Car Restoration Projects
Riley’s stylish RMB
The post-WWII Riley RM series saloon was the last model developed independently before the merger in 1952 with Nuffield Organisation. It is a popular model with Riley aficionados and many fine examples can be found throughout Australia. Jim Gibson interviewed one proud custodian of a 2½-litre version.
Before examining our feature car we should look behind the fabled ‘Blue Diamond’ logo and some of the history that characterises this fine British marque. Riley’s ideology is characterised by the company’s motto: ‘As old as the industry – as modern as the hour.’
Our feature car is septuagenarian John Marsden’s pride and joy. These days he lives on the NSW South Coast, but first saw a RM Riley as an Eastwood High School boy back in Sydney.
He told Jim Gibson: “I remember seeing a green RM that used to park near our school and I think it belonged to a dentist whose practice was nearby.
“I thought it was a very stylish car, with its sculptured flowing lines and black leather-like fabric roof.
“And I loved the way the front and rear doors were both hinged on the B-pillar.
“I remember saying to my school mates: ‘That’s the car for me’.”
But before we get into John’s Riley, let’s have a look at the RM heritage.
The RM series was produced over a 10-year period from 1945, but the model’s gestation was pre-War – in particular the 2½-litre, four-cylinder engine that powered the big RMB.
This engine began life in 1936, when Victor Riley and his good friend Harry Rush, Riley’s chief designer, decided to produce a high-performance, large-engine driver’s car. It was undertaken in some secrecy from the rest of the Board.
The RMA 1½-litre stable-mate was launched in August 1945, to much acclaim by the motoring press. Autocar said: ‘The way this car can be taken around curves is astonishing and not many racing cars would do better’. The magazine also reckoned the Girling brakes were ‘a revelation’, being exceptionally smooth and powerful.
Motor said of the RMA: ‘A fine combination of highly accurate steering with unusually comfortable suspension – a car for the discriminating’. The RM’s spec included rack and pinion steering with independent front suspension sprung on torsion bars and the rear had longleaf semi-elliptic springs.
Big brother, the RMB, was launched mid-1946. The pre-War Big Four was a landmark engine that was very well designed. It retained Percy Riley’s trademark cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, centrally located spark plugs, valves opposed at 90 degrees and double camshafts set high in the block, actuating pushrods .
This engine suited its vocation so completely that it dropped straight into the post-War RMB with only minor modifications. It stayed in production and powered the last Pathfinders of 1957.
However, the original spec of 83.5bhp at 4300rpm of 20-years prior was increased to 110bhp at 4500rpm, showing that more could be wrung out of this exemplary engineering achievement.
The IFS was beefed up in order to take the additional weight of the bigger engine.
The gearbox and clutch acquired their ancestry from Nuffield’s Morris Commercial, as were Girling’s 12-inch diameter brake drums – an increase on the RMA’s smaller 10-inch diameter. It also had a taller diff ratio of 4.11:1, dropping the engine speed to 3060 rpm at 60mph (96.5km/h) as compared to the RMA’s 4.88:1 ratio, which revved to 3740rpm at 60mph.
Incidentally, the only external way of telling a 2½-litre RMB from a 1½-litre RMA is the shade of the blue background on the grille badge – the RMB has the lighter-coloured version.
John and Marion’s Riley
Back to John Marsden. With schooldays a thing of the past, he stated work as a trainee in the engineering division of General Motors Holden. It was a great career path in the automotive industry and the company soon recognised John’s potential, transferring him to its South Australian manufacturing plant – a stepping stone to its engineering centre in Detroit. However, that was cut short when his father, who owned a car dealership in NSW at Moruya, offered John a succession plan in the family business.
It was then 2000 and the dealership was sold, so John’s retirement lay ahead of him and, with all his business commitments now behind him, it was time to rekindle his dream of owning that Riley RM.
He can’t recall how it came about, but he contacted an old chap who lived in Narrabeen (Sydney) and owned a 2½-litre RMB Riley he’d purchased new in February 1951, in Queensland.
The car had been manufactured in Nuffield’s Abingdon MG plant (chassis No. 60S7371) in September 1950 and shipped to the then Queensland Riley distributor, Flinders Motors Brisbane, where it arrived in February 1951. They, in turn, sent it to a dealer, Loane Bros in Gympie, who retailed it new to this first owner.
John said: “The car had travelled 177,000 miles and had been regularly maintained with normal scheduled servicing.
“However, before the deal was consummated, the old fellow wanted me to promise him that I would recondition the engine by the time the odometer rolled over to 200,000.”
With the deal done, John and his wife Marion went about enjoying the life of Riley and, with a couple of interstate trips on their agenda, it wasn’t too long before the odometer had registered well past the 200,000mile mark.
John said time and miles fly by when you are having fun.
“There was no stopping the Riley, but it had taken up smoking, so I thought I’d better honour my promise and have the engine reconditioned,” smiled John.
“So, with the loan of an engine crane and some helping hands from some of my local car-club mates, we undid the nuts and bolts that had been tensioned over 60 years previously in Abingdon, Berkshire UK.
“We lifted the engine out and into a trailer, ready for a trip to Parry’s Engine Reconditioning in Arncliffe.”
John said: “While the engine was away, I had louvres put into the bonnet side panels to assist with airflow around the engine.
“This mod was standard fare in countries like the US and Africa where the ambient temperatures are much higher than in the UK.
“I also purchased an electric cooling fan to install, once the engine was back in the chassis.
“Some weeks passed before the reconditioned engine had been installed and the Riley was back on the road again, running like a top.
“It was time for Marion and me to once again hit the road and enjoy touring in 1950’s style,” said John with a grin.
During 2011, John felt that the ignition timing wasn’t set correctly and there are no timing marks on an RM engine: you have to use a rod attached to a dial gauge through the spark plug hole in order to measure the piston height before TDC.
So John sought the services of a mechanic with a rolling road, to check the advance curve through the rev range and, in doing so, the guy over-revved the engine. John said there was a loud bang, but no damage was apparent immediately, so he drove the car home. However, when he opened his garage door the following morning, there was a great pool of both oil and water on the floor under the car. The block had a hairline crack somewhere.
After a costly two-year legal battle, John lost the case against the mechanic. He then set about chasing a replacement engine block, cylinder head and several other internal engine components. The result is an even better spec’d engine than before, with an unleaded fuel conversion and a 9:1 compression ratio, requiring 95 octane fuel.
“At the same time, we installed a new clutch and pressure plate from a J1 Bedford, with only six of the 12 pressure plate springs fitted, and it works a treat.”
All is now well and John, Marion and the beloved Riley are enjoying 1950’s motoring on the road again.
“Enjoying the journey is the most important part, not so much the destination,” said John Marsden.