Factory methods in the vintage era

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No. 8: Riley

Perhaps not quite strictly vintage this time, for we are going inside the Riley works during the year 1932, which is p.v.t.-time by 1964 criterions; but no matter.

In that year William Riley was still alive, a youthful 8o years of age, Victor Riley was looking after the far-flung activities of the Riley Motor Club, Percy Riley was basking in the successful sales and competitions sorties of the Riley Nine he had introduced to a receptive motoring public in 1926, abetted by Stanley Riley, Allan Riley was responsible for the bodies on Riley chassis, many of them still true coachbuilt jobs, and Cecil Riley was occupied selling the cars at home and especially overseas.

In those pre-B.M.C. days “The Riley” occupied three factories in Coventry, then a city of some 182,00o inhabitants, who had seen the weaving and watch industries sink into oblivion but bicycle, artificial silk and motor-car manufacturing arrive to save Coventry’s prosperity. Today, Coventry’s population has risen to some 305,000 and Rileys have lost their individuality under the badge-engineering practised by the British Motor Corporation and are not even made any more in the city of their origin.

Thirty-two years ago the Riley factories were tucked away, fairly inaccessibly to visitors to this area of commerce and commercialism. It was a big works, with one of the biggest car parks in Coventry at that time. There was also in the works a shop selling sweets…

In the engine assembly shop every Riley Nine engine was run-in for a minimum of three hours, then spent the same period undergoing power tests. The average maximum power developed on the test bench was 46.5 b.h.p. and on average this varied by no more than 1½ b.h.p. either way. The racing or Speed Model engines used the same camshafts and valves as the production engines but electron where aluminium was otherwise employed. Incidentally, Riley used to claim that the Nine power unit had such substantial crankshaft and camshaft bearings, such light valve springs, that high revs would never kill it. It was good for 50,000 miles before a major overhaul would be required, they claimed. Excellent, remembering the less advanced lubricating oil techniques of 1932, even if road speeds were lower.

Riley’s justification for a 9 h.p. car selling for around £300 was that for a (then) single-figure annual tax they offered a spacious and handsome 4-door saloon able to exceed a genuine 60 m.p.h, and cruise indefinitely at over 50 m.p.h. Another of their claims was that the materials in the Riley Nine saloon exceeded the wholesale selling price of more than one saloon car of similar horse-power rating…

Certainly, in 1932, pains were taken to ensure that Rileys were cars of high quality. Axles and other parts were stove-enamelled instead of merely painted.

Engines and gearboxes were made in the Aldbourne Road factory, where cylinder block castings were bored, honed, surface ground and drilled in about 2½ hours. The output of 9 h.p. power units in a good week numbered 150.

The completed power units were taken by lorry to the Foleshill works, where the car assembly lines were situated, in a 700 ft.-long hall flanked by the parts stores.

The 3-carburetter 6-cylinder engine was built at Foleshill and put into the Riley Alpine. Here back axles were tested for efficiency and quietness on an ingenious rig to which the axle assembly with its torque tube and prop.-shaft were anchored, and driven by an electric motor, while each half-shaft was coupled to a slow-speed dynamo wired in series with the motor. Up to 100 h.p. was put through an axle that had on the road to transmit only half that power, the dynamos providing some 80 h.p. of this, the rig being in a sound-proof room, so that the quietness of a Riley back-axle matched that of the silent-third gearbox or was summarily rejected.

Another ingenious piece of test equipment was an ultra-violet ray apparatus for measuring the effect of strong sunlight on safetyglass, paint, varnish and fabric, to ensure durability of Riley cars destined for hot countries.

The third Riley factory was the bodyshop, where coachbuilt Monaco, Biarritz and Stelvio saloons, with joints on the Weymann system, and open 2-seater Gamecocks, were constructed. Timber was shaped in a large, clean and splendidly appointed saw-mill, shavings being sucked into tubes and conveyed to a burning dump. The tools were mostly by Wadkins of Leicester and included a useful polishing machine. Cellulose was sprayed on under pressure from numbered nozzles, each one connected to a drum containing different colour cellulose, replenished each morning and stirred by electric paddles.

At this home of the Blue Diamond wire wheels were spoked by hand and fabric tacked onto body frames by individual craftsmen. It seems such a long time ago!—W. B.

Other articles in this series have been:—

Sunbeam: June 1960
Crossley: March 1961
Hillman; August 1960
Ford: September 1961
Rolls-Royce: October 1960
Renault: December 1961
Standard: December 1960