Riley Roadster

Brian Sewell reflects on a curious British attempt to produce a roadster to conquer the US
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Magnificent Motoring," Riley proclaimed for their immediate post-war saloon, dubbing it "a joy to drive, a dream to own''.

Three months after the defeat of Germany a correspondent in Autocar thought it "the best Riley yet'' - and so, perhaps, it was, though the design of the feeble 1.5-litre engine under the elegant bonnet reached back 20 years to 1925. The chassis, however, was up-to-the-minute, with steering and suspension good enough to give drivers the impression they were in control of a motor considerably more powerful and sporting than could be expected from a four-door family saloon weighing a ton and a quarter but with only 55bhp to pull it.

Our "best yet'' man thought that this Riley could be driven through a right-angle bend 20 per cent faster than any "normally good car'', and concluded with the prediction that a 2.5-litre engine would soon appear and give the car "phenomenal performance''.

He was correct in that it did appear, in November 1946, but "phenomenal'' was undeserved hyperbole. Of old-fashioned long stroke and narrow bore, the engine's capacity was 2,443ccs, and that gave it the distinction of being the largest British four-cylinder engine in production since the demise of the Bentley three-litre in 1929 - hardly a strong selling-point. There are those, of whom I am one, who quite like the idea of a big lazy four, but with a history of small and silky six-cylinder engines (one of 1.5-litres with three carburettors quite typical) and even a V-8 of only 2178ccs, it seemed an uncharacteristic choice.

The chassis had to be lengthened by six and a half inches to accommodate it and the car's dry weight increased by the weight of two stout passengers to almost one and a half tons, but with 90bhp at 4,000rpm the new engine was enough to give the car a maximum speed of 95mph and a 0-60 time of 18 seconds (improvements over the 1.5litre of 20mph and 10 seconds).

The larger saloon - though exactly the same as the smaller in all respects other than the length of the bonnet - was enthusiastically received; testers praised its stability and road-holding, the high average speeds that it maintained, its individual character, its reliability and graceful lines. Donald Healey, who had some hand in tinkering its pre-war engine into post-war life, put it into one of his own cars and reached 105mph on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium (then the place for high speed testing).

Was it this that prompted Riley to offer an extremely rakish roadster of their own? The conventional five-seater drop-head coupé that they built at the same time was an elegant alternative body requiring no structural alterations, but the Roadster was a different matter. Long and low, its midship passenger compartment seemed designed for midgets, of whom three could sit abreast on the bench seat. The bulkhead was moved back so that the bonnet could be lengthened as well as lowered for cosmetic effect, but this interfered with the steering, which had to be cranked to one side and became intolerably heavy.

Behind the passengers lay a well into which the simple and scarcely weatherproof hood and sidescreens could completely disappear - remember that this was the era when doors were cut away so that leather-patched elbows could rest on them and drivers of open cars rejoiced in the assaults of wind and weather. Behind the well lay the biggest boot in Christendom (the whole rear passenger space of the saloon) and a 20-gallon petrol tank. To ease room for the middle passenger the gear-change was US-style, on the steering column.

This Riley, it was thought in Abingdon (where it was made), would sweep America, conforming as it did to the Art Deco principles of the speedsters by Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg -- long noses, big boot and particoloured. But of the 507 made between 1948 and 1951 far too few crossed the Atlantic -- 26 to the US and 11 to Canada. It did rather better among the omnisexual playboys of Egypt under King Farouk, but by no means well enough. Americans derided its four cylinders and the playboys found that too much sand blew into their brilliantined hair. When it dawned on Riley that export sales were not developing, they attempted to appeal to the home market by installing a central gear-change on the floor, but the bench seat remained; with a fold-flat windscreen and an extra 10bhp they claimed the car would reach 100mph. It never did.

The seeds of its failure were sown by Riley themselves. Not one panel of the body was shared with the saloon and even the pedals had to be specially made to suit the re-positioned bulkhead. The Roadster must have been absurdly expensive to construct; surprisingly rigid for a car without a roof, it was only marginally lighter than the saloon and as its performance was much the same.

It could not compete with Jaguar's XK Roadster (1948-54), even on price. I have seen it described as an ugly car, the ugliest ever made by Riley, but in my eyes it is a daring body of extraordinary appeal.

The Roadster dribbled on in production until January 1951. Two years later the saloon too died away, but the engine lived on for four more years in the Riley Pathfinder, a slab-sided, graceless body designed as a big Wolseley. British Leyland extinguished Riley in 1969.

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