Your recent review of the Austin 1300 GT (February 1972) makes reference to the “leather-look” p.v.c. roof covering of these cars and, in passing, you state that the post-war Rileys “had real leather roof tops in their earliest form”. A similar belief was expressed in your feature “Shopping for a Riley” in Motor Sport, November 1970. Sir, no one could be more loyal to the Riley marque than the undersigned but being very well aware of the Editor’s great regard for accurate detail I feel it a duty to challenge this particular legend.
I would suggest that the true facts are that although you are correct in making the distinction between the true coachbuilt roof (fabric-over-expanded-metal-technique) and the present mock “coachbuilt” styling fashion where the “leather” is simply stuck to a pressed steel roof you are wrong in assuming that the covering material used ever was real leather. I am quite sure that no Riley—pre-war or post-war–or any other car except perhaps some luxury exotics used leather as a saloon roof. The properties are wrong, it is not available in large enough pieces, and if it were the price would be prohibitive. Excellent for seats but not a serious contender for roofs.
The material which did in fact originate the “leather” style roof was a heavyweight nitro-cellulose coated fabric (“Rexine”) black in colour and featuring the characteristic embossed surface. It had to be black otherwise ageing was poor. I would think it appeared around 1931. For several years prior to this date nitro-cellulose coated fabrics in various colours were available and widely used for wood-framed “fabric” bodies but this material was not grained or embossed and did not pretend to be “artificial leather”. As a point of interest 1932 model all-fabric Rileys used plain fabric covering to the waist line and the heavier “leather type” covering above the waist. During the ‘fifties, of course, p.v.c. replaced nitro-cellulose as the coating material eventually to produce a much improved fabric although there was little wrong with top quality pre-war leathercloth—apart from extreme flammability.
Turning to fabric bodies generally it appears that we might be all wrong in crediting this line of development to Messrs. Weymann. Peter Hackett in the Riley Register points out that a plate bearing the strange device “Eastwood’s Patent FOEM body, Patent No. 273,873” appears on his 1929 Monaco. These initials stand for “fabric over expanded metal” and George William Eastwood of Stoke Park, Coventry applied for his patent in 1926, being granted in 1927. The advantages claimed were simplicity in forming complex contours, light weight and strength, and “less tendency for drumming to occur than when beaten sheet metal panels are employed”. I think the essential feature of Weymann coachwork was the recognition that torsional flexure of the chassis could result in rapid failure of the fabric body covering if positive steps were not taken to counter the effect.
Incidentally the Riley Co. referred to “close collaboration with the Weymann Technical Dept.” in respect of the coachwork for their 1931 models—some of which were all fabric (Monaco) and some half-panelled, that is, with metal below the waist (Biarritz).
Heaton Mersey. P. Albericci.