Riley history

From 1890 to now

Riley imports to Australia peaked 70 years ago. 
Now that you are remembering those days (probably with a mix of nostalgia and horror) lets look at the cars back when our club started, in 1955..
In 1955 Rileys were still seen as sporting. A RME weighed 24 cwt yet could still do 81 mph and produce 26 mpg. In context, a Singer (1497 cc) could only do 74 mph and a Hillman Minx 68 mph. A 1955 Daimler Conquest (2433 cc) was flat out at 81 mph and an Austin Cambridge (1622 cc) could do 80 mph. A Wolseley 4/50 (1476 cc) managed 78 mph.
A 2 1/2 weighed 28 cwt and was good for 90+ mph, returning around 20 mpg. A new Humber Hawk (2267 cc) would do 80 mph flat out and a Ford Zephyr 6 with a similar capacity could do 81 mph, much like the Holden of the day. You can see why Rileys appealed to a certain type of enthusiast, members who saw the value in a car which was faster than a 3 1/2 litre Mark 5 Jag yet cost much less.

The following chart shows Rileys coming to Australia in the peak postwar years.


In the '50s

At the end of 1955 there were over 4,600 Rileys registered in Australia. This was just 0.3% of all cars registered. Australia at that time had 160,275 open cars (convertibles, tourers etc) and this was almost 12% of the total of 1.35 million cars on the road. By contrast, most Rileys were sedans (92%) although at the time there were also 11 Rileys registered as Utilities, 3 Station Wagons and a couple of Panel Vans!

Riley was importing few cars by 1955. In 1951 Australia had 992,777 passenger cars registered. Of these, 133,994 were new, down from 148,531 new cars in 1950.

Imports from the United Kingdom dominated, at 69.7%. This was down from 1950 (76%)

Riley was a British car and bicycle manufacturer from 1890. Riley became part of the Nuffield Organisation in 1938 and was merged into British Leyland in 1968. ln July 1969 British Leyland announced the immediate end of Riley production, although 1969 was a difficult year for the UK auto industry and many Rileys may have been first registered in 1970.

Today, the Riley trademark is owned by BMW.

Some history

In 1870, at a time when the weaving industry was flourishing in Coventry, William Riley Jr. became a master weaver in his family’s business, which also produced weaving machinery for sale to other businesses, an activity that provided him with a sound engineering knowledge.
The weaving industry, however, soon entered a period of rapid decline, forcing William Riley to seek more profitable ventures, and in 1890 he and his associates acquired the Bonnick Cycle Co., which they re-named the Riley Cycle Co. Ltd. six years later.
At first, the small engines fitted to Riley Cycles were obtained from specialist engine manufacturers, but the desire to design and produce their own engines was strong, and in 1903 the Riley Engine Co. was established in a small work-shop close by the Cook Street Gate, the only surviving gateway of the medieval city wall.
Head of the new company was William Riley’s son Percy, who at the age of 20 was already a practical and ingenious engineer who had successfully built his first car before his 18th birthday.
The first Riley car – a small voiturette with a single-cylinder engine – was completed in 1898, so it was with good reason that Riley adopted the slogan ‘as old as the industry’ in promoting the sale of their cars during the early post-war years.
A light 2 seater four wheel car used the same V-Twin engine as the previous Tricar and was available with an optional hood, it also used the Riley patented detachable wheel which meant in the event of a puncture the wheel could be changed for a spare (it seems obvious now but in the early days of motor transport the wheels were a permanent fixture).
These wheels became so popular that by 1913 over 183 other manufacturers where using them. This model was later supplemented by a larger, usually 4 seater with a scaled up V-Twin 2 litre 12-18hp engine and in 1908 in time for the motor show another 2 seater 10hp was introduced. Just before the First World War the “17hp” was launched using a brand new 4 cylinder 3 litre engine , production of this model continued until 1921.
The 1919 motor show saw the launch of a new 11hp car sporting the now famous V shaped radiator and diamond badge, it was this model that was first marketed with the slogan “as old as the industry, as modern as the hour”
In 1923 this car was renamed the 11-40hp. Up to 1926 2 engines were used, the 10.8hp and the 11.9hp before being superseded by the now famous “Riley 9” series.
The Riley 9 “Monaco” started full production in 1927 and caused quite a stir with its closed in fabric covered bodywork with integral rear boot and new overhead valve engine. Later in the year 3 variants arrived, a 2 seater tourer with dickey seat, a 4 seater saloon called the “San Remo” and the sporty 80MPH “Brooklands”.
For the 1926 motor show the old 11-40hp was renamed the 12hp which was basically the same car with a supercharged engine. During 1928 this range was dramatically improved with 5 new body types, the “Lulworth”, “Midworth”, “Grangeworth”, “Chatsworth” saloons and the “Wentworth Coupe” all with a revised engine. At the end of 1928 the “9 Biarritz” was introduced and the old side valve 12hp was replaced by a new 14hp 6 cylinder 14/6 range which was basically a larger version of the “9”, the models included the “Stelvio”,”Deauville saloon” and the “Special Tourer”.
Only 1 new model was launched in 1929 – the “14/6” light saloon this helped them achieve sales worth over £1,000,000 for the first time.
1930 saw the introduction of the 9 Plus range – the “Monaco”,”Biarritz” saloons and the “Brooklands Sports”,”open Tourer” and “2-seater Coupe”, the 14/60 was improved with the 6-light being renamed “Alpine”. The founder William Riley was 80 in 1931 the year the “WD or Army Tourer” was introduced, this being a civilian version of the War Offices Riley 9 tourer.
The 1932 range of cars consisted of 9 cars – the “9” range of “Monaco”,”WD”,”Brooklands”,”Gamecock Sports”,”Ascot Coupe”, and a 2 and 4 seat tourer and 2 X 14-6’s the “Alpine” and “Stelvio”.
1932 saw the first official cars exported by the company although many had already been built abroad under licence using Riley supplied parts. The “9” range now included the “Kestrel”, “Falcon”4-seater saloons, “Lynx”4-seater tourer, “Linock”2-seater coupe, “March Special” and “Trinity” tourer, the “Winchester” and a 5-seater limousine the”Edinburgh” were added to the 14/16 range.
Many improvements to the range occurred in 1934 but only 1 new car the “Imp”, a 2-door, 2-seater sports tourer, a long overdue replacement for the “Brooklands”. All the fabric bodied cars had now become “all metal” and testing had started on the “MPH” which was basically a 6 cylinder 2-seat “Imp”. 1935 saw a completely new “Falcon” and a modified “Kestrel” and 2 new engines – the 12/4 which replaced the 12/6 and the 15/6 which replaced the 14/6. The 1936 range consisted of 23 cars some of which were “Specials” – standard models with uprated engines, suspension and gearboxes but also included a modified “Falcon” and the new “Merlin”, the 12hp “Mentone” and the all new 85 MPH “Sprite”, a 2-seater streamlined sports car with a “12/4” engine. Also available was a not very successful V-8 engine – the 8/90, of which only about 25 were made.
1937 saw the “Kestrel 9” and 12/4 discontinued to be replaced by the new “Monaco”. The only completely new car was the “Continental Touring Saloon”. A new 2.5 ltr engine was also now available, called the “Big Four” for use in the “Kestrel” and “Adelphi” amongst others and replaced the unsuccessful V-8. The November AGM saw the first hint of financial troubles and in early 1938 the chairman Victor Riley was forced to call in the receivers.
The motor show saw the unveiling of 1 new model the “9hp Victor” the cheapest car in the range, the others all now having a vertical grill over the honeycomb radiator, bumpers and steel covers over the spare wheel. 
By 1939 the range of cars had been trimmed to only 2 – the best selling “Kestrel Saloon” and “Lynx Tourer” which now used as many standard Morris parts as possible. The outbreak of the 2nd World War saw production turned over to war materials. In 1944 the founder William died.
Earlier Rileys of the 1920s and 1930s were notable for flowing, sporting lines as much as for a sprightly performance which earned them such an illustrious competition career, but new standards of elegance and affordable luxury were set with the introduction of the first 1-1/2-litre RM saloons in the late 1940s.
Featuring four-door bodywork flanked by flowing wings and topped by a stylish fabric roof, they represented one of the last as well as one of the most successful examples of the traditional method of car construction, which was fast disappearing as the industry became wedded to the monocoque.The RM saloons were soon to be joined by drophead-coupe and roadster variants, but the Rileys of the time were also manufactured in chassis-only form, to be used as a basis for many alternative body styles, notably some estate cars and utility vehicles of, perhaps inevitably, widely varying quality and appearance. The total number of 1-1/2-litre, 2-1/2-litre, Roadster, Drophead Coupe, Pathfinder Rileys produced between 1945 and 1957 were 28,065, of which 13,950 were 1-1/2-litre models.
1953 saw the new “RME” and the 2.5 ltr “RMF” launched but sales of this model were slow so it was soon replaced by a variant of a Wolsley the “RMH – Pathfinder” the “missing” RMG model never materialised, the Pathfinder was replaced by a similar car the “2.6” which was almost a “Wolsley 6/90” with a Riley badge. Another 2 models – the “1.5 Farina” or 4/68 and the 1622cc 4/72 were basically a “Austin Cambridge ” with a Riley badge.
The BMC “Riley 1.5” was very successful with over 30,000 sold, the “Mini” “Riley Elf” was another good seller. The last in the range the “1300” “Riley Kestrel” ceased production in 1969.

First Riley Club

This is Australia’s first Riley Car Club. 
Think about it. In 1955 Holden was only seven years old and our lives were very different from today. In 1955 – Work was proceeding on the Snowy Mountain scheme which had started in 1949. This work was to continue through to 1972.

In 1955 people were talking about the new play, “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, directed by John Sumner and written by Ray Lawler. Dame Edna, the Moonee Ponds widow invented by Barry Humphries, also made her debut (although not in the same show)
People worried about this terrible new music, Rock’n’roll’, although they flocked to see the big acts from America at the Stadium at Rushcutters Bay.
People were also talking about the coming of television, which started on September 16, 1956. We were also anticipating the forthcoming Melbourne Olympics, although most Riley owners would not readily consider the two day trek down the Hume Highway in their cars. In those days the ‘Spirit of Progress’ was the way to travel interstate…

Imagine a world without shopping centres. The first to open in Australia was Chermside in Brisbane, and that was not until 1957. People flew overseas on propeller planes as the Qantas 707 jet was not to arrive until 1959.
The Riley marque was still in the dealerships, and in 1955 106 new Rileys were sold in NSW, 295 Australia wide. This was the best result since 1952 when Australia took 309, but was unfortunately the beginning of the end. After 1955 only 169 new RM series Rileys were imported. However, right through the 1960’s the Riley signs still stood proud at dealerships such as Lancaster Motors at Chatswood (Now a Toyota dealer)
Life in Australia
Most wives didn’t work. A man’s income was almost sufficient to support his family, a modest bungalow and an occasional night out at the pictures by tram, train or bus. A taxi ride from the city to Bondi cost less than 5/-. As for dinner out, there were few places to go. Hotels were not open on Sunday and neither were the cinemas. Sunday nights meant settling down around the wireless set to listen to the 8 p.m. radio-theatre productions.
In increasingly boom times, with full employment, and overtime sometimes so plentiful one could pick and choose for it between employers, the 1950’s was a period of burgeoning consumerism. This was particularly evident in the area of labour-saving household appliances.
Even in Melbourne and Sydney, let alone rural communities, around a quarter of all families still did without a refrigerator. More than half of all homes were yet to have hot water on tap, and while they may have had it available in the kitchen they were much less likely to in say the laundry or bathroom. Most clothes washing was still done by hand, with the water heated in a copper.
So the increasing availability of things like (electric) washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners had a big and immediate impact on quality of life. They remained expensive however.
Raised on principles of thrift and savings and avoidance of debt, most folks worked extra and saved up for such things. But at the same time hire-purchase really took off. Hire-purchase created a means turning the potential of the future into the reality of the now. By 1955 30~40% of Australians had had something on hire-purchase at one time or another, including such other items as furniture or a car. The introduction of television itself probably was a significant contributor to the increase in hire-purchase usage – a purchasing method we take for granted today, but which at the time could only occur with a change in social values.

At the top end of the scale, carpets through the house, or a radiogram (though almost all households otherwise possessed a radio already), and certainly a television, were clearly luxury items.
Meanwhile, the “6-O’Clock Swill” had ended at the start of the previous year, following a narrowly won referendum in 1954. The pubs could now stay open until 10.00p.m., and beer consumption had now become a tad less frenzied if nothing else.
Lolita, the novel, was first published on September 15, 1955 and went on to great controversy; thankfully its author Vladimir Nabokov never drove a Riley.

State differences

NSW saw 1,412 registrations or 37% of all Australian Rileys registered from the beginning of 1949 to the end of 1959.
This included two 1959 models, probably Four/68’s, and one of the Pathfinder 2.6 litres, the last of the line with the BMC six cylinder motor shared with the Wolseley.
Records are not detailed, however 16 Roadsters and Dropheads were registered in 1950 along with 292 RM sedans.
Thirty-four percent of all Rileys, or 1,286 were first registered in Victoria in this period. This included 9 Roadsters or Dropheads in 1950.
Almost fourteen percent of all new Rileys were registered in Queensland in this era.
The 517 cars included 9 Roadsters or Dropheads in 1950 out of 134 cars (the only year this data split was available)
Four hundred and twenty two Rileys or eleven percent were registered in South Australia. This includes another of the Pathfinder 2.6 models.
Only 127 (less than four percent) of Rileys were landed in Western Australia in this period.
Forty seven Rileys were first registered here between 1949 and 1956. This was just one percent of all Rileys.

These period charts show the sporty nature of Rileys in 1955 – and how long you’d wait for delivery…

Tradition in Australia

Before the Second World War Australians bought cars from around the world, and tried to match the oddities of British taxation formulae, European climatic differences or American petrol prices to local needs.
The variation in Australian road standards was enormous; vast distances were spanned by little more than tracks. climatic changes could vary these from deep red dust or gravel to unpassable mud. The the distances meant that help was rarely available when needed, especially for repairs beyond the capabilities of the local smithy or a bush mechanic.
Earlier Rileys in their many sporting and saloon manifestations from the 1920’s and 30’s are in demand in Australia. Apart from a long history of sporting successes, these cars with their innovative and efficient mechanical design were destined to provide reliable and enjoyable transport for many Australians and for many decades.

After the War cars of any description were valued in Australia. Most prized were the big unstressed simple vehicles from America; a 1939 Chevrolet, for example, was worth more than it cost new. Any new cars were eagerly sought as the world attempted to rebuild its car factories after years of neglect and damage, and raw materials such as steel and chromium were scarce.
the Australian car industry was in its infancy. Australia was a major export market after Europe, so the car-starved and growing population took a large part of the production of the new 1 1/2 litre and 2 1/2 litre models. However, two factors limited their numbers; Rileys were never mass production models and their cost inhibited sales to a country which had discovered the relative value of cheaper cars such as the Holden.

This was the final development of the pre-war 12hp engine, clothed in a sleek new body. The car handled impeccably with its new independent front suspension, good brakes and sophisticated suspension. A maximum of 80mph came from 54 BHP.
Only 13,950 of these new cars were made between 1945 ( the RMA) and 1955 (RME) and of these 8,661 were exported. As only a quarter of the total production were thought to have been exported in Right Hand Drive form, the 1,100 registered in Australia in the early 1950’s demonstrates their relative popularity here.

Between 1946 and 1953 just 7,956 2 1/2 litre cars were made. Of these, 5,215 were exported, and by the early 1950’s over 2,000 were registered on Australian roads. Maximum speed was well over 90 MPH from 100 BHP.
This rare version of the 2 1/2 litre (the RMC) was designed primarily for export, with the American market in mind.
Only 507(or 477) were built between 1949 and 1951. Of these, just 147 were marked for Right Hand Drive export, and it is believed that 134 came to Australia. According to RM Club records, around 146 complete cars remain worldwide.

Again, these were rare. Only 500 were made between 1949 and 1951 and of these 172 were exported as Right Hand Drive models. Between 80 and 90 arrived in Australia.

This was an attempt by BMC to utilise their new family saloon body (shared with Wolseley, for example) but did include the 2 1/2 litre engine in an updated form. A production run of 5,152 cars in total (1953 to 1957) did not see this badge engineered version fully developed and they were never embraced as “real Rileys” however the remaining examples in Australia are remarkably pleasant vehicles. Only 1,016 were exported in Right Hand Drive format; and around 300 were thought to have come to Australia. From 1956 even the famous Riley four cylinder engine had gone, replaced with a 2.6 litre BMC “six” with less power.

Other Rileys were sold after the Pathfinder. These were simply clones of current BMC models with a Riley grill and higher level of specification. The Riley One-point-Five was released in 1957, followed by the Four-sixty-eight (the 68 being bhp in a largish Farina body) and a later version in 1962, the Four Seventy-Two. Even the Mini had a Riley version from that era, horribly called the Elf, and the Morris 1100 version became the Kestrel.

A couple more charts

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