A History Of Riley Cars 1899 – 1969

BY A. J. DRAPER

The first Riley car was a small single-cylinder, belt-driven light car which did not go into production. Motor tricycles followed in 1900, and a handlebar steered tricar with two forward speeds driven by a 517cc engine with mechanically operated inlet valves in 1903. Tricars were made until 1907, later examples being twins with drivers’ seats in place of saddles, water cooling and wheel steering. The 1034cc V-Twin engine was also fitted to the company’s first 4-wheelers, which had amidships mounted engines with gearboxes alongside and chain drive. Bigger V-Twins of 2 litre capacity, more conventional layout and round radiators were made from 1908 onwards. These incorporated pressure lubrication, shaft drive, constant-mesh, 3-speed gearboxes and Riley patented detachable wheels, the demand for which brought the car production almost to a standstill and was the reason for the formation of the new company, Riley (Coventry) Ltd, in 1912. In 1914 2 cylinder cars were still being made, but there was also a new 2.9 litre side-valve four cylinder with worm final drive which was produced for a time after World War I by the Riley Engine Co.

The first Rileys produced after the First World War were the 11s, with side-valve 1½ litre engines, alloy pistons and full electrical equipment, spiral-bevel final drive being added in 1921. The Redwinger sports version (wire wheels and polished aluminium body) appeared in 1923 and had a top speed of 70 mph. Side-valve cars continued in production until 1928, having a 1645cc engine, and later (in 1925) front wheel brakes. One of these 12s was used to prospect Kenya’s road system in 1926, and in 1927 there was a supercharged version of the Redwinger available, though this was overshadowed by Percy Riley’s new ‘Nine’, which had a 1087cc 4-cylinder engine with twin camshafts set high in the crankcase. This formed the basis of all Riley engines made up to 1957.

In 1926 came the Monaco fabric sports saloon which sold well from the start. There was also a lowered and tuned Brooklands Sports with a twin-carburettor engine and capable of 80 mph. A twin-carburettor version of the touring ‘Nine’ was introduced in 1929, as well as a new 1.6 litre 6-cylinder ’14’ variant.

Rileys had a distinguished competition record. In the 1925 London-Exeter-London Trial three Gold medals and seventeen Silver were won by Riley cars; they had the highest number of cars in the list of finishers out of 152 entrants. The London-Edinburgh Run held in 1925 was a more important event for Riley enthusiasts, because at a dinner given for the Riley competitors and their passengers at the Peebles Hydro Hotel, the Riley Motor Club was founded, eventually becoming the largest one-make car club in the world. Although not being able to claim to be the largest in the world today, it still has quite a large number of enthusiastic members in all parts of Great Britain, and a number of overseas members.

Class wins in the 1929, 1930 and 1931 TTs were followed by outright victory in 1932 and two later wins by a 1½ litre in 1935 and 1936, 4th place at Le Mans in 1933, and 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 12th and 13th places in 1934. Three successive wins were achieved in 1934, 1935 and 1936 in the B.R.D.C. 500 Mile Race at Brooklands. A ‘Nine’ won the light car class in the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally. The 6-cylinder racing Rileys of 1933/34 formed the basis of the ERA racing cars. Both the ‘Nine’ and the 14/6 were progressively developed, the former having a lowered chassis and semi-panelled body in 1932 and optional preselector gearbox in 1934, which later became standard. A Super-Sports 6-cylinder 1½ litre appeared in 1932, followed by the introduction of the touring Mentone, the fast-back Kestrel and the more conventional Falcon. Two sports 2-seaters were produced in 1934-35, the 9 Imp and the 1633cc 6-cylinder MPH which was capable of over 90 mph. This car could also be obtained with a 1½ litre engine for competition work. Another new model in 1935 was the 1½ litre four (with preselector gearbox, rod operated Girling brakes and central chassis lubrication system) in single or twin carburettor versions, later developments being the 85 mph Sprite two seater and the Kestrel Sprite saloon and Lynx Sprite tourer which offered more room with the same highly-tuned engine. A lower priced version of the ‘Nine’, called the Merlin, with pressed steel body was produced in 1936, in addition to the 1½ litre, 6/15 and a 2.2 litre V8 using two 9 cylinder blocks on one crankcase, of which only a small number were made. A new six-light body was introduced for the 1937 ‘Nine’ with a twin-carburettor engine. Other models for 1937 were a 2.8 litre V8 luxury car produced by Autovia Cars (a subsidiary of Riley) and the more successful 2.4 litre Big 4 with 3-speed synchromesh gearbox and overdrive.

In 1938, due to the financial insecurity of Riley, the company was acquired by the Nuffield Organisation. Only the 1½ litre and the Big 4 (later the 2½ litre) were continued in production. They had disc wheels, conventional synchromesh gearboxes and bodies similar to Wolseley. The post-war successors had the same engines (1½ & 2½ litre) but more attractive bodies with torsion bar front suspension and fabric covered roof. The 2½ litre engine was used by Healey in the 1946-54 period. A three seater Roadster version of the 2½ litre was made by Riley for export and was later available on the home market. Hypoid final drive and fully hydraulic brakes were introduced in 1952.

After the Austin-Morris amalgamation, the 1½ litre was continued until 1955, with little change apart from a change to wing shape and the introduction of sills for running boards. In 1954 the 2½ litre Pathfinder was introduced with a body similar to the Wolseley 6-90 and a new chassis design, coil-spring rear suspension and cam type steering. This was replaced in 1957 by a car with similar body using the BMC 2.6 litre 6-cylinder engine. Subsequent Rileys were the 1.5 (with similar body to the Wolseley 1500), the 4/68 with Farina styling and 1500cc engine, and later the 4/72 with 1622cc engine, both having twin-carburettors. 1966 saw the introduction of a new 1100 Kestrel, which was later available with 1300cc engine. The Riley Elf, a version of the Mini with larger boot and 948 cc engine, was also produced. After 70 years Rileys finally ceased to be produced by British Leyland towards the end of 1969.

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