Historic Car Brands
Given the Riley brand’s turbulent first few years it’s a miracle that we had Riley cars at all. William Riley and his sons juggled companies and products for the first few years of the 20th Century, before a more cohesive organisation formed in the 1920s. Riley was acquired by Nuffield in 1938 and became part of BMC in 1952, before its inevitable demise in 1969.
In 1890, William Riley diversified out of the weaving trade and purchased the Bonnick Cycle Company of Coventry, ostensibly to provide a secure future for his four sons. In 1896 it was renamed the Riley Cycle Company Limited and cycle gear maker Sturmey Archer was acquired as well.
In 1898, Riley’s middle son, Percy, built his first car at age 16. It was done in secret, because his father William did not want the distraction of car manufacture.
Little is known about Percy Riley’s first car, but was way ahead of its time in featuring Percy’s design for mechanically-operated cylinder valves, at a time when other engines depended on the vacuum effect of the descending piston to suck each inlet valve open. His father didn’t appreciate Percy’s mechanical genius.
That genius was demonstrated years later when Benz developed and patented a mechanically-operated inlet valve system. Benz licensed the system, but British auto-makers were already using Percy’s design and the courts judged that the Riley invention comfortably pre-dated the Benz design, so British car makers didn’t have to pay Benz any royalties.
1899 Royal Riley Motorised Tricycle – Karen Roe
In 1899, Percy Riley produced a prototype, four-wheeled quadricycle and in 1900, he sold a Royal Riley motor tricycle that was powered by a De Dion-Bouton engine.
In 1902 three Riley brothers – Victor, Percy and Allan – pooled their resources, borrowed from their mother and established the separate Riley Engine Company, also in Coventry. At first, the new company supplied engines for Riley motorcycles and also to Singer, but the Riley Engine Company soon began to focus on automobiles.
1905 Riley Tricar – Hyman Ltd
Their main product until 1907 was the two-seat Riley Tricar that had choice of 5hp, 6hp and 9hp engines – the latter being a one-litre V-twin, designed by Percy Riley. By 1904 the Tricar boasted wheel steering, rather than a tiller and a constant-mesh transmission with spring-loaded dog clutches for some degree of synchronisation.
.After leaving school, Stanley and Cecil Riley joined their elder brothers in the business.
1907 Riley Vee-Twin Tourer
The Riley Vee-Twin Tourer, first produced in 1905, was the first proper Riley car. The Riley Engine Company expanded the next year.
William Riley reversed his former opposition to his sons’ preference for motorised vehicles and Riley Cycle halted motorcycle production in 1907, to focus on making automobiles, powered by his sons’ engines. Bicycle production also ceased in 1911.
1909 Riley 12/18 – Chadwell Donkey Stud NZ
It seems that Percy Riley was too smart for his own good. At a time when wooden-spoked car wheels were semi-permanent attachments – some with detachable rims – Percy invented and patented a detachable, wire-spoked wheel that became a profitable side-line for the Riley Engine Company, with 183 car brands using the Riley design.
(Around the same time, J V Pugh of Rudge-Whitworth Ltd , E F Goodyear of the Goodyear Wheel Co, Sankey and J S. Napier all developed detachable wheel designs and patent attorneys were kept busy until World War I, arguing their clients’ respective patent-infringement cases.)
In 1912, William Riley did another about-face and decided to stop automobile manufacture, in order to concentrate capacity and resources on producing thousands of Riley-designed wheels. His Riley Cycle Company changed its name to Riley (Coventry) Limited.
Exploitation of this new and rapidly expanding lucrative business sector made commercial sense for William Riley, but the abandonment of his motorcycle and automobile business had serious effects on his sons’ Riley Engine Company, because he was their principal customer.
So in 1913, Percy, Victor, Stanley and Allan made the decision to focus on manufacturing entire automobiles. The first new model, the three-litre 17/30, was introduced at the 1913 London Motor Show at Olympia.
Soon afterwards, Stanley Riley founded yet another business – the Nero Engine Company – to produce his own 1.1-litre, four-cylinder, 10hp car. However, only three prototypes had been completed before the outbreak of World War I.
Riley began manufacturing aeroplane engines and became a key supplier in Britain’s buildup for World War I.
1925 Riley 11/40 Tourer Vintage Classic Car Auctions UK
In 1918, the Riley companies were restructured: Nero joined Riley (Coventry) that had by then stopped making wire wheels and the joined companies began making cars; Riley Motor Manufacturing, under the control of Allan Riley became Midland Motor Bodies, doing bodywork for Riley chassis and Riley Engine Company continued under Percy as the engine supplier.
At this time, Riley’s blue diamond badge, designed by Harry Rush, first appeared. The motto was: ‘As old as the industry, as modern as the hour’.
The badge appeared on the 1919, Rush-designed Riley 11 that was powered by a 35hp, 1.5-litre, side-valve engine.
1925 Riley 11/9 Tourer – Classic Sportscar Centre UK
Despite the apparent management mayhem in the Riley-brand conglomerate, Riley grew rapidly through the 1920s and 1930s. The Riley Engine Company produced four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines, while Midland built more than a dozen different bodies.
The 1923 Redwinger was a sports version of the 1.5-litre model that was tuned to develop 42hp and let the lightweight machine exceed 70mph.
Riley models included: Saloons (Adelphi, ‘Continental'(Close-coupled Touring Saloon), Deauville, Falcon, Kestrel, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio and Victor); Coupes (Ascot and Lincock); Tourers (Alpine, Lynx and Gamecock); Sports (Brooklands, Imp, MPH and Sprite) and Limousines (Edinburgh and Winchester).
Riley Nine Brooklands – Berthold Werner
In 1926, Percy Riley’s ground-breaking Riley 9 engine broke cover. Installed in a humble, fabric-bodied saloon, this small-capacity, high-revving engine was ahead of its time in many respects.
The 1.1-litre four had desirable hemispherical combustion chambers, in which 45-degree-inclined overhead valves operated, but without the expense and complication of an overhead camshaft or two. Percy sited twin camshafts high in the cylinder block and the valves were operated by short pushrods.
Riley’s high-twin-cam engine layout – Bayside Vehicle Restorers
Percy’s engine soon attracted the attention of tuners and builders of ‘specials’. One such was engineer/driver J G Parry-Thomas, who conceived the Riley ‘Brooklands’ that was initially called the ‘9’ Speed Model.
1929 Riley Brooklands – Sam Hood
After Parry-Thomas was killed during a land speed record attempt, his close collaborator Reid Railton stepped in to finish the job. Officially backed by Riley, the Brooklands, along with later developments and variations such as the ‘Ulster’ Imp, MPH and Sprite, proved some of the most successful works and privateer racing cars of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
1931 Riley 9 Brooklands – Rex Gray
At Le Mans in 1934, Rileys finished 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 12th, winning the Rudge-Whitworth Cup, the Team Prize, two class awards and the Ladies’ Prize. Rileys also distinguished themselves at the Ulster TT, at Brooklands itself and at hill climbs, while providing a platform for the success of motorsports’ first women racing drivers, including Kay Petre, Dorothy Champney and Joan Richmond.
1935 Riley MPH engine – Stahlkocher
Another engineer/driver, Freddie Dixon, was responsible for extensive improvements to engine and chassis tuning, creating a number of ‘specials’ that exploited the basic Riley design still further and contributed greatly to its success on the track.
1933 Riley 9 Brooklands Special – Bonhams
For series production, the engine configuration was extended into a larger 12 horsepower four, plus six-cylinder and even V8 versions, powering an increasingly bewildering range of touring and sports cars.
The soundness and longevity of the engine design is illustrated by Mike Hawthorn’s early racing success after WW2 in pre-war Rileys, in particular his father’s Sprite.
1931 Riley Nine Biarritz – Pyntofmyld
In 1931 the complicated Riley corporate structure had been rationalised to some extent, but by 1936 the business had overextended, with too many models and few common parts. Also, the emergence of SS (later Jaguar) at Coventry was a direct challenge.
1934 Riley 124 Kestrel Saloon – Sicnag
Riley had withdrawn from works racing after its successful 1934 effort, although it continued to supply engines for ERA voiturette (Formula 2) racing cars. This racer was a development of the supercharged six-cylinder ‘White Riley’, developed by ERA-founder Raymond Mays in 1933.
1932 Riley Nine Gamecock – Ozz13x
1936 Riley Sprite – Denis Egan
Disagreements between the Riley brothers about the future direction of the enterprise grew: Victor Riley had set up a new ultra-luxury concern, Autovia, to produce V8 saloons and limousines to compete with Rolls-Royce; Percy, didn’t favour an entry into the luxury market and had the Riley Engine Company renamed ‘PR Motors’, to be a high-volume supplier of engines and components.
1935 Riley Merlin – Andrew Bone
1936 Riley MPH – Lothar Spurzem
By 1937, Riley began to look to other manufacturers for partnerships, but it was already too late. On 24 February1938 the directors placed Riley (Coventry) Limited and Autovia in voluntary receivership and on 9 September 1938 the assets and goodwill of Riley Motors (Coventry) Limited were purchased from the receiver by Lord Nuffield.
1938 Riley Kestrel – Steve Glover
Although the Riley companies became part of Nuffield and then BMC, PR Motors remained independent. After the death of Percy Riley in 1941, his business began producing transmission components. Percy’s widow, Norah, ran the business for many years and was Britain’s businesswoman of the year in 1960.
1950 Riley 2.5L RMD – Alf van Beem
Autovia was no more, with just 35 cars having been produced. Riley refocussed on the four-cylinder market with two engines: a 1.5-litre engine and a ‘Big Four’ 2.5-litre unit,. However, only a few cars were produced prior to the onset of war in 1939 and some components were shared with Morris for economies of scale. These interim Rileys incorporated a number of mechanical improvements – notably a Nuffield synchromesh gearbox.
After World War II, Riley put the two pre-War engines in new models. The RMA used the 1.5-litre engine and the RMB got the Big Four. Like the Riley 9 engine the post-War engines found their way into tuners’ hands; most notably Donald Healey’s.
Riley RMA 1.5-litre – Danhuby
The RMs were sold under the ‘Magnificent Motoring’ tag line and re-affirmed Riley values in road behaviour and appearance. ‘Torsionic’ front independent torsion-bar suspension and steering design inspired by the Citroën Traction Avant worked well and their flowing lines married pre-War ‘coachbuilt’ class with more modern features, such as headlamps faired into the front mudguards.
The RMC was a three-seat roadster aimed at the American market and the RMD was an elegant 4/5-seater, two-door, drop-head, but neither was successful.
The 1.5-litre RME and 2.5-litre RMF were later developments of the saloon versions that continued in production into the mid-1950s.
By 1949 the Riley brand was supposed to offer an upgrade of MG’s spartan performance, being sporty and luxurious, but not to conflict with top-shelf Wolseley.
1956 Riley Pathfinder
It got worse in 1952, after the merger of Nuffield and Austin into the British Motor Corporation. Riley was destined to become a badge-engineered version of Austin/Morris designs.
The first all-new Riley under BMC was designated the RMH Pathfinder, powered by the familiar 2.5-litre four, tuned to produce 110hp. The Pathfinder body was later reworked and, with a different engine and rear suspension, sold as the Wolseley 6/90.
1958 Riley Two-Point-Six – Mancbranch
The Riley model lost its distinct differences in 1958 and the 6/90 of that year was badge-engineered as a Riley Two-Point-Six. Although this was the only postwar six-cylinder Riley, its BMC C-Series engine was actually less powerful than the Riley Big Four that it replaced. This last large ‘Riley’ was put out of its misery in May 1959.
Thereafter, Riley and Wolseley badged BMC vehicles. The Riley One-Point-Five and Wolseley 1500 were based on the unused but intended replacement for the Morris Minor. The Riley version had an uprated engine, twin SU carburettors and a close-ratio gearbox. With its good handling, compact, sports-saloon styling and well-appointed interior, the One-Point-Five recaptured some of the character of the 1930s light saloons.
Riley One-Point-Five – Arpingstone
Far less pleasant was the Riley 4/Sixty-Eight saloon that was based on the humble Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford. Sharing many features with the similarly upmarket MG Magnette Mark III and Wolseley 15/60, it was the most luxurious of the versions. It was refreshed, along with its siblings, in 1961 and rebadged the 4/Seventy-Two.
The early 1960s also saw the introduction of the Riley Elf based on the original Mini. The Riley and Wolseley versions were differentiated visually by their grilles, but identical mechanically.
The final model of the BMC era was the Kestrel 1100/1300, based on the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 saloon, but following objections from diehard Riley enthusiasts, the Kestrel name was dropped in 1968 and it became the Riley 1300.
A BLMC press release was reported in The Times of 9 July 1969:
“British Leyland will stop making Riley cars from today.
“With less than one percent of the home market, they are not viable.”
That was the unfortunate end for nearly all British car brands, not just Riley. The decision ended 60 years of Riley manufacturing, but not its history.