Car Restoration Projects
David’s pet Riley
NSW South Coast historic car enthusiast David Petts bought this 1933 Riley as a pile of woodwork and metal in 1995. It took him 18 years – on and off – to bring this treasured piece of automotive history back to life.
In the 1990s David was living in Melbourne and looking for an automotive restoration project that would ideally be a unique sports car of British heritage, as he had admired such cars as a young man in his native England.
By chance, an advertisement appeared in The Age newspaper one Saturday, describing a Riley Nine ‘March Special’ that was in need of a great amount of TLC. A deal was done and a pile of bodywork and mechanical components soon arrived on a trailer at David’s home in metropolitan Melbourne.
The car turned out to be an Australian-bodied copy of a British March Special. The 1931-32 March Specials filled a perceived niche for a more sporting version of the production 9hp Riley. This vehicle preceded the famous Imp and was developed while the Riley works Brooklands Specials were under construction.
The March Special owed its genesis to the ever-inventive Kevill-Davies and March Ltd and was backed by none other than motoring personality ‘Freddie’ Lord March. His concept was for a number of ‘March Specials’ based on a variety of chassis, including AC.
The Riley version combined the already sporting Riley 9hp chassis with a four-seater tourer body, with trademark cutaway doors and were built by John Charles and Sons at Kew in England. With twin spares at the rear and wire wheels completing the picture, they were rakish tourers that gave the existing Riley running gear a more modern sporting feel.
Some half-dozen 1932 Riley Nine rolling chassis had arrived in Sydney during the summer of 1933. Unfortunately a great deal of history has been lost over time, but it’s believed that a local motor vehicle coach builder constructed a two-door, four-seater body on these chassis, in imitation of the March Specials.
David had the daunting task of fashioning this myriad of 60-year-old, rusted and damaged components into a finished car.
His first port of call was to research as much as he could about the car and what additional parts he might need to complete the task. He found there were only four still in existence and one was in Victoria.
He joined the Riley Car Club, through which he found some of the parts he needed, but the owner didn’t want to separate what he had, so David ended up with three chassis and other ‘Nine’ parts that he really didn’t need. Fortunately he was able to sell some on and then set about piecing the puzzle together.
One job in particular was to fashion the headlights along the lines of the original units. This was a painstaking task, as all that he had as a pattern to work from were the chrome surrounds. The conical backs had been badly damaged and he spent many hours fashioning replacements.
The next task was to have two pieces of glass cut, behind which he made two chromed tripods out of engine welsh plug centres and six lengths of quarter-inch rod. A tiny Riley badge completes each outstanding scratch-built result.
David had started his working life as an apprentice in the woodworking trade, so refurbishing the wooden framework in the Riley was relatively easy – apart from the frustration that no ‘matching’ pieces were of exactly the same measurement.
He then occupied many hours fettling the steel panels to fit the not-so-uniform wooden frame.
The dash and instrument binnacle were entirely David’s inventive handiwork. He had to sculpture and fit the dash panel under the two ‘eyebrows’ of the car’s scuttle.
Riley specialist Noel Wyatt had checked the engine and transmission before David and his wife, Ingrid, left Melbourne in the late-1990s, to settle in Tuross Head.
The principal mechanical task, after the car was unloaded from the trailer at its new NSW home, was to attack the cable-operated brakes and to fit a pair of telescopic shock absorbers to the rear. The brake adjustment was very painstaking, but the end result quite acceptable, given the limited power and speed of the little car.
Several local car club members were very helpful to David when he required some trade expertise in certain areas. John Merton of Morgan fame meticulously rewired the electrical system. Barry Apps styled a heat shield to insulate the ‘bunch-of-bananas’ exhaust manifold and Peter Gordon lent his experience as a spray painter, by applying the topcoat of duco to David’s well prepared undercoat.
Ingrid chauffeured David in the Riley on a ‘Bay to Bermagui Classic’ drive day and she said: “It was very easy to drive; its on-road manners were excellent and the only thing I found a problem with was the heaviness of the steering at low speed.”
The rebuilding of this automotive time capsule was a stop/start process over 18 years, but the end result is a credit to David’s craftsmanship and determination.
Riley’s opinion of the March Special
Launched in 1926, the immortal Riley Nine proved to be a turning point for the Coventry- based company, which had already been making cars for over two decades.
Powered by a highly efficient, 1087cc, twin high-cam, pushrod, hemispherical-head engine, it offered great controllability, refinement, precision in controls and an excellent gearbox, which, by 1933, featured all helical constant-mesh gears.
The Riley Nine was an immediate success and the staid, 1927 two-seater tourer spawned a host of performance variants, including Reid Railton and Parry Thomas’ low- slung Brooklands Nine sports-racer and the company’s own sports tourers.
Seeing the finished March Special back in 1932, Riley quickly embraced the project and ensured that the derivative was featured in their 1933 catalogue, where it was described as follows: ‘This truly fascinating design is the work of the well-known exponent of motor racing, the Rt Hon The Earl of March and most definitely makes a very strong appeal to all sporty persons.’
Riley also made the car available through its dealer network. The retail price was Stg£335 and, despite a suggestion that a six-cylinder version would be made, none are known to have been constructed.
Because they were not built at Coventry, March Specials had a range of colour schemes different from the standard production models. It is believed that less than 60 March Specials were built, of which only around 25 have survived.