Re-Acquaintance with the Riley 1.5

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When my Mini-Minor was recalled for undersealing B.M.C. lent me a Riley 1.5 and exactly a week later, although this was a normal week going to and from the office, with more driving of a pen than motoring, I had covered over 500 miles in it. Consequently, it seems appropriate to set down a few observations about a car on which Motor Sport published a full road-test report in February 1958.

Two years ago the Riley 1.5 was regarded as a sports version of the recently-introduced Wolseley 1500 and as I hustled it through the night towards the West Country I was in critical mood, finding the road-holding, noise-level and limited fuel range unsatisfactory. Coming back to this compact two-carburetter saloon after a lapse of over two years I was in a less exacting frame of mind but as I drove away from the strike-bound Oxford factory I was soon reflecting on what an enormous improvement Alec Issigonis has effected in roadholding and stability, as I compared the rolling and lurching of the Riley with the “sure-footed” level-keel ride of the Mini-Minor I had left behind. For at least the first day, driving the Riley was akin to walking on a tightrope….

Of course, the little Riley is nicely appointed within – polished wood facia, deep carpets, a rev.-counter, some nine different shades of interior finish, and so on. I am not very partial to wood, either real or imitation, within modern, inexpensive small cars of functional integral steel construction – the worst offender, surely, is that otherwise quite splendid motor car, the ID19 Citroen – but I confess that the interior decoration of this Riley does convey a sense of quality, which is enhanced by smooth, quiet progression – until you want to hurry, when engine noise rises with the revs. But I would willingly have exchanged the pretty pieces of wood screwed to the insides of the doors for a clock, and some of the “luxury” effect is spoilt because to shut them properly, the doors require a big slam. However, from time to time I hear cries of “Give us a luxury small car,” so I suppose those who loll in club armchairs and wear bowler hats and furled umbrellas out of doors will get along very nicely with this Riley 1.5

More practical considerations are the value of having four doors, and the sensible layout of the control knobs. The driver’s right hand goes easily to the lamps and screen-wiper controls, which have the screen-washers button immediately below them, on the extreme right of the facia; headlamp flashing after dark is, therefore, comparatively easy. The panel-lights switch is also convenient to the driver’s right hand. And panel lighting and warning lamps are sensibly subdued.

There is no particular disadvantage in having a separate starter button but it is annoying that the ignition-key inserts the correct way up to switch on the sparks but upside-down to lock the driver’s door. The other doors are locked with their rather insecurely-mounted interior handles. The direction indicators are operated conveniently by a r.h. stalk with a warning light in its tip; the dished spring-spoke wheel carries the horn button.

The Riley has neither under-facia shelf nor door pockets, but an unlockable cubby-hole with neat wood lid is provided. A praiseworthy feature is that the spare wheel is accommodated beneath the roomy boot, the lockable lid of which is self-supporting; the bonnet props up on its own but requires human aid to release itself. An interior lamp with neat sliding switch is set on the roof-sill convenient to the driver’s right hand and there are dual anti-dazzle visors (lacking a vanity mirror, however), and a good rear-view mirror. The front doors actuate the interior courtesy lighting. There is soft crash-padding above the facia, and the heater, controlled by two simple facia quadrant levers, is particularly effective.

Starting from rest was at first an undignified process, because the clutch engaged only at the very end of the pedal travel; this difficulty was overcome on longer acquaintance. The Riley gear change, with that tiny central lever, is in every way a joy, until you attempt driving in traffic, when the gearbox resists attempts to engage bottom gear in a thoroughly stubborn way. The Riley rolls excessively when cornering fast but road-holding is not rendered dangerous thereby; on bad going back axle judder sometimes intrudes and the axle movements sway the car. The production model possibly bears but small comparison in this respect with those Rileys which last year won the 1-1/2-litre Saloon-Car Championship! Nor is the ride good over really poor surfaces, although along main roads the car is comfortable, except that seats more generous dimensionally would be an improvement for long journeys.

When the Riley 1.5 was announced much was made of its high top and third gear ratios and these certainly make for effortless running. A 70-m.p.h. cruising speed, for instance, represents only just over 3,800 r.p.m. Unfortunately, the two lower gears are widely divorced from third and top, so that after taking the engine to 5,000 r.p.m. in second gear there is an unhappy lag in acceleration after engaging third. In fact, the absolute maxima are approximately 29, 46, 78 and 85 m.p.h., respectively, and the s.s. 1/4-mile took 21.2 sec. (mean time 21.45 sec.). The speedometer was 3 per cent, fast at 60 m.p.h. The gears are quiet, the back axle apt to hum to itself. The brakes, otherwise foolproof are not particularly powerful unless you press hard and they emitted a rubbing sound.

The steering, by rack-and-pinion, is devoid of sponginess or free play, is reasonably light, and possesses gentle castor-return action, at the expense of transmitting very slight kick-back over bumps. It is moderately high geared, at 2-3/4-turns, lock-to-lock.

Instrumentation consists of speedometer and tachometer (the former having a trip as well as total mileage recorder, although rally competitors might be exasperated at obstruction of these readings by the needle at certain speeds) and a dial which imparts the information that water temperature is N, oil pressure 50 lb./sq.in., and that X gallons of fuel remain between E and F. Fuel consumption of premium-grade petrol came out at 28.2 m.p.g. under general conditions, including several crossings of the Metropolis. As the tank holds seven gallons the range is under 200 miles; this is inadequate for Continental touring or rally driving and it is disappointing that the makers have done nothing to rectify this. In a total of 1,086 miles 1-1/2 pints of oil was consumed. The engine started at the first touch of the starter button after nights in the open under conditions of extreme cold and the former “running-on” has been cured. The test car had an H.M.V. radio of excellent tone, with dashboard speaker: it functions with the ignition off, but lack of separate panel illumination made tuning uncertain at night.

Reporting on the latest Sunbeam Rapier elsewhere in this issue I remarked a 1-1/2-litre car, a category now relatively neglected in this country. The Riley is also of 1-1/2-litres and B.M.C. turn out vast numbers of engines of this size, so that, in quantity if not in variety, this remains a popular capacity. There follow some opinions on the Riley 1.5 by the same engineer who analysed the same size, but rather more expensive, Sunbeam Rapier on pages 170-171.

Much of the character of this car derives from the very high top gear which provides effortless cruising at any speed within its range, with rather a high wind noise level, but without engine noise or vibration. The well chosen third gear has to be constantly used for cornering and overtaking, and the gearchange is good enough to make this a pleasure. All the gears, except first, are reasonably quiet and the synchromesh is not easily beaten except when hurrying the change from second to third. The wide gap between these two makes second a less useful gear than one would wish, and together with the rather heavy flywheel makes the upward change between them rather slow.

With the seat right back, the leg room is adequate only for drivers of less than average height, and the front seats, although extraordinarily heavy, are not comfortable for long journeys and provide little lateral support. The pedals are offset to the left but operate satisfactorily; the brake and accelerator are embarrassingly close together, but this has the merit of allowing simultaneous operation using the side of the shoe. The brakes require a rather heavy operating force by the latest standards, but produce a remarkably rapid stop without wheel-locking in an emergency. The steering wheel is placed in an unusually flat plane (actually about 45 deg. to the horizontal) but this proves quite convenient in practice and results in a straight-arm position when the hand is at the top of the rim.

In view of the close affinity between this car and the Morris Minor, and the many common steeering and suspension components, it is not surprising that it has the same characteristics of remaining light (though not as light as the Minor) even when more lock is required when cornering hard, and something of the same precision which shows up in its directional stability and accuracy of positioning when travelling fast on bumpy straights. There was some reaction through the rack-and-pinion steering, but this was never objectionable, and the common steering tremor at high speeds, caused by wheel unbalance, was not present on this car.

However, the considerably heavier engine and greater all-up weight have affected the handling adversely compared with the Minor. There is considerable roll, and the very high percentage of weight on the front wheels together with the rather high build and consequent large lateral weight transfer have resulted in overloading of the outer front tyre on corners which confers excessive understeer and makes the car feel under-tyred even though the previous 5.00 x 14 size has now been replaced by 5.60 x 14. It is to the credit of these Dunlop Gold Seals that tyre squeal is very moderate; instead there is a pronounced low-pitched scrubbing noise from the front, particularly on sharp corners, and there is considerable loss of speed on bends unless the lower gears are used freely. At the expense of some increase in suspension harshness, the car handles better with the front tyres inflated some 3 lb./sq. in. higher than the recommended pressures.

The ride is level and pitch-free, but the road-holding of the conventional back axle leaves some room for improvement, and there is a tendency to drift out appreciably on very bumpy corners. Many fast drivers would prefer to sacrifice a little comfort for slightly heavier damping and greater roll stiffness.

Although the Riley 1.5 is not an outstandingly fast cornering car, it has the compensating merit that it can easily be driven nearer to its limits than many cars. This property derives from handling which is predictable and free from vice and from an unusual share of that mysterious ” feel” which informs the driver of what is still in hand.

To sum up, although under critical analysis the Riley 1.5 has a few shortcomings, I enjoyed motoring in it and it is certainly a more palatial way of going-about one’s business than in a “minibric.” As a brisk yet compact well-appointed four-door saloon it fulfils a definite need, even if, in the light of recent knowledge, it would benefit from a certain amount of revision.

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