Guest Post: Life of Riley

Note: Today’s post is by my friend April Chadwick, whose personal fleet includes a Lincoln Continental Mark IV, an Excalibur Phaeton and a Lexus SC400, among others. Please give her a warm welcome. -TK

Picture it: it’s 1951 and you have Cadillac money to spend on a new car, so what do you buy? Perhaps the Standard of the World is too flashy, maybe a Packard, or how about a sedate Imperial?

If your answer is newfangled malarkey, head on over to the home of Motoring Majesty and put down four or five grand on a car that still is made with wood and leather. Did I mention that the body has a wood frame and the roof is padded leather stretched over wire mesh? As the Riley brochure assures you, as old as the industry, as modern as the hour.

Tasked with writing something for Riverside Green and the legendary Jack. B, my mind went blank and all seemingly brilliant ideas fled. Desperately wanting to show off my automotive knowledge and decades of grease under the nails experience, no topic was good enough.

I could champion the Stutz Blackhawk, on which I could speak for hours, the sociological impact of the Chrysler Cordoba, the design genius of GM’s full-size line for 1971? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed more time and more research. These were all topics for another day, hopefully here at Riverside Green.

I had started to write about the Cordoba but a leaky carburetor on my personal example of this personal luxury car temporarily soured me on the topic. Casting about the darkened gloom of my father’s garage my eyes fell on a trio of dusty shapes. Aha: write about what began your love of automobiles, the Riley.

I was all of six or seven when on a summer vacation to the motherland we made an unannounced visit to the last remaining Riley dealership. This was the mid-seventies and the Riley company and name had long since ceased to exist. The company, part of the Nuffield Organization since 1938, had been folded into a fledgling British Leyland and the last car to wear the Riley name was a badge engineered Elf (a Mini with a trunk) in 1969.

The dealership, Lundegaard’s in Gloucester, was like stepping back in time, glass and polished wood, even a neon Riley sign. Inside it could have been the early fifties with dark gleaming RM sedans awaiting prosperous upper middle managers or up and coming celebrities who haven’t quite got Bentley cash yet.

I was eventually sent back to the rental car to wait with my mother while my father negotiated over a 1951 Riley Roadster. Apparently Lundegaard had the reputation that goes along with his Fargo namesake. While sitting in the car we witnessed a “spiv” looking gentleman (an English goodfella’) key a couple of cars with a switchblade.

The Roadster name is technically correct, the car has suicide doors, single bench seat, fold down windscreen and celluloid side curtains. The Riley RMC roadster is built on the RMB sedan chassis and looks as big as a contemporary Buick. The length is exaggerated by a factory continental kit that I had to be continually reminded not to sit on.

The RM series cars were built from 1945 through 1955 with few stylistic changes. Model designations progressed from RMA to RMF but they all share the same look.  Production was at the company’s traditional home in Coventry until 1949 when assembly moved to Abingdon. Motivation came from either a 1½ litre or 2½ litre twin cam hemi head four cylinder. The engine doesn’t sound too impressive but lifting the winged bonnet shows beautiful cast aluminum valve covers with the plugs running down the centre. The Big-Four 2½ litre engine was good enough to propel the roadster to a claimed 100 mph.

My father owned a Riley sedan in university and despite its demise in a freezing rainstorm, engine threw a rod, he remained enamored of the breed. The roadster was a car he long desired and I came to love too.

The Riley came back to Canada with us and I have wonderful memories of sitting between my parents with the top down heading to Sauble Beach on Lake Huron where we could swim and play in the sand. On the way home I would fall asleep, lulled by the dim glow of the Jaeger instruments, the symphony of mechanical sounds and the smells of warm oil, gasoline, wood and leather.

The Riley had an interesting life before she joined our family, she had been owned by a RAF pilot and had spent time in Egypt before returning to blighty. The black original paint work still shows signs of exposure to the blistering African sun.

The roadster was a low production model, with only 500 produced between 1948 and 1951. The majority of roadsters were also LHD as they were intended for export, primarily the North American market. The mantra of British industry at the time was “Export or Die”.

Riley design language is distinctly pre-war although the long-lived RM model was not unveiled until 1945. Riley had to come up with a new car as the dies for prior Kestrel model were destroyed in the devastating Coventry air raids.

I would compare the Riley line up, sedan, roadster and four-seater convertible to Mercedes, particularly to the 300 S of the same time period. New cars that stylistically were a decade or two behind the time, especially when compared to their Detroit contemporaries.

Rileys were marketed in North America though I cannot imagine a car less sited to the times or the environment. Imagine the task of selling a vehicle that looks like a 1935 Buick to consumers that had heads full of rocket ships and at a premium price too.

According to Riley sales manager Arnold Farrar, the Riley roadster was what we really craved; “One of the sales chaps went to America and came back with a drawing on the back of a dirty envelope, saying this was what the Americans wanted. “Later it was discovered that he had only been around a third of the US dealers.”[i]

The Riley’s construction; steel fenders, steel body stretched over wood (aluminum over wood bodies on the roadster). The roof on the sedans is leather over something that resembles chicken wire. Materials that would be challenged by the English climate were no match for the copious amounts of road salt used in Canada and the Northern United States.

Who in god’s name bought these things new, not the Jaguar cap wearing anglophiles, that’s who MGs were made for. Did domestic luxury car buyers really cross shop Riley. The Nuffield Group was modeled on GM’s hierarchy with Morris as the mass market bargain brand, MG as the sporting choice and Wolseley, Vanden Plas and Riley all attempting to be Cadillac.

Photo courtesy Imbued With Hues

There is one photo, to my mind, that shows the ideal Riley customer, it is of a pre-Monaco Grace Kelly or someone who looks just like her, skirt blowing in the breeze off San Francisco Bay getting into a Riley convertible.

The Riley was fated to remain a footnote in North America. The roadster which was supposed to capture the hearts of Americans never got traction with only 50 of the LHD export models making it across the pond.The 2.5 to 1 exchange rate between the pound and dollar put the Riley in the luxury car price range and in striking distance of the XK120.

Unlike the ungrateful colonists, the more loyal Australians took the bulk of the roadsters, the antipodean climate more suited to Riley’s delicate construction.

Old cars are an addiction and another Riley would soon follow, this time a slightly rougher 1948 Riley RMB sedan that was a rare left-hand drive model. This Riley, finished in cream over black, took the family all over Europe.

Crossing to France on the channel ferry were arrived in Dieppe to find fully booked hotels. There was nothing for it but to park in the town square and sleep in the Riley. The upright bucket seats were not conducive to slumber but eventually we all slept. We awoke early the next morning with stiff necks to find with some horror that a farmer’s market had grown up around us. In order to extricate us, father had to drive gingerly between the stalls to colorful Gallic curses that my mother refused to translate.

The Riley made it over the alps to Switzerland where border guards only somewhat jokingly debated whether to let us in as the Riley was too old and dirty for the tidy Swiss roads. It was coming down the St. Bernard pass that we had our only breakdown.

A pair of my younger brother’s pants, he was not wearing them at the time, were sucked down the drive shaft grease nipple access hole. The cork plug had come out and the slipstream had sucked the pants, carefully folded between the seats, into the hole and wrap themselves around the driveshaft. Half an hour with dad wielding my newly purchased Grenoble souvenir pen knife allowed us to motor on.

Finally, a third Riley, this one a faded green RME sedan also served as a family vacation car on trips through England and to the continent.

The back roads in County of Norfolk are below the level of the fields, bordered with high hedge rows and lots of twisty bits. Dad was in the Riley and my mother and I were following in a recently purchased Daimler double six trying to remember to stay on the left side to the barely one and a half car wide road.

Suddenly rounding a sharp bend appears an electric milk float. Quick thinking by my father prevented lots of spilt milk jokes. He steered the Riley into hedge wedging the car at a 45-degree angle looking like it was about to take flight. The green car was extracted with no damage that I can recall.

The green Riley also made its way across the Atlantic after being stored for over a decade in a garage behind a pub in the village of Reepham.  Somewhere in southern Ontario all three Rileys slumber together during the pandemic, hopefully they see the sun again soon.

There was a brief flicker of hope that the Riley name would return when BMW acquired the MG Rover Group. BMW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder was a fan of the brand and hinted at its return. BMW sold Rover to the Chinese at the close of the century but retained the rights to the Riley name.

I am hopeful that love of this marque and others like it will survive the passing of original owners and those who admired them when young. I recently met the son of another multiple Riley owner who has assumed the mantle of ownership and keeps the spirit of motoring majesty alive, driving and restoring the cars his father collected.

[i] Jon Pressenel Drive, 1949 Austin A90 Atlantic vs. 1948 riley RMC 2/12-litre Roadster.17 May 2018

6 Replies to “Guest Post: Life of Riley”

  1. John C.

    “As old as the industry, as modern as the hour” What a fantastic slogan. The current Kia slogan is “Give it everything” Gosh haven’t we already given enough

    This was great story about heritage and family and how a small company can brilliantly wing it and then labour to keep some hint of the magic once under corporate overlords. The dealer story with the fancy inside trying to bring up and comers into the family fold while young toughs with switchblades outside. Well the barbarians were now breaching the gate.

    Thank you April for bringing this to us.

  2. stingray65

    I remember seeing a fair number of these in daily driver condition during the 1980s and early 90s when I toured small town city centers in the UK. Nice looking cars and Riley had a good reputation for performance with their hemi-head motors.

    The interesting thing to consider is just how cheap European labor was after WWII, when firms such as Riley were able to design and build very labor intensive vehicles in very small volume (did Riley ever produce more than 5,000 units per year?) and still earn a small profit without charging Rolls Royce or Ferrari level prices. Meanwhile, in the US makers of mid/upper level cars such as Packard and Hudson with far more sophisticated plants and mass-production friendly vehicle designs could not stay in business even with 100,000 annual sales.

    • Jack Baruth

      Believe it or not its not the car volume that matters its the dealer volume. Supporting a car in the USA costs multiples of UK support. Before today’s insane r&d costs it was dealer maintenance that drove carmakers out of business. Building parts using today’s money and distributing them around the country for payback in years will kill you.

      • stingray65

        Interesting hypothesis Jack, and I believe VW’s success around the world was built to a large degree on a dealer network that was always well stocked with Beetle parts, which was relatively easy to do since the vehicle design didn’t change much from year to year, but something that French, English, and Italian competitors were less willing/able to do. Yet my understanding of late Packard history, and the merger history of US independents in the 1950s is that they all sought to expand their dealer networks to increases sales volume, which wouldn’t make strategic sense if a larger dealer network brought bankruptcy inducing maintenance requirements as you suggest, but perhaps their strategy was a mistake and actually hastened their failure (Packard, Studebaker, Kaiser) and/or fall into irrelevancy (AMC).

        • John C.

          I was reading about TVR’s effort in the 1980s to sell Tasmins in the USA. They were happy with the volume but then in the second year got walloped by the liability insurance premium for the USA subsidiary.

  3. George Denzinger

    I loved the story about the Rileys. I have a feeling that someday down the road someone will wax eloquently about Oldsmobiles, too.

    However, that blue ‘Doba… Rrrrawr!


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