Marques : Riley

Riley was one of Britiain’s pioneering car companies in the late 19th Century, and experienced its greatest success during the 1920s and ’30s.

Financial difficulties saw it become part of the vast Nuffield Group in 1938, and following years of decline within BMC, it was all over by the end of the 1960s…


A potted history

William Riley Jr

LIKE Rover and various other early car companies, Riley found its way into car production via the cycle industry. The Riley family had a weaving buisness based at St Nicholas Street in Coventry when, in 1890, William Riley Jr bought the ailing Bonnick Cycle Company, a bicycle manufacturer based in nearby King Street. The company did well under Riley’s stewardship, and six years later Bonnicks formally became the Riley Cycle Company.

Over the next two years, William’s son Percy – still only in his mid-teens – built his first prototype car, although William himself had no interest in moving into motor vehicle production. However, Percy persisted with his efforts, later instigating motorcyle production, and in 1899 the company’s first petrol-engined “quadricycle” emerged. The following year, Riley sold its first tri-car, although the company would not produce its first proper motorcar, the prototype Vee-Twin Tourer, until 1905.

Percy Riley

In 1903 the young Percy Riley established the separate Riley Engine Company at Cook Street Gate in Coventry, ensuring that he had control over the production and supply of engines for the Riley Cycle Company; this would prove to be a wise decision. In 1906, the Riley Engine Company moved to new, larger premises at Aldbourne Road, to the north of Coventry. That same year, car production got into full swing at the St Nicholas Works, and by 1907 Riley had stopped producing motorcycles and tri-cars in order to concentrate its efforts on bicycles and the burgeoning motor industry. Several new and increasingly ambitious Riley motor cars entered production during the remainder of that decade, and when bicycle production was finally abandoned in 1911, it seemed that Riley had completed its transition to being a fully-fledged motor manufacturer. Indeed, in 1912 the Riley Cycle Company’s name was changed to Riley (Coventry) Ltd to reflect its newfound status, yet William Riley’s reluctance to commit fully to the motor industry remained, and less than a year later he decided that he would be better off building road wheels for cars rather than the cars themselves.

Four of William’s five sons – Percy, Victor, Stanley and Allan – saw things differently, but in deference to their father decided to form their own company in order to continue car production. Thus, the Riley Motor Manufacturing Company was founded in 1912/1913 at a new site in Aldbourne Road, close to the Riley Engine Company’s works, and its first new model, the 17/30, was presented at that year’s London Motor Show. In 1916 Stanley Riley established another new firm – the Nero Engine Company – at Cunard Works in Durbar Avenue, Foleshill, Coventry, to build a new 4-cylinder 10hp car that he had designed. Riley had also become involved in the emerging aero engine industry, mainly at Percy’s instigation, and when war broke out in 1914, the company was well placed to make a significant contribution to the war effort.

With the end of hostilities in 1918 the Riley operations were substantially restructured. Riley (Coventry) Ltd once more became the focus of the car-building activity, absorbing the Nero Engine Company. With Riley based at the Durbar Avenue site from 1919, the St Nicholas Street premises were disposed of, and in time, the production of road wheels for other manufacturers was discontinued. Allan Riley took control of the former Riley Motor Manufacturing Company, which was renamed Midland Motor Bodies Ltd and would now chiefly supply bodywork for Riley’s cars, while Percy’s Riley Engine Company continued to supply the engines. The famous blue, diamond-shaped Riley badge, designed by the newly-appointed draughtsman Harry Rush, also made its first appearance at this time.

Cunard Works at Durbar Avenue, Foleshill, which became Riley's main home from 1919 until the relocation of production to Abingdon in 1948.
Cunard Works at Durbar Avenue, Foleshill, which became Riley’s main home from 1919 until the relocation of production to Abingdon in 1948.

The 1920s saw Riley go from strength to strength. At the beginning of the decade its famous “As old as the industry” slogan was coined, and the company’s forté for advanced design would see this extended to include the phrase “As modern as the hour” a few years later. In marked contrast to Wolseley’s experience around this time, Riley’s success in the marketplace went hand-in-hand with victories in motorsport, and by the end of the decade the company had an accomplished range of cars to offer and a blue-chip reputation within the motor industry.

During the following decade, the company slowly became a victim of its own success. New models came thick and fast, offered with a bewildering array of bodywork options: at the height of the 1930s, Riley’s range comprised a range of chassis which could be specified with 4-, 6- and, eventually, even 8-cylinder engines and clothed in a variety of different body styles: saloon options included the Kestrel, Falcon, Adelphi, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio and Deauville; coupes came in Ascot, Lincock and Gamecock varieties. And then there were the Lynx and Alpine tourers; the Imp, MPH and Sprite sports cars; and the Edinburgh and Winchester limousines. Even this is not an exhaustive list of what was available, but gives some idea of what the company had to contend with.

By 1937, things were going seriously wrong for Riley. Profits were being squeezed, production and sales volumes were failing to meet ambitious forecasts, and moreover, differences were emerging in how the Riley brothers saw the company’s future. Victor Riley felt that big cars spelt big profits, and had established a new company called Autovia earlier that year to build a top-of-the-range 24hp, V8-engined saloon and limousine that even tilted at Rolls-Royce’s exalted position in the marketplace. Percy Riley, on the other hand, favoured small cars that would sell in far higher volumes. He also saw the manufacture of components as the way forward, and would soon get the opportunity to relaunch his independent Riley Engine Company as PR Motors Limited, with the aim of realising both these ambitions (see Footnote at base of this page). Meanwhile, the Riley company’s own financial situation continued to worsen, and by the end of the year Victor Riley was beginning to court other manufactuers whom he felt might be able to rescue the firm.

In a foretaste of what would transpire in years to come, two of the companies approached by Victor Riley were BMW in Munich and – somewhat closer to home – Triumph in Coventry. In February 1938, with the Triumph negotiations still ongoing, Riley (Coventry) Ltd and Autovia Ltd went bankrupt and the Receivers were called in. A partnership with Triumph was ruled out at this stage, as it too was facing financial difficulties (which would soon see it snapped up by Standard). Instead, it fell to the thriving Lord Nuffield to save the day. Victor Riley had approached Nuffield, a long-time acquaintance, after the Triumph plan had been scuppered, and managed to strike a deal whereby Nuffield purchased the company for £143,000. This was perhaps the best outcome that Riley could have hoped for, as Nuffield’s aim was to save the marque and provide it with the financial backing it so desperately needed. The company’s name was changed to Riley (Coventry) Successors Ltd, with Victor Riley as its managing director, and it was promptly sold on to Morris Motors for the nominal sum of £1. The “Successors” tag would be dropped from the company name a few years later.

Nuffield wasted no time in taking drastic but necessary action to rescue the reputation of the Riley name. Autovia Ltd was wound up, having turned out barely 35 cars in its short life, and the sprawling Riley model range was radically curtailed. The 6- and 8-cylinder engines were axed, and two creditable new model ranges were rushed out in saloon and tourer forms: the 12hp, which used the 1½-litre 4-cylinder engine; and the 16hp, powered by the so-called “Big Four” 2½-litre unit. The option of the stylish Kestrel sports saloon bodywork was retained for the 16hp model and, under the skin, Nuffield Group components started to be used (sympathetically) where this would help to achieve economies of scale without undermining the Riley’s inherent character.

Post-war production got underway promptly in 1945 with the introduction of the first of Nuffield’s new RM (Riley Motors) series, the 1½-litre RMA, with the 2½-litre RMB arriving the following year. Promoted with the new – but still-fitting – “Magnificent Motoring” slogan, the RM series (see table below for further details) can be regarded as Riley’s swansong. Designed at Riley’s Durbar Avenue base during the war years, the range encompassed sports saloons, tourers and coupes which were very much in the Riley tradition and would sustain the marque through its relatively short span under the aegis of the Nuffield Group. Notably, the independent front suspension system and improved steering set-up adopted for these models had been developed after studying a similarly-equipped Citroën Light 15.

The sophisticated "Torsionic" independent front suspension set-up as used on the post-war RM series cars. As related in the paragraph above, its design was derived from that used on the Citroën Light 15. During the following decade, another Citroën – the 2CV – inspired Alex Moulton to develop his interconnected Hydrolastic suspension system that would be used on the last-ever new Riley model to be launched...
The sophisticated “Torsionic” independent front suspension set-up as used on the post-war RM series cars. As related in the paragraph above, its design was derived from that used on the Citroën Light 15. During the following decade, another Citroën – the 2CV – inspired Alex Moulton to develop his interconnected Hydrolastic suspension system that would be used on the last-ever new Riley model to be launched…

In 1947, less than ten years after Riley had ceased to be a family concern, Victor Riley was sacked from his post as Riley (Coventry) Ltd’s managing director as Lord Nuffield sought to rein-in control of his empire. Within a year, production had been moved from Durbar Avenue to the MG factory at Abingdon, as part of the wide-ranging Nuffield Group reorganisation that also saw Wolseley production relocated from Brimingham to Cowley. It’s worth considering here how the various Nuffield Group brands were differentiated in marketing terms. Put simply, Morris cars were aimed chiefly at those seeking value for money, much as they had always been; MG saloons offered increased performance and a few extra creature comforts over their Morris counterparts; and Wolseleys played the luxury card, ensconsing their occupants in a wood-and-leather-lined environment. So, it would seem that all the bases had been covered, and with Riley coming late to the party, it initially proved difficult to find a rôle for the cars within this extended family. In the immediate post-war period, this worked in the marque’s favour: the new RM models seemed to be in a class of their own, with their elegant, flowing lines and advanced specifications setting them apart from the dowdy and bulbous new Morrises and Wolseleys, and even appealing to customers who might otherwise have visited the showrooms of such companies as Jaguar or Lagonda.

However, Riley’s time at top of the tree would not last, as the Wolseley marque would gradually come to reclaim that position in the BMC years that followed (at least until Wolseley was itself usurped by the creation of the Vanden Plas brand). This was reflected in the fact only one post-war Riley was ever offered with a 6-cylinder engine – the short-lived Two-Point-Six – and even that was just a badge-engineered Wolseley 6/90. Undoubtedly, there are many present-day Riley enthusiasts who would much rather Nuffield had simply laid the Riley marque to rest in 1938/39, rather than witness its gradual decline in the post-war years, but it should be remembered that it was only during the post-1952 BMC era that the rot really set in: with so many marques to manage, the delicate balancing act became increasingly diffucult – and costly – to orchestrate. The ethos of the Riley brand within BMC came to stand more for “upmarket MG” rather than some kind of über-Wolseley, and its relevance seemed to diminish with each passing model launch. What’s more, the models which followed the RM series into production would almost inevitably come to rely increasingly heavily on the Nuffield/BMC parts bins.

The first new Riley of the BMC era, and the last Riley to use a genuine Riley engine. The Gerald Palmer-designed Pathfinder was already in development when the 1952 merger took place, and it was launched in the autumn of the following year, although deliveries didn't actually start until the summer of 1954. It gained a reputation - hence the tag 'Ditchfinder' - for serious shortcomings in the suspension department. The rear axle was coil-sprung, with twin radius arms and a Panhard rod to provide axle location. This was all right on paper and in normal use, but violent lateral weight transfer could cause the Panhard rod to part company with its mounting. With the axle thus released, the car could veer out of control. Lots of modifications were made, but it wasn't until the whole system was scrapped in 1956 in favour of a conventional twin-leaf spring set-up that the Pathfinder's difficulties were resolved...
The first new Riley of the BMC era, and the last Riley to use a genuine Riley engine. The Gerald Palmer-designed Pathfinder was already in development when the 1952 merger took place, and it was launched in the autumn of the following year, although deliveries didn’t actually start until the summer of 1954. It gained a reputation – hence the tag ‘Ditchfinder’ – for serious shortcomings in the suspension department. The rear axle was coil-sprung, with twin radius arms and a Panhard rod to provide axle location. This was all right on paper and in normal use, but violent lateral weight transfer could cause the Panhard rod to part company with its mounting. With the axle thus released, the car could veer out of control. Lots of modifications were made, but it wasn’t until the whole system was scrapped in 1956 in favour of a conventional twin-leaf spring set-up that the Pathfinder’s difficulties were resolved…

The first car to appear following the merger with Austin was the 2½-litre Pathfinder, directly replacing the RMF and carrying forward its “Big Four” Riley engine and sophisticated front suspension. In all other respects, the Pathfinder was very much a Nuffield Group design, with its bodywork having been penned by Gerald Palmer at Morris’s Cowley-based drawing office. Launched alongside the similarly-styled (but smaller) MG Magnette ZA in October 1953, this pair of cars also predicted the shapes of the following year’s Wolseley 15/50 and 6/90 saloons, although the Pathfinder’s panelwork was subtly different from that of the 6/90.

This distinction was lost in 1958, when the Pathfinder was replaced by the ill-fated Riley Two-Point-Six, in essence a Wolseley 6/90 that had been given a superficial makeover consisting of little more than a Riley grille and badges. As if to add insult to injury, the car’s six-cylinder C-series engine failed to match the power output achieved by Riley’s own 2½-litre Big Four (down from 110bhp to just 97bhp). At a stroke, the fundamental “Rileyness” had been lost, and the car consequently failed to endear itself to Riley’s traditional customers. It was quietly dropped in May 1959 and the Riley marque would never again compete in this market, with all future models being decidedly sub-2-litre. BMC would persevere with variations on the “Magnificent Motoring” slogan well into the 1960s, but this was now little more than a forlorn hope.

Indeed, by the late 1950s Riley and Wolseley had pretty much become the Darby and Joan of the BMC empire – destined to grow old together until one of them finally perished, followed by the other a few years later. The process which brought together the Wolseley 6/90 and Riley Two-Point-Six had started the year before, with the launch of the Wolseley 1500 and Riley One-Point-Five in 1957. The introduction of these Morris Minor-based models marked the advent of BMC’s new policy of applying the Riley and Wolseley marques jointly to slightly upmarket models, whose bodywork would set them apart from the rest of the group’s cars in some way, but with the Riley version generally having the edge on performance.

Got that? Effectively a delayed replacement for the RME, the Riley One-Point-Five’s 62bhp power output was almost 20bhp up on that of the Wolseley, although it has to be said that the naming of the Riley (it really did appear like that on the badges!) smacks of a desperate attempt to differentiate it from its counterpart. MkII versions of both these models appeared in May 1960, with the most obvious difference being the adoption of concealed hinges for the bonnet and boot.

In April 1959, Riley joined the Farina set with the launch of the 4/Sixty-Eight saloon. Here was a car that had little reason to succeed: introduced as the last of the gaggle of 4-cylinder Farinas, it had to make do with the same engine as the One-Point-Five – albeit with an extra 2bhp! – but wrapped in larger, heavier bodywork which looked little different to that of any other ‘Farina’ saloon. Somewhat oddly, bearing in mind what had gone before, the 4/Sixty-Eight shared its altered rear wing profiles not with the Wolseley 15/60 (launched some five months previously), but with the MG Magnette MkIII, which also used the same twin-carb, 64bhp B-series engine.

Still, the Riley conformed to the new BMC rule-book in other ways, offering increased performance over the 58bhp Wolseley, along with a better-specified interior. With the absence of any representation in the 2½-litre class, it fell to the 4/Sixty-Eight to act as Riley’s flagship, as well as catering to former 1½-litre RME customers who found the sportier One-Point-Five too small. According to Graham Robson’s book, “The Cars of BMC, it achieved this feat with some aplomb: apparently sales got off to a very good start and remained strong, thanks largely to its winning combination of an attractive specification and keen pricing.

Future model launches would see the Wolseley/Riley pairing re-established, although the contrived distinction between the two marques would be watered down in various other ways. Moreover, as time went on the whole brand definition became quite muddled: while it could be guaranteed from that hereafter any 4-cylinder Riley would be superior in some way to its Wolseley stablemate, Wolseley always retained the ace card in being able to boast a larger, 6-cylinder model. This blow to the overall prestige of the Riley marque would prove to be a contributory factor in its eventual demise.

Lurking beneath the glassfibre skin of the 1960 Ogle 1.5 were the chassis and engine of the Riley One-Point-Five. It also used the Riley's windscreen (a feature that would be carried forward to the Mini-based Ogle SX1000). With just 68bhp on tap from the Alexander-tuned 1489cc B-series engine, performance wasn't brilliant; only 8 examples were built.
Lurking beneath the glassfibre skin of the 1960 Ogle 1.5 were the chassis and engine of the Riley One-Point-Five. It also used the Riley’s windscreen (a feature that would be carried forward to the Mini-based Ogle SX1000). With just 68bhp on tap from the Alexander-tuned 1489cc B-series engine, performance wasn’t brilliant; only 8 examples were built.

Meanwhile, in 1959 an Argentinean company called SIAM di Tella Automotores had started to build the Farina-styled 55bhp Morris Oxford Series V saloon under licence, but using the front-panel and grille from the Riley 4/Sixty-Eight. This mix-and-match creation was known as the Di Tella 1500, and was joined in 1962 by the Traveller version and a pick-up derivative called the Argenta, with both these models again using the Riley front end styling. The operation fizzled out in 1965, when SIAM was taken over by another company. Di Tella production totalled just over 62,000 models of all varieties.

Back in the UK, October 1961 saw the next paired launch, with the Mini-based Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet hitting the showrooms simultaneously. This time, although a valiant effort was made at giving these cars a distinctive body shape of their own, the mechanical spec sheets for both models were identical. In fact, with their 848cc engines producing the same 34bhp output as the Austin and Morris versions, the performance of these upmarket varieties was actually blunted by the weight of the extra bodywork and equipment. The real demarcation between these models was reserved for the interior treatment, where the Elf’s opulent walnut-veneer dashboard knocked the Hornet’s simpler Cooper-derived central instrument pod into a cocked hat (although the latter would surely have been more to Issigonis’s taste).

Revised versions of the One-Point-Five and ‘Farina’ saloon were also introduced in Ocotber 1961 (along with a raft of similarly revised models from the other BMC marques). Now in MkIII form, the One-Point-Five was given a mild facelift (less obvious than that bestowed on the Wolseley 1500 at the same time). The 4/Sixty-Eight became the 4/Seventy-Two, with its bored-out 1622cc twin-carb engine now producing (somewhat confusingly) 68bhp – 4bhp more than its predecessor.

Other improvements included a 1-inch stretch in wheelbase, a wider track measurement and the fitment of anti-roll bars front and rear, all of which helped to improve the handling. The 4/Seventy-Two retained its original rear wing treatment (as did its MG Magnette twin), while all the other ‘Farina’ saloons had their rear wings reworked in some way at this stage. Incidentally, it seems that the 4/Seventy-Two was marketed as the Riley Comet in Austria, and perhaps this rather more managable name would also have served it well in the home market…

1963 saw the release of the MkII version of the Riley Elf (and, of course, the Wolseley Hornet), while in October 1965, a further pair of new models appeared: the Riley Kestrel and Wolseley 1100, replacing the One-Point-Five and 1500 respectively. This time, both models featured the uprated twin-carb 55bhp A-series engine, while any attempt at providing a distinct body shape (beyond the obligatory individual grille treatments) had been abandoned – perhaps wisely given the innate elegance of the ADO16’s silhouette.

The Kestrel did have the upper hand on interior appointments: while the Wolseley had to share its strip-speedo dashboard with the contemporary MG 1100, the Riley got its own unique instrument layout, and was the only 1100 to feature a rev counter as standard. However, this was not enough to silence the outcry from Riley enthusiasts at what they saw as the ongoing desecration of a once-proud marque. Applying the name of a classic pre-war Riley sports saloon to this latest concoction (however admirable the base car may have been) was the last straw for many adherents, and the traditional customer base started voting with their feet. Of course, the irony of this is that the Kestrel was far and away the best of the BMC-era Rileys, and like its 1930s namesakes, was amongst the most advanced cars of its type on the market. Yet it seems that by this stage the marque had somehow lost the will to live.

The emergence of the range-topping Vanden Plas marque at the beginning of the Sixties also counted against Riley’s continued success, effectively pushing the already-incestuous Wolseley and Riley brands yet closer together and leaving them fighting for much the same buyers. Something had to give, and when the Wolseley 18/85 appeared in 1967 with no Riley counterpart, the writing was on the wall. As can be seen from the photograph below, a Riley-badged Landcrab had been given serious consideration during the early stages of the project, but by this time it was clear that the marque was becoming unsustainable. Instead, the remaining loyal customers in this sector had to make do with the ageing 4/Seventy-Two ‘Farina’ saloon which, like its Wolseley counterpart, soldiered on regardless.

This Riley-fronted mock-up was produced for project ADO17 as early as November 1962. Its twin-headlight arrangement indictes that it would have sat at the very top of the range, and suggests that BMC may even have been planning that Riley would make a belated return to the 6-cylinder market. However, the car never saw the light of day, and when the proposed Vanden Plas derivative was also shelved, the upmarket ADO17 slot was left to the Wolseley marque.
This Riley-fronted mock-up was produced for project ADO17 as early as November 1962. Its twin-headlight arrangement indictes that it would have sat at the very top of the range, and suggests that BMC may even have been planning that Riley would make a belated return to the 6-cylinder market. However, the car never saw the light of day, and when the proposed Vanden Plas derivative was also shelved, the upmarket ADO17 slot was left to the Wolseley marque.

In the autumn of 1967, the Riley Kestrel was launched in MkII form, with the new 1300 version making the previously optional 58bhp 1275cc engine a permanent part of the range. A few months later, in January 1968, the MkII Kestrel 1100 was dropped, leaving the 1300 as the only Kestrel variant. Then, in April, the Kestrel 1300 got the twin-carb, 65bhp A-series engine (in common with the Wosleley, MG and Vanden Plas versions). Later that same year, with the formation of the mighty British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC), rationalisation was very much the name of the game.

October 1968 saw the last-ever launch of a “new” Riley model: the Riley 1300 was an uprated 70bhp version of the Kestrel 1300, from which BLMC had dropped the “Kestrel” name in a sop to the aggrieved enthusiasts. For what it was worth, the Riley 1300 also now had a power-output advantage over its Wolseley counterpart for the first time. Although it remained in production for just twelve months, for many ADO16 enthusiasts the Riley 1300 is the optimal variation on the theme, mating the uprated twin-carb engine that would later appear in the 1300GT to the tastefully upmarket interior which retained the three-dial instrumentation set in a genuine wood-veneer dashboard.

The end finally came in October 1969, when the last examples of the Elf, 1300 and 4/Seventy-Two rolled off the production lines, and the Riley marque claimed its place in the history books. However, BLMC maintained a subsidiary company by the name of Riley Motors Ltd, which ended up as part of the Rover Group when, as part of a house-keeping exercise undertaken in November 1994, its name was swapped with that of another subisdiary, BLMC Engineering Ltd; by this mechanism, the former Riley company was later dissolved (in March 1996) but the name was able to live on – a bit like transferring a cherished registration from one vehicle to another, in fact.

At the time, rumours abounded that this administrative procedure was carried out as a prelude to Rover’s new owners BMW reviving the Riley marque. Indeed, it was well known that Bernd Pischetsrieder had a certain affection for the old BMC marques, and Riley was later mentioned as a likely name for a new range-topping coupe derivative of the Rover 75. However, this never came to pass; a senior insider offered the following perspective:

“A coupe version of the 75 was discussed, and some artwork was done internally. This was at the time Bernd Pischetsrieder was sponsoring a ‘revival of Riley’. A Riley two-door version of the 75 (with different bumpers, grille etc.), was quickly modelled. It was not long-lived though, as soon after, Bernd left BMW, and the whole thing fizzled out.”

However, when BMW sold Rover in 2000, the German company retained ownership of Riley Motors Ltd and with it the rights to the Riley marque, thereby fuelling speculation that it might one day make a return.

Flight of fancy: a coupe version of the Rover 75 remains vapourware, and any hope that it might have reached the market as a Riley have long-since evaporated.
Flight of fancy: a coupe version of the Rover 75 remains vapourware, and any hope that it might have reached the market as a Riley have long-since evaporated.

Post-war Riley models

Riley 1½-litre RMA1945-1952Nuffield’s first post-war Riley was the new 1½-litre sports saloon, which retained the pre-war 1496cc twin-camshaft Riley engine. Its elegant, flowing lines concealed a timber-frame construction, and were complemented by an advanced specification in the Riley tradition, including independent front suspension (IFS) and a hydro-mechanical braking system. It was replaced in 1952 by the RME series saloon.
Riley 2½-litre RMB1946-1952The following year the 2½-litre RMB was added to the range. Built on an extended RMA chassis, and having a light-blue (rather than dark-blue) Riley badge, it used the pre-war 2443cc 4-cylinder Riley engine so, like its smaller sibling, can be seen as a proper Riley. Originally launched with 90bhp on tap, this was increased to a full 100 in 1948, giving the car a near-100mph top speed. Gave way to the short-lived RMF in 1952.
Riley 2½-litre RMC1948-1951Curious three-seater roadster derived from the uprated RMB and aimed mainly at the US market. Lighter and slightly lower bodywork allied to the same 100bhp engine brought the magic 100mph top speed within reach. Just over 500 were built, with only a handful of those finding UK homes.
Riley 2½-litre RMD1949-1951A classic four-seater drophead coupe in the Riley tradition, this is one of most desirable cars of the RM series. Again based on the uprated RMB, and like the RMC, barely more than 500 examples were produced. This was also the last open-top Riley to be built.
Riley 1½-litre RME1952-1955Updated version of the RMA saloon, featuring various mechanical and minor styling refinements. A mid-term revision brought further styling tweaks, including the loss of the running boards and the addition of rear wheel spats. Despite rumours that 1955 would see a Wolseley 4/44-based “RMG” follow-up, the RME was not directly replaced, although its rôle was adopted by the smaller, duller One-Point-Five two years later.
Riley 2½-litre RMF1952-1953Launched alongside the RME in October 1952, the RMF was an updated version of the RMB, with a similar range of improvements as had been applied to the 1½-litre model, such as a hypoid rear axle and a fully hydraulic braking system in place of the previous hydromechanical arrangement. Also notable for the fact that most of the 1050 examples built had metallic paintwork. Replaced by the Pathfinder under BMC.
Riley Pathfinder1953-1957A romantic name for an evocative car. Generally regarded as the last ‘real’ Riley, the Pathfinder (or “type RMH” in Nuffield-speak) carried forward the 2443cc engine (now producing 110bhp) and IFS from the RMF, clothing it in a sleek and thouroughly modern body. The car also featured a variety of small refinements (such as self-cancelling indicators), in order to satisfy the more demanding 1950s motorist.
Riley One-Point-Five1957-1965The first of the Darby and Joan models. This is perhaps a little unfair, as the One-Point-Five belied its staid appearance by turning in a respectable performance from its twin-carb, 62bhp B-series engine, and was certainly a better prospect than its 43bhp Wolseley 1500 twin. All in all, a brave but ultimately futile attempt at reviving the spirit of the traditional Riley sporting saloon. Finally gave way to the Kestrel in 1965.
Riley Two-Point-Six1958-1959Rationalisation begins to bite hard, as the Pathfinder is replaced by this badge-engineered Wolseley 6/90, complete with its (less powerful) BMC C-series engine. It did at least retain some of its predecessor’s style, although the 6/90’s shape was noticeably more upright. Discerning Riley customers stayed away in their droves, and the 2.6 was never directly replaced; instead, the 1489cc 4/Sixty-Eight was left to fill the breach…
Riley 4/Sixty-Eight, Riley 4/Seventy-Two1959-1969The ‘Farina’-styled Riley was something of a surprise hit. One might have thought it wouldn’t stand a chance after the 2.6 debacle, but it seems that it found a ready new market due to its winning combination of a plush specification and reasonable price. Revised 4/Seventy-Two version arrived in 1961, with better handling and a little more power; it was later marketed in Austria as the Riley Comet.
Riley Elf1961-1969Riley counterpart to the Wolseley Hornet, with little more than a veneered dashboard to distinguish it. As with the Hornet, the 1963 MkII got the 998cc engine, Hydrolastic was added in 1964 and the 1966 MkIII version gained wind-up windows and concealed door hinges. Why Elf? Well, one suspects that BMC would rather have revived the Imp name from Riley’s past, but that was already being used by Hillman…
Riley Kestrel, Riley 13001965-1969Replacing the One-Point-Five, the Kestrel shared its twin-carb 55bhp engine with the similar Wolseley 1100. Development mirrored that of the Wolseley, with 1275cc option in late MkI cars, followed by revised MkII model in 1100 and single-carb 1300 (58bhp) versions. 1100 discontinued in January 1968, 1300 got twin-carb 65bhp unit in April, and was further uprated to 70bhp in October, when the Kestrel name was also dropped.


When Riley (Coventry) Ltd fell to Lord Nuffield in 1938, Percy Riley retained his independent Riley Engine Company, which remained at its base in Aldbourne Road, Coventry under the new name of PR Motors Ltd. Early plans to produce a small car were abandoned following Percy’s premature death at the age of 58 in 1940 (some three years before that of his father, William Riley Jr, who lived to be 93). PR Motors Ltd subsequently concentrated instead on producing transmission systems and components, mainly for machinery used in the construction industry. The company grew and prospered over the following decades, and in 1966 it was acquired by Newage Engineers Ltd, which was then a subsidiary of the Charterhouse Group. In 1971, PR Motors Ltd ceased to trade as a separate entity when it became the Transmissions Division of Newage Engineering, and three years later its operations were moved from Aldbourne Road to a new purpose-built factory at Barlow Road, also in Coventry.

Then, in 1980, following further expansion on the part of Newage Engineering, the Transmissions Division was demerged and re-acquired by PR Motors Ltd, which became Newage Transmissions Ltd. In 1986, the company changed its name to Newage Transmissions plc following a management buyout by its five executive directors the previous year. In September 1988, Newage was acquired by Williams Holdings plc, and following a further management buyout in 1993, became part of Cortworth plc. Finally, in 1997 Cortworth was taken over by the Birmingham-based engineering concern BI Group plc, of which Newage Transmissions is currently a division. As can be seen from the above image, the company’s logo still incorporates the italicised PR Motors badge which was derived from Riley’s own famous blue diamond.

This page was contributed by Declan Berridge

Keith Adams


  1. Like Triumph in the ’80s, Riley became a brand that wasn’t needed and couldn’t be made to fit in with the rest of the range. The idea of re-inventing it in the 90s was well-intentioned, but surely it was forgotten by then?

  2. Riley, like Wolseley, have a stuffy, pipe and flat cap image. I disagree about Triumph – it really did have an image akin to BMW, combined with Rover it would have been good competition for BMW/MB/VAG if developed properly.


    Austin/Morris > SEAT/Skoda/VW
    Triumph > BMW/Audi
    Rover > Mercedes
    Jaguar > Mercedes
    Daimler > Bentley/RR/Maybach

    With MG/Triumph/Austin Healey/Range-Rover aimed at the US market it could have been a force to be reckoned with.

  3. You’re right about the image of Triumph, but by 1982/3 they’d decided to go down the mass market/premium route with Austin-Rover. That was quite a common arrangement at the time, as VW/Audi and Fiat/Lancia were doing the same, and even Vauxhall/Opel in the UK for a bit. More brands means more expense on marketing, so Triumph was sacrificed. After all, it had dwindled to a badge-engineered Honda by then, a bit like Riley being a badge-engineered Austin/Morris in the 60s, in fact.

    • I think they were right to go down the mass market/premium route but Triumph should’ve taken over the role performed by Austin Morris in the early 80s (with Mini and Metro as standalones or badged separately as MINI?!). Triumph might’ve had a little more cachet because of memories of the Dolly Sprint (if not the TR7) and filled the role of a British VW (mass market manufacturer with a bit of GTI glamour), its badged being attached to a range of Roy Axe restyled versions of Maestro/Montego- and maybe a coupe derivative somewhere in the range to further burnish things. MG would’ve been kept as the badge for the facelifted TR7 (Boxer, I think it was called?). Rover should’ve been kept as an upmarket brand after Jaguar was sold off.

  4. But in the 1980s, BL had Triumph as the small executive, with Dolomite fighting the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class.

    Rover was the large executive, with the SD1 competing against the BMW 5-series and Mercedes W-class.

    Jaguar in the luxury segment, against the 7-series and S-class.

    In NZ, the Triumph 2500 was for retired managers, and the Rover 3500 was pitched a class above as a “gentlemen’s express”.

  5. day
    Gans history of riley is a bit strange to me but I want a question about this set.
    I found an old riley with papers but is completely destroyed (body building), all parts are still there to this is probably a 1500cc omeen prewar model.
    What is the price of such a car?


  6. Funnily enough, in another part of the forum I wrote something to the effect that the problem with the Rover 75 was that it was aimed squarely at the over 50s, whilst its MG brethren were too obviously designed with Max Power reading teenagers in mind (judging from the very un-subtle codpiece extrusions applied). I suggested that what was needed to appeal to the likes of myself (and I doubt I am alone) was a Riley-like variant, that would have been more overtly sporting without the embarrasment factor of a lairy bodykit- it didn’t need to be extraovert, just a lot less ‘pipe and slippers’and ‘ye olde arts and crafte’.

    I had no idea that they had actually conceived not only a Riley variant, but that it was a coupe to boot (although I think the grille needed to be a bit more distinct). That, plus saloon and tourer versions would, I am sure, have greatly increased the appeal of the 75- I am sure that there was a really good car (K series allowing) trying to get out- an MG for grown-ups.

  7. I’m not really sure about the X-Type- it was trying more to be an Anglicised Audi Jag Mk2 and mini-me XJ6 -and not really getting it right- although many put that down to its Mondeo underpinnings (unfairly), but not really able to carry off the whole effect. It was a good car, but the styling didn’t really gel. Hope Jag have another crack at it- but come up with something mould-breaking. Weird how some cars, such as the PseudoMINI, get away with dreadful retro-effect ‘styling’, and others, such as the X-Type, just flop. I guess the PseudoMINI tends to appeal (although not exclusively) to the more suggestible types who need to be told by ‘style’ magazines what to be seen driving, what to wear, where to be seen, etc, but the X-Type would-be clientele were either a bit too savvy or more enamoured of the Teutonic compact execs.

    Back to Riley, though, would have been interesting to see what Burnt Fishytrousers would have done with it had he not been recalled to Der Fatherland. A Riley version of the 25/45 replacement. Or maybe (oh, the horror!) a PseudoMINI based Riley Elf with a distended boot… Well, it couldn’t look worse than the 1 Series coupe, which looks like a top hat.

  8. Talking about the Riley Elf (original model), when a mate of mine from Slovenia came over here back in the ’80s, and spotted the first one he’d ever seen, he nearly pissed himself laughing, he thought it was someone’s custom-made Mini Trabant!

  9. I only ever remember the BMC “Riley” badged cars like the Elf, Kestrel, 1.5, 4/72 etc. Loved the Riley diamond shape badge though…

    A pity they saw fit to drop the Kestrel name to become simply “Riley1300”. I thought Kestrel was a good name for a car.

  10. It will be interesting to if their is a Riley Sprite and Triumph Spitfire spun out of this years Generation 3 Mini.

    You keep hearing rumours of Triumph being brought back to be BMW’s Skoda, using their cast off’s.

  11. Never heard of BMW reviving the Triumph name as a competitor of Skoda… sounds interesting though.

  12. Great article, great cars. I well remember the RMs from my childhood. They were quite common in Australia and markedly more stylish than the 9/10 scale model Chevs being sold as Holdens. Beautiful roof treatment.

  13. Can anyone confirm the existance of A Riley Wayfinder or Wayfarer badge engineered version of the MG Magnette ZA.

    • Yes they did build a Riley Wayfarer prototype apparently: it had the Pathfinder body but with the one-and-a-half litre Riley engine. It was very underpowered and no photos seem to exist I have a Pathfinder and a ZB Magnette – both great cars; such a shame the Pathfinder/Magnette concept was not pursued into the 60s.

  14. Despite the 1.5 / 2.5 4-cylinder engines being pre-war designs would it have been possible for a large 4.8-5.0 litre V8 to be created from a pair of 2.5 Riley Big Four engine blocks given the pre-war 2.9-litre Autovia V8 (and earlier Riley 8/90) engine was developed from a pair of 1½-litre Riley engine blocks?

    Also curious to know whether Riley had anything planned on the engine development front before beginning its post-war decline and losing out to MG as a sporting marque, would properly developed post-war Riley V8s have helped saved the marque (or at least have proved useful in higher-end or sporting Healey-like models)?

  15. Nate : I think the answer to your question is that it would have been physically possible, but that whether it would have been commercially viable is much more doubtful. Up until the mid sixties , V8 engines were not popular here or for that matter in Europe, about the only one being produced successfully being the antiquated side valve Ford, and that finished in about 1952. The BMW attempts really did not sell, and brought the company to its knees . The first one to have developed a following was Edward Turner’s Daimler, and that only in its 2.5 litre guise, the 4.5 litre selling in penny numbers throughout its 7 year life . One of the problems is that V8s of that era tended to lack refinement compared with a similar sized 6 cylinder up to say 4 litres , because of the uneven firing intervals , and this diminished their marketability on this side of the Atlantic at any rate . Eventually the Buick/Rover and the Mercedes series of 3.5 to 5.5 litre cars gained a following , but this of course was some 30 years after the era you are talking about

  16. christopher storey

    Though also sharing similar doubts regarding the commercial viability of a 2.5-litre Big Four derived Riley V8 powering the Riley RM and Riley Pathfinder, it might have helped distinguish Riley from MG / Wolseley and potentially powered early Healeys (when the latter were investigating a Cadillac V8 prior to the Nash-Healey).

    It would have also formed the basis of Nuffield’s post-war expansion into “Empire markets” with a Riley V8 version of the proposed 3.2-4.0-litre inline-6 Morris Imperial / Viceroy and Wolseley 18/25 project, essentially Nuffield’s post-war rival to the Austin Sheerline / Princess based on an enlarged Morris Oxford MO / Wolseley 6/80.

    Even if it proved to be more memorable than commercially successful, at least it would have allowed the last uniquely-engined Rileys to go out with a bang by say 1957 before finally laying the marque to rest.

    Still it is difficult to believe that Riley did not have anything planned in terms of engine development or unique models, aside from the 1.5 Riley RMG project (related to the MG Magnette ZA / Wolseley 4/44).

  17. The Kestrel was a nice looking car and was one of the fastest and best appointed ADO 16 variants, but it was in competition with the even more luxurious and more refined Vanden Plas 1300 and was decided to be superfluous, along with the rather nice Min variant, the Riley Elf( the kind of Mini I’d have, combining luxury with a little more power than a standard Mini).

    • The Riley Kestrel was one of my favourite cars of the ADO16 series. In our street friends of a neighbours would park at their door. (a light mauve Kestrel) Looked good

  18. The late ’60s Rileys may have had better suspensions than the mkIII 1.5 but their seats are just too low, one clear measure of a car’s driveability is the distance from the drivers bum to the road surface.

  19. It is a shame that this article pours scorn on the Riley 1.5 , which was, ( and still is ) a delightful car to drive – handy in size, fast for its era – and raced successfully – and with wonderful steering feel with is Minor inspired rack and pinion. It was also beautifully furnished inside . To suggest that it was inferior to the RMA etc which preceded it is a misconception – the 1.5 litre RM series cars were very underpowered for their size

    • Many happy memories of driving and being a passenger in a B-reg 1.5 which was the first car of one of the girls in our VI Form group, wonderful to drive.

    • Riley, after the 1.5, ended up as a badge engineered ADO16 and Mini and, as I’ve pointed out above, became superfluous. Wolseley, which was a similar upmarket BMC marque, was allowed to live on until 1975 and rejuvenated the slow selling ADO17 with the Wolseley Six, a very nice car to own 50 years ago.

  20. Rather intrigued by Percy Riley’s PR Motors stillborn plans for a small car project (was it to be a belated successor of sorts to the Riley Nine or something else entirely?) and the fact he generally seems to have favoured small cars that would sell in far higher volumes.

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