Riley

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Riley
Riley Sandracer
Models such as this 1922 "Sandracer" were affectionately dubbed “Redwing” - so named because of the characteristic scheme of polished alloy body shell with red “wing” style mudguards...

Riley "Nine"
Racing success for the “Nine” came quickly, it taking out third place at the Brooklands Double Twelve hour race in 1930, and second place in the Irish Grand Prix the same year....

Riley Imp
The “Imp” was built on a short wheel base chassis and was arguably the best of the bunch. Fitted with a (for the time) very elegant body, the Imp featured lovely flared mudguards and afforded blistering 75mph performance...

Riley Sprite
To compete with BMW’s wonderful 328 model, Riley made their Sprite available with a 6 cylinder 1498cc engine...

Riley "RM" Series
The Riley "RM Series sported a twin-cam engine with hemispherical combustion chamber, and used a timber-framed body and a fabric covered roof. Fully hydraulic brakes replaced the hydro-mechanical ones in 1952...

Riley Elf
Riley were to linger on as a marque for Nuffield, and in turn BMC, until the late 1960’s, but nothing with any sporting pretence was graced with the Riley badge during this time...

With thanks to Geoffrey Luck.

It should come as no surprise, particularly if you have read other articles in the “Lost Marques” feature of this site that Riley did not start out manufacturing cars. In fact the automobile was simply a progression, the company at first being involved in the weaving trade and later manufacturing bicycles.

The first Riley car was built in 1898, and was considered at the time very innovative even at this early time in the evolution of the automobile. How could this be?; well the 1898 car featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve, by 1919 Riley had introduced detachable wire spoke wheels, and in 1919 they introduced adjustable front seats and steering column.

The “Riley” wheel was soon gaining a stellar reputation, so much so that Rolls-Royce took out a license to manufacture it, along with at least eight other manufacturers. Indeed it is widely rumoured that the Riley family seriously considered abandoning car manufacture to concentrate on wheel manufacture only!

Whatever the case, the Riley Company certainly had a very innovative design department. In fact the company was prone to announce new models without ever having the capacity to begin manufacture. Most today agree that the first Riley of note was the 1919 “Eleven”, although given the array of body styles available it is a car somewhat hard to detail.

Fitted with a 1498cc 4 cylinder engine, it was originally available as a two seater sports car, then a four-seater sports car, and by 1924 as a short-chassis “Redwing” - so named because of the characteristic scheme of polished alloy body shell with red “wing” style mudguards.

By 1926 Riley unveiled the new “Nine” at the London Motor Show, the name being based on the RAC rating for the engine (ie: the taxable horsepower). The “Nine” was quite a sporty little car, thanks largely to the lively new engine that had been designed by Percy Riley himself. The 1087cc engine was, for the time, technically unequalled, featuring twin high camshafts (one each side of the block) operating short pushrods to the opposed overhead valves, which were in part-spherical combustion chambers.

This turned out to be a very effective “breathing” layout, one that Riley would retain in their engine design for the next 30 years! The engine developed 32bhp at 5000rpm, but the engine put enormous stress on its two main bearing crankshaft. When Percy had rectified this, the engine was good for an extremely healthy 50bhp. Early versions of the “Nine” were fitted with either a saloon or tourer body, but in 1927 a sports version named after the famous (Surrey) UK racing track was released.

The “Brooklands” was designed with the help of Parry Thomas and Reid Railton, both famous motor sport identities in the of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The shell for the Brooklands was manufactured by a company called “Thomson and Taylor”, and it was no coincidence that their factory was located inside the track itself!

To improve handling the design featured a very low slung body, so much so that a driver could reach out and touch the road without having to lift his backside out of the seat (given of course that he was of Scottish extraction and afflicted with short arms and long pockets). Racing success for the “Nine” came quickly, it taking out third place at the Brooklands Double Twelve Hour Race in 1930, and second place in the Irish Grand Prix the same year.

1930 was an important year for Riley for not only winning these prestigious races, but for the release of the super sports version of the Nine dubbed the “Ulster Brooklands”. Featuring a balanced engine fitted with extra carburettors, this new model ensured race success, most notably in the 1932 Tourist Trophy race and a class win at the 1935 Le Mans.

Different specifications quite naturally meant that there were different price points for the new Nine, and Riley choose to give each model a suitable moniker to help identify each. At the lower end was the 1932 £298“Gamecock”, while a fixed head version was called the “Lincock”. The last of the Nine’s was built in 1934; the “Imp” was built on a short wheel base chassis and was arguably the best of the bunch. Fitted with a (for the time) very elegant body, the Imp featured lovely flared mudguards and afforded blistering 75mph performance for just £325 – unfortunately only 75 would be manufactured.

For racing purposes, the engineers were allegedly able to obtain an output of 183bhp at 7400rpm from the Riley’s three-bearing engine – something we are unable to confirm but suspect the supercharger was turned to maximum boost! Less well known but worthy of mention was the Riley in-line 6 cylinder engine. Originally released in 1928, the engine only found its way into a handful of sports type Riley’s, although it would grace the then famous ERA racing cars from 1934 onward.

The “Six” was almost identical to the four in design, which included three main bearings and, coincidentally, was first built with a 1633cc capacity. This engine was to find its way into the “MPH” model, a car similar to the “Imp” except in price, the latter contributing to the very small number (12) manufactured. It remains one of the great paradoxes of times past that Victor Riley never believed his engine was capable of race tuning. One need only look at Raymond Mays’ famous “White Riley” and the ERA’s that were to evolve from it to see just how well suited the Riley engines were to supercharging and race tuning!

The engines were built in 1.1, 1.5 and 2.0 litre versions, the most powerful boasting a huge 300bhp output. Privateers loved the 6 cylinder Riley engine, and with a carburettor fitted per cylinder the engine became extremely successful – most notably when in the hands of Freddie Dixon. In 1934 Riley announced their new 1496cc four cylinder engine dubbed the “12/4”. The engine was basically a re-design of that used in the “Nine” and was developed principally by Hugh Rose. The engine originally used a chain-driven cam, but gear drive was incorporated shortly after release.

It first found a home in the “Kestrel” saloon, but was soon being fitted to the 1935 “Sprite” model. This latter model looked very similar to the “MPH”, but obviously differed in that the new 4 cylinder engine was fitted instead of the 6 cylinder unit. The purchaser of a Sprite could specify either the traditional “Riley” grille or “Fencer’s Mask”. But more importantly for Riley was the arrival of BMW’s wonderful 328 model. Quickly realizing it needed to be competitive with the German competitor, Riley made their Sprite available with the 6 cylinder engine and even released some race specials known as “TT Sprites”.

Unfortunately for Riley they were to run into financial difficulty – most blamed the diversity of their model line-up – but whatever was the problem the directors were forced to call in the receivers in 1938. Lord Nuffield took over the concern in the Autumn of the same year, and in turn sold it for considerable personal loss to his Nuffield organization where the marque joined the likes of Morris, Wolseley and MG.

As the company sank into bankruptcy, Percy Riley made one last throw to save it. He put two Nine engines together to make a V8 intended to power a grand saloon. This was not a rumour - at least one came to Australia and was owned by Jack Downing, whose workshop in Brisbane's Wooloongabba was a mecca for lovers of great cars. The Downings also had a Riley Imp and an AC among other exotica. Downing helped Geoffrey Luck rebuild his 1930 model Nine with an Australian built roadster body in 1950. He was a fantastic engineer who could make anything in his workshop. He turned up a set of wheel nuts for Luck's Riley - with left hand threads for the wheels on the passenger side!

Ultimately Percy's attempts to save the marque failed, although Riley did linger on as a marque for Nuffield, and in turn BMC, until the late 1960’s, but nothing with any sporting pretence was graced with the Riley badge during this time. Knowing the technical brilliance of the engines, they naturally found their way into most Healey cars built between 1946 and 1954.

Recommended Reading: Riley - As Old As The Industry, As Modern As The Hour - Death By Diversity

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