The Riley marque

As old as the industry

as modern as the hour


Riley is one of the oldest car marques. Its history begins in the end of the 19th century, when William Riley Jr understood that the market for his textile industry was declining and that it was therefore time to venture into another industry branch. In 1890 he acquired the bicycle producer Bonnick & Co. Ltd with which he had great success. In 1896 the company changed its name to the Riley Cycle Co. Ltd.

From 1899 to 1911 motor-powered bicycles and motor bikes (including three- and four-wheelers) were produced. Already in 1896-1898 the son Percy had built an automobile, but this was never produced commercially.

Percy Riley, together with his brothers Victor and Allan, founded the company Riley Engine Company in 1903.Later the two other brothers, Cecil and Stanley, joined the company. Percy was an inventive and skilful engineer, and the company's engines and gearboxes rapidly gained a very favourable reputation. His inventions include the mechanically operated inlet valve, the overlapping of inlet and exhaust valve opening, and several important improvements of the gearbox.

At the end of 1906 the first real automobile was introduced, with a 9hp two-cylinder 1-litre engine with a side-mounted gearbox and a chain-driven rear-axle differential. This vehicle was an immediate success, not least in various racing competitions. The car had removable wheels (in contrast to wheels with removable rim, which were state of the art then), and the Riley wheel system became such a success - and was used in several competing marques - that Riley very nearly switched completely from car manufacture to wheel production, but luckily the brothers were emotionally so attached to car production that they were reluctant to close this down completely. They founded the Riley Motor Manufacturing Co. for car production, leaving wheel production in the Riley Cycle Co., which soon changed its name to Riley (Coventry) Ltd.

World War I put big strains on most automobile manufacturers. In order to quickly restart production after the war, the Rileys decided to close the wheel manufacture. They had had the opportunity to experiment during the war, and were therefore able to introduce new models in 1919. With the new four-cylinder 1.5-litre 11hp model, the classical Riley radiator and the rhombic badge (the blue diamond) were introduced.

During the 1920ies, Percy and Stanley Riley together developed a new model, which would prove ground-breaking. This was the Riley Nine 'Monaco', a small car with a 1.1-litre engine with two distinguishing characteristics. One was the design, primarily due to Stanley: A low saloon with fabric-coated body on a wooden frame and an integrated luggage compartment, in other words a "Weymann body". The other characteristic was the new engine developed by Percy: a four- or six-cylinder engine with semi-spherical combustion chambers and overhead valves driven by short pushrods from two cam shafts placed high in the block. This engine construction is intimately connected with Riley.

The Riley Nine chassis was the basis for a number of different models, in particular the successful racing car 'Brooklands', bu alse the open Gamecock and Imp (2-seaters) and Lynx (4-seater). Among closed models with the 9hp chassis are noted Kestrel, Falcon, and Merlin. Also 12/6 models were produced, a nine engine with two extra cylinders, and variants of this with slightly altered volume, e.g. 12/4, 14/6, 15/6 - to this group belongs the beautiful open M.P.H. model, but also many closed cars, such as Mentone, Kestrel, Falcon, and Adelphi. Racing successes were numerous, both on closed tracks and in rallies.

1937 saw the end ot the Nine era. The Nine was replaced by a 1½-litre engine, where the air intake system was altered to provied a more even distribution between the cylinders, and the suspension was improved to reduce vibrations. The 1½-litre engine was mounted in a somewhat stronger chassis, and the number of bodies on offer was large: it included the open Sprite (2-seater) and Lynx (4-seater), but also Kestrel, Falcon, Merlin, Adelphi and other closed models. This was also when the "big four" was introduced, a 2½-litre four-cylinder engine, still in the Riley design. This engine was placed in a new chassis, primarily fitted with Adelphi and Kestrel bodies.

These changes were, however, too late to help a company in crisis: sales numbers plummeted and enconomy deteriorated. This was not least due to the development of an unsuccessful V8 car called Autovia. A merger with Triumph was discussed, but finally Lord Nuffield acquired the company, making Riley another marque in the Morris group.

After Word War II a new series of Rileys emerged, all models denoted with names beginning with RM, thus the 'RM series': 1½-litre saloon RMA (later RME), 2½-litre saloon RMB (later RMF) and the open RMC (3-seater roadster) and RMD (2-door 4-seater coupè), all with the classical swallow-tail body. In 1954 the Pathfinder (RMH) model was launched with the "big four" (the same car with another engine was produced as Wolseley 6/90). This was the last model with the classical Riley engine.

The Nuffield group merged with Austin, forming BMC in 1952. This had dire consequences for Riley toward the end of the fifties: Riley now became just a variant of the standard BMC models. The Pathfinder was succeeded by the Two-Point-Six, with BMC's C-series six-cylinder engine. The Riley One-Point-Five was really a Wolseley 1500, and the models 4/68 and 4/72 were Riley editions of the BMC Farina bodies that also were produced as Austin, Morris, Wolseley and M.G. variants. The Riley 'Mini' was called Elf and the 1100/1300 models were called Kestrel.

Production of Riley ceased in 1969. The marque is now owned by the BMW company.