12. Gamecock

  13. Overseas Nine

  14. 12/6

  15. 14/6

  16. Ascot

  17. March Special

  18. Trinity

  19. Falcon

  20. Lincock

  21. Lynx

  22. Kestrel

  23. Kestrel Sprite

  24. Mentone

  25. Winchester

  26. Charlesworth

  27. Edinburgh

  28. Imp

  29. MPH

  30. Colonial Tourer

  31. 12/4

  32. Merlin

  33. Adelphi

  34. Continental

  35. Big Four

  36. Blue Sreak

  37. Victor

  38. Pathfinder

  39. One-Point-Five

  40. 4/Seventy-two

and others that we have no doubt overlooked. Victor Riley’s admission that “we make far too many models” was uttered light heartedly, at a time when business was still brisk and he and his co-directors could afford light hearts. But there is little doubt that over-diversification was eventually responsible, at least in part, for the decline of the Riley fortunes. V.R. and his associates saw the red light, but not until it was too late.

At Montlhery in 1955, five production BMC cars covered over 100 miles each in one hour. The result of these high speed reliability tests was all the more remarkable because the weather was about the worst the drivers had experienced on the Monthlery track. The Riley Pathfinder, driven by Bob Porter, covered 103.03 miles in the hour…

In 1937 the range was narrowed to two chassis – the Rose-begotten 12/4 and a new 2½-litre known as the Big Four – the former offering a choice of five body styles, the latter two.

Then the blow fell. Trade, which had been on the downgrade for some time, slumped alarmingly. Coming to the rescue of what he perceived to be a still viable operation, Lord Nuffield purchased it out of his own personal fortune, then resold it advantageously to Morris Motors Ltd., of which he was already the head.

The two immediate pre-war engines survived, little else did, in Riley’s first post-war offerings – outstandingly drivable 1½ and 2½-litre sedans with chassis featuring rack and pinion steering and one of the best independent front suspension systems of its day.

The smaller of these cars, which soon acquired the status of a collector’s piece, enjoyed a nine-year production run; the larger underwent a gradual metamorphosis until, under the name Pathfinder, it was all-but indistinguishable from its Nuffield Group stablemate, the Wolseley.

When it was finally given a Wolseley engine to cement the bond, its power output dropped by 9 bhp in spite of the acquirement of two extra cylinders and a 200 cc displacement growth.

Riley and Rationalisation

Riley and Rationalisation, unaccustomed bedfellows, were in a mutual embrace at last, albeit it was to prove a fatal one. When Austin and the Nuffield Group makes fused to form the British Motor Corporation, Riley was part of the integration. And when BMC in its turn was swallowed up in the British Leyland take-over of 1968, Riley once again lagged along – for the last time. The Rileys of the irrational yesteryear had given relatively few people a great deal of fun. Rationalised in the manner of the sixties, they became stereotyped, reliable transportation, and it wasn’t enough. On July 9, 1969, British Leyland erased them from the catalogues. The car that had been “As old as the industry, as modern as the hour”, in the words of the half-forgotten slogan, was as dead as yesterday’s newspaper.

Two Rileys on the Brooklands track, overtaking an Austin (number #2).

And THIS is why I need to build a Riley Special – because its so British!

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