Shopping for a Riley



The previous articles on “Shopping for a Rolls-Royce (or Bentley)” and “Shopping for a Daimler” having aroused a modicum of interest, we turn to another popular make of car which is blessed with at least one specialist supplier—the 1-1/2-litre and 2-1/2-litre Nuffield Rileys. Before going on to look at what one should pay for such cars, or, more correctly, what one is likely to receive in terms of motoring enjoyment in exchange for a given sum of money, let me say that I do not regard post-war specialist cars as more desirable than vintage or p.v.t. equivalents—on the contrary.

The fact remains that some shoppers prefer the post-war products, because spare parts should be more easy, even less expensive, to obtain, because tyres in still-manufactured sizes contribute to this end, because hydraulic brakes (used on these Riley models from 1952 onwards) may facilitate passing the MoT vehicle test (with the proviso that hydraulics for which parts have ceased to be obtainable may be virtually unrepairable, whereas mechanical systems can invariably be made to function, whatever their age) and because the law of supply-and-demand makes the more recent cars less expensive than the rarer, more covetable, pre-1940 specimens—although, scarce as vintage and p.v.t. examples are, this last-named argument is not valid in the case of the Riley, Coventry-made models of which, when you can find them for sale, are still, in the main, moderately priced.

As in the case of post-war Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Daimlers and Alvises, etc., the 1-1/2-litre and 2-1/2-litre Rileys, which were in production under the Nuffield regime from 1945 to 1954, represent cars in the pre-war pre-down-to-a-price tradition, with exposed headlamps (although Riley faired them into the mudguards), leather upholstery, distinguished radiator grilles, “real” instrument panels, dignified styling and, in the case of these Rileys, leather-covered roofs on the saloons, a feature which has been recently reintroduced as a prestige symbol. Incidentally, I had thought of shopping for an Alvis and only the absence of specialised copers for this illustrious make (although there is a number of good spares sources for them) deterred me. Albeit, I have heard of the owner of an Alvis TA14 who changed it for a Daimler Conquest and now regards the latter as a much better car, with the proviso that all the earlier cars, of whatever breed, need maintenance ability if they are to continue to function satisfactorily. Anyway, to our Rileys . . .

The Riley Register, catering for Coventry-built, pre-Nuffield models, will tell you that the deterioration in design was evident in 1938. However, the post-war 1-1/2-litre and 2-1/2-litre Rileys did have some merits, such as good torsion-bar and wishbone independent front suspension (borrowed by at least one builder of a racing special), short central gear-levers controlling a four-speed gearbox and the famous inclined o.h.v. engine with short push-rods actuated from twin base-chamber camshafts. The smaller engine had the classic dimensions of 69 x 100 mm. and developed 54 b.h.p. The 2-1/2-litre had the longest stroke of its era, being of 80.5 x 120 mm., and it gave 90 b.h.p., later increased to 100 b.h.p. when larger inlet valves were fitted. There was rack-and-pinion steering, which, with the king-pins, has gained a reputation for never showing signs of wear, and the body decor not only embraced wood veneer trim and real leather upholstery but a leather-covered roof, not the current leather-cloth-on-steel, but a padded roof over a steel-mesh base. These post-war Nuffield Rileys were long and slender, except the 2-1/2-litre Roadster of 1948 to 1950, which had a three-abreast-seater open body but, intended for export, suffered from hideous bumper over-riders and a steering-column gearchange.

At first these Rileys had hydro-mechanical brakes, a propeller-shaft half enclosed in a torque-tube; and a hypoid-bevel final drive. The early 1-1/2-litres were called the RMA and the early 2-1/2-litres the RMB. Late in 1950 a new instrument panel was devised for them and in the summer of 1952 a fully-open propeller-shaft, full-hypoid final drive and full hydraulic braking were introduced, and the 1-1/2-litre cars had lower back-axle ratios. These cars were the 1-1/2-litre RME and 2-1/2-litre RMF models. The 1-1/2-litre cars dispensed with even vestigial running boards, but the dark blue diamond badge and ribbed, or helmet, front wings distinguish it from the 2-1/2-litre, which has plain wings and a light blue badge.

Although these Rileys are so similar in outward appearance, engines and other parts are not generally interchangeable, although a 1-1/2-litre back axle can he used on the 2-1/2-litre, at the expense of under-gearing, an expedient sometimes adopted when correct replacements were unobtainable for early 2-1/2-litre cars, which were prone to break halfshafts. Incidentally, for a time car numbers gave a clue to date of manufacture, for if ten were subtracted from them the year became apparent, i.e., 62S was a 1952 car; the “S” indicated a saloon, as four-seater convertibles were also made.

To carry out my shopping for one of these Rileys and to refresh my memory of them (for I had not driven one since the Motor Sport road-test 1-1/2-litre of 1947, when, I recall, we suffered a sticking valve and the car was never offered for re-testing), I put on my Serck tie as an insurance, as I frequently do when driving the older vehicles, and set off to seek out Mr. E. T. Lundegaard, who specialises in them. I found him in a corner shop in Gloucester, full of modern scooters and motorcycles, enhanced by a collection of vintage models (not for sale) which included a locally-made JES two-stroke.

Before sending me out in a representative model from his stock, I was shown a 1-1/2-litre saloon which has been in one family since new, owned by grandfather, father and son; I was told it had done 90,000 miles without a re-bore, although needing new bearings and piston rings. Three more of these cars, two 1-1/2-litres and a 2-1/2-litre, were in the back of the shop and I was shown more, including a Roadster, in a nearby yard. All told, Mr. Lundegaard put his stock at 19 saloons and three Roadsters.

The Riley I tried was a 1954 model, “a two-owner car with original log-book”, Reg. No. MTR 999, car No. RME 22750, engine No. 1287, which had been taxed for the year 1970 in Hampshire. It had apparently just come in, and the reason it was allocated to me was because it was the only one that was taxed; the following comments should be read in this context. It steered and cornered very well for a car of this age, the brakes functioned really well, and I found it comfortable and easy to drive, the gear-lever being admirably placed, although the synchromesh had worn away. A cruising speed of 50 m.p.h. was held without undue noise, and this could be worked up to nearly 60 m.p.h. without distress—”not so much cruising, just ambling along,” Mr. Lundegaard calls it.

The maximum indicated speeds in the lower gears were 15, 30 and 50 m.p.h. The separate driving seat, in light grey leather, was easy to adjust and the steering was not unduly heavy (just under 2-3/4 turns lock-to-lock), nor did it kick-back, while there was mild castor-return. With the engine idling a good deal of vibration, however, came back through the triple-spring-spoke steering wheel. The ride was a trifle pitchy, but again was good for a car of this age and the engine started confidently, was very flexible, and ticked over quietly without stalling. Once, however, the throttle of the SU carburetter stuck wide open, causing the ignition to be quickly switched off; the trouble did not reoccur. On drive there was a noticeable whine from the differential, which I was told would be rectified. A new exhaust system had been fitted but air leaks therein resulted in some “phutts” when the throttle was backed off and sometimes louder reports.

The detachable instrument panel contained British Jaeger gold-faced dials, consisting of an inoperative clock, a 90 m.p.h. speedometer with decimal trip and total mileage readings (the mileometer appeared to be accurate but the wide speedometer needle blanked the trip reading at cruising speed), and four small square-faced instruments—an ammeter, a fuel gauge calibrated E, F, a thermometer reading 212, 175, 90, and an oil gauge calibrated 100, 50, 0. The oil pressure was normally 50 lb./sq. in., the temperature 175º F., give or take a few lb./deg. The ammeter had stuck at +15, on a dial reading from —30 to +30.

Below this instrument panel there was the Riley’s usual row of eight lettered knobs, controlling, from I. to r., panel lighting, ignition advance and retard, fog lamps, starter (pressed in) mixture enrichment, lights, heater and hand-throttle. The detachable ignition key inserted in the centre of this impressive line of knobs.

Other traditional features were the fixed but divided screen, its wipers controlled by a knob pulling up from the screen sill, two roof lamps switched on from a tiny roof switch convenient to the driver’s right hand, old-style swivel-out facia ashtrays, ditto door handles, semaphore-style direction indicators controlled from a steering wheel thumb-switch, these rising from the rear panels and being self-cancelling, rigid anti-dazzle vizors clipping up into the roof, under-facia shelves but no door pockets, rear-hinged front doors, and a two-piece side-opening bonnet with separate knobs to release each panel and neat props to hold them up. The drivers view is along this divided bonnet to the dummy filler cap, with the helmet front wings with their faired-in sidelamps in full view. The rear seat had a centre armrest and the hand-brake was an umbrella-grip under the facia, for the right hand. The quick action of the window winders was a good point.

This 16-year-old Riley ran quite well, but its condition was scarcely in keeping. The blue metallic paint was blemished, especially on the n/s back wing (the back wings were of helmet type), which was also dented. The glass was good all round, but carpets, door trim and the roof covering were very dirty, with the strips stuck on over the roof stitching partly lifting off. Some of the external plating, such as on the waistline, was poor, the paintwork was chipped here and there, and the plating on the inside of the windscreen frame was in a very bad state, as was the wood along the top of the facia and the window sills.

The bumpers were smart and the doors shut well, but one Lucas 700 headlamp had a cracked glass and a rubber bung was missing from one bumper mounting. All the lamps, including the fog lamps, and the horn worked, but the engine was positively filthy and the interior of the boot smelt strongly of damp, the interior of the body slightly of rubber, possibly because the Delaney Gallay drum-type heater did not seem to quite shut off. The radiator grille carried an AA badge and a label on the screen indicated that the previous owner had used Sternol anti-freeze. The chassis was scruffy but the roof lining clean.

The general effect was nowhere near Concours d’elegance standards. The tyres were rather a mixed lot. The o/s front wheel had a 600 x 10 Dunlop Gold Seal, the n/s front wheel a Semperit of the same size. Both possessed plenty of tread but the walls of the Dunlop showed signs of age. The o/s back wheel was shod with a 5.75 x 16 Dunlop tyre, the n/s back wheel carried a 6.00 x 16 Dunlop Gold Seal tubeless tyre. Again, there was adequate tread depth but one cover had a bad crack in the wall. The spare wheel was buried under the floor of the boot; it had some tread left.

The engine had the plate saying to set the tappets to .015 in. when hot and the data plate said the car had been made at Abingdon-on-Thames, which can bring tears to the eyes. The price at which this Riley was for sale was £275, which made me think fondly of an immaculate green 1-1/2-litre saloon I could have had not so long ago for £100. Study of the September Motor Sport small advertisements showed that 13 Nuffield Rileys were for sale, apart from a few more that were open to offers. They can be summarised as follows :


1948 model ………. £150

1950 model ………. £150*

1952 model ………. £275

1954 model ………. £180

1954 model ………. £105†

Average = £185


1951 model ………. £160∞

1952 model ………. £365

1952 model ………. £160

1952 model ………. £525

1953 model ………. £225

Average = £275

1-1/2-litre Roadsters

1949 model ………. £285

1949 model ………. £385

1950 model ………. £250

Average = £301

* = “Or near offer” –– † = “Slight body damage.” –– ∞ = “Needs a respray.”

Amongst the Trade advertisers there was a 1-1/2-litre model, described as “a trifle tattiludinous but a glorious runner” (with spare engine), for £45, a 1449 2-1/2-litre for £75 and a 1946 1-1/2-litre for £95. So I am inclined to think that if you shop around you might still find a worthy specimen in the region of £100, and that £200 should buy quite a good one. The winter is the best time to shop and cash could he an incentive,—W.B.