Belem, Lisbon, Portugal
Riley was a British motorcar and bicycle manufacturer from 1890. The company became part of the Nuffield Organisation in 1938 and was later merged into British Leyland: late in 1969 British Leyland announced their discontinuance of Riley production, although 1969 was a difficult year for the UK auto industry and so a number of cars from the company’s inventory are likely to have been first registered only in 1970.
Today, the Riley trademark is owned by BMW.
Riley Cycle Company
Riley began as the Bonnick Cycle Company of Coventry, England. During the pedal cycle craze that swept Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, in 1890, William Riley Jr. purchased the company and in 1896 renamed it the Riley Cycle Company. Later, cycle gear maker Sturmey Archer was added to the portfolio. Riley’s younger son, Percy, left school in the same year and soon began to dabble in automobiles. He built his first car at 16, in 1898, secretly, because his father did not approve. It featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve. By 1899, Percy Riley moved from producing motorcycles to his first prototype four-wheeled quadricycle. Little is known about Percy Riley’s very first "motor-car". It is, however, well attested that the engine featured mechanically operated cylinder valves at a time when other engines depended on the vacuum effect of the descending piston to suck the inlet valve(s) open. That was demonstrated some years later when Benz developed and patented a mechanically operated inlet valve process of their own but were unable to collect royalties on their system from British companies; the courts were persuaded that the system used by British auto-makers was based the one pioneered by Percy, which had comfortably anticipated equivalent developments in Germany. In 1900, Riley sold a single three-wheeled automobile. Meanwhile the elder of the Riley brothers, Victor Riley, although supportive of his brother’s embryonic motor-car enterprise, devoted his energies at this stage to the core bicycle business.
Company founder William Riley remained resolutely opposed to diverting the resources of his bicycle business into motor cars, and in 1902 three of his sons, Victor, Percy and younger brother Alan Riley pooled resources, borrowed a necessary balancing amount from their mother and in 1903 established the separate Riley Engine Company, also in Coventry. A few years later the other two Riley brothers, Stanley and Cecil, having left school joined their elder brothers in the business. At first, the Riley Engine Company simply supplied engines for Riley motorcycles and also to Singer, a newly emerging motor cycle manufacturer in the area, but the Riley Engine Company company soon began to focus on four-wheeled automobiles. Their Vee-Twin Tourer prototype, produced in 1905, can be considered the first proper Riley car. The Engine Company expanded the next year. William Riley reversed his former opposition to his sons’ preference for motorised vehicles and Riley Cycle halted motorcycle production in 1907 to focus on automobiles. Bicycle production also ceased in 1911.
In 1912, the Riley Cycle Company changed its name to Riley (Coventry) Limited as William Riley focused it on becoming a wire-spoked wheel supplier for the burgeoning motor industry, the detachable wheel having been invented (and patented) by Percy and distributed to over 180 motor manufacturers, and by 1912 the father’s business had also dropped automobile manufacture in order to concentrate capacity and resources on the wheels. Exploitation of this new and rapidly expanding lucrative business sector made commercial sense for William Riley, but the abandonment of his motor-bicycle and then of his automobile business which had been the principal customer for his sons’ Riley Engine Company enforced a rethink on the Engine Company.
Riley Motor Manufacturing
In early 1913, Percy was joined by three of his brothers (Victor, Stanley, and Allan) in a new business focused on manufacturing entire automobiles. This Riley Motor Manufacturing Company was located near Percy’s Riley Engine Company. The first new model, the 17/30, was introduced at the London Motor Show that year. Soon afterwards, Stanley Riley founded yet another company, the Nero Engine Company, to produce his own 4-cylinder 10 hp (7.5 kW) car. Riley also began manufacturing aeroplane engines and became a key supplier in Britain’s buildup for World War I.
In 1918, after the war, the Riley companies were restructured. Nero joined Riley (Coventry) as the sole producer of automobiles. Riley Motor Manufacturing came under the control of Allan Riley to become Midland Motor Bodies, a coachbuilder for Riley. Riley Engine Company continued under Percy as the engine supplier. At this time, Riley’s blue diamond badge, designed by Harry Rush, also appeared. The motto was "As old as the industry, as modern as the hour.
Riley grew rapidly through the 1920s and 1930s. Riley Engine produced 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines, while Midland built more than a dozen different bodies. Riley models at this time included:
Saloons: Adelphi, Continental, Deauville, Falcon, Kestrel, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio, Victor
Coupes: Ascot, Lincock
Touring: Alpine, Lynx, Gamecock
Sports: Brooklands, Imp, MPH, Sprite
Limousines: Edinburgh, Winchester
The Riley Brooklands was one of the most successful works and privateer racing cars of the late 1920s and early 1930s, particularly in hill climbs and at Le Mans, providing a platform for the success of motorsports’ first women racing drivers like Kay Petrie and Dorothy Champney. It was based on Percy Riley’s ground-breaking Riley 9 engine, a small capacity, high revving engine, ahead of its time in many respects. It had a hemispherical combustion chamber and overheard valves and has been called the most significant engine development of the 1920s. Its longevity is illustrated by Mike Hawthorn’s early racing success after WW2 in pre-war Rileys, in particular his father’s Sprite. But by about 1936 the company had overextended, with too many models and too few common parts, and the emergence of Jaguar at Coventry was a direct challenge. Victor Riley had set up a new ultra-luxury concern, Autovia, to produce a V8 saloon and limousine to compete with Rolls-Royce. Meanwhile, Riley Engine Company had been renamed PR Motors (after Percy Riley) to be a high-volume supplier of engines and components. Although the rest of the Riley companies would go on to become part of BMC, PR Motors remained independent. After the death of Percy Riley in 1941, the company began producing transmission components and still exists today as Newage Transmissions. Percy’s widow Norah ran the company for many years and was Britain’s businesswoman of the year in 1960.
By 1937, Riley began to look to other manufacturers for partnerships. It had withdrawn from works racing after its most successful year, 1934, although it continued to supply engines for the ERA, a voiturette (Formula 2) racing car based on the supercharged 6-cylinder ‘White Riley’, developed by ERA founder Raymond Mays in the mid-thirties. Rileys (Ulster Imp and Sprite) were also the first significant cars raced by Mike Hawthorn after the war. BMW of Munich, Germany was interested in expanding its range into England. But the Rileys were more interested in a larger British concern, and looked to Triumph Motor Company, also of Coventry, as a natural fit. In February, 1938, all negotiations collapsed as Riley (Coventry) and Autovia went into receivership.
Both companies were purchased by Lord Nuffield for £143,000 and operated by Victor Riley as Riley (Coventry) Successors. It was quickly sold to Nuffield’s Morris Motor Company for £1, with the combination coming to be called the Nuffield Organisation.
Nuffield took quick measures to firm up the company. Autovia was no more, with just 35 cars having been produced. Riley refocused on the 4-cylinder market with two engines: A 1.5 litre 12 hp engine and the "Big Four", a 2.5 litre 16 hp unit (The hp figures are RAC Rating, and bear no relationship to bhp or kW). Only a few bodies were produced, and some components were shared with Morris for economies of scale.
After World War II, the restarted Riley Motors took up the old engines in new models, based in conception on the 1936-8 ‘Continental’. The RMA used the 1.5 litre engine, while the RMB got the Big Four. The RM line of vehicles, sold under the "Magnificent Motoring" tag line, were to be the company’s high point. They featured a front independent suspension and steering system inspired by the Citroën Traction Avant. Their flowing lines were particularly well-balanced, marrying pre-war ‘coachbuilt’ elegance to more modern features, such as headlamps faired-in to the front wings.
Victor Riley was removed by Nuffield in 1947, and the Coventry works were shut down as production was consolidated with MG at Abingdon. Nuffield’s marques were to be organised in a similar way to those of General Motors: Morris was to be the value line, MG offered performance, and Wolseley was to be the luxury marque. But with the luxury marque, and sporty/luxurious Riley also fighting for the top position, the range was crowded and confused.
British Motor Corporation
The confusion became critical in 1952 with the merger of Nuffield and Austin as the British Motor Corporation. Now, Riley was positioned between MG and Wolseley and most Riley models were, like those, little more than badge-engineered versions of Austin/Morris designs.
Other BMC Rileys included the Pathfinder with Riley’s 2.5 litre four which replaced the RM line. With a slightly restyled body and a different engine it was later also sold as the Wolseley 6/90. The Riley lost its distinct (though subtle) differences in 1958 and the 1958 6/90 was available badge engineered as a Riley Two-Point-Six. Although this was the only postwar 6-cylinder Riley, its C-Series engine was actually less-powerful than the Riley Big Four that it replaced. This was to be the last large Riley, with the model dropped in May 1959 and the company refocusing on the under-2 litre segment.
Riley and Wolseley were linked in small cars as well. Launched in 1957, the Riley One-Point-Five and Wolseley 1500 were reworked Morris Minors. They shared their exteriors, but the Riley was marketed as the more performance-oriented option, having an uprated engine, twin S.U. carburetters and a close-ratio gearbox. With its good handling, compact, sports-saloon styling and well-appointed interior, the One-Point-Five quite successfully recaptured the character of the 1930s light saloons.
At the top of the Riley line for April 1959 was the new Riley 4/Sixty-Eight saloon. Again, it was merely a badge-engineered version of other BMC models. This time, it shared with the MG Magnette Mark III and Wolseley 15/60. The car was refreshed, along with its siblings, in 1961 and rebadged the 4/Seventy-Two.
The early 1960s also saw the introduction of the Mini-based Riley Elf. Again, a Wolseley model (the Hornet) was introduced simultaneously. This time, the Riley and Wolseley versions were differentiated visually and identical mechanically.
A BLMC press release dated 9 July 1969 announced "today that all Riley models produced at British Leyland’s Austin-Morris division will be discontinued".
The final model of the BMC era was the Kestrel 1100/1300, based on the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 saloon. This also had stablemates in Wolseley and MG versions. Following objections from diehard Riley enthusiasts, the Kestrel name was dropped for the last facelift in 1968, the Riley 1300.
Riley production ended with the 1960s, and the marque became dormant. The last Riley badged car was produced in 1969. After BMW’s divestment of the MG Rover Group in 2000, the rights to the Triumph and Riley marques, along with Mini/MINI were retained by BMW.
In 2007, William Riley, who claims to be a descendant of the Riley family, although this has been disputed, formed MG Sports and Racing Europe Ltd. This company acquired assets relating to the MG XPower SV sportscar from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrators of the defunct MG Rover Group, and intended to continue production of the model as the MG XPower WR.
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