The History of Riley Cars

Written by rob wagner
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  • Introduction

    The History of Riley Cars

    The Coventry, England-based Riley automobile company produced a wide range of cars from the beginning of the twentieth century until 1969. The company was plagued with financial problems throughout much of its existence, in part due to producing so many different models with few interchangeable parts. But it built well-crafted cars, including its own version of the Mini Cooper with the Riley Elf.


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    Riley was founded by William Riley, Jr., as a bicycle manufacturer in 1890, and later began building motorcycles. Riley's son, Percy, built the first car in 1898. The three-wheeled automobile was sold in 1900, and three years later Percy Riley started the Riley Engine Company.

    A pre World War II era Riley, foreground, and a postwar version. ()

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    Early cars

    By 1913, Riley was producing the four-cylinder, 10-horsepower 17/30 model, which debuted at the London Motor Show. World War I interrupted civilian automobile production, and Riley built aircraft engines instead. During this period, Percy Riley's brothers--Victor, Allan and Stanley--joined the company.

    A 1934 Riley 12/6 Mentone. ()

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    Between the Wars

    Percy Riley assumed control of the engine supply aspect of the family business, building four-, six- and eight-cylinder motors, while Allan took over the coach-building responsibilities. Through the 1930s, Riley manufactured nearly 20 different models as saloons (four-door sedans), tourers, sports, coupes and limousines. Rileys were also raced extensively at Brooklands, Le Mans and dozens of British hillclimbs.

    The 1938 "Big 4" Riley Lynx. ()

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    The Riley wanted to be all things to all people. The company's engineering was cutting edge with its dynamic Riley 9 engine, which had small displacement but powerful output. But Riley wanted to compete against the new Jaguar, and developed the luxury Autovia V-8 saloon to rival Rolls-Royce. As a result, the company overextended itself and collapsed into bankruptcy in 1938.

    The 193612/4 Ricketts Special. ()

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    Nuffield Era

    Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Riley brothers sought a merger with the Triumph Motor Company. But Riley declared bankruptcy in the middle of negotiations, and Lord Nuffield purchased Riley for £143,000. Nuffield then turned around and sold it to Morris Motor Company for £1 to create new company, the Nuffield Organization. Nuffield dropped the Autovia and narrowed the models down to a handful with only a few bodies and shared components with the Morris cars.

    The 1951Riley RMB 2-liter Saloon. ()

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    Postwar Era

    After World War II, production was combined with MG and Wolseley. In 1952, Nuffield and the Austin automobile company merged to become the British Motor Corporation. By this time, Rileys were essentially rebadged as Austin and Morris cars. Riley got lost in the shuffle as a mid-range car between the Morris and the Wolseley, but it did earn some recognition in the 1960s with the Riley Elf, which was based on the Mini Cooper's design.

    The Riley Elf was supposed to be an upscale version of the Mini with a boot and more chrome. ()

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    The End

    By 1969, the Riley was a shadow of its former self, and died a quiet death. Its licensing is now owned by BMW. The Riley name was resurrected by BMW in 2007 when it introduced the Riley BMW Prototype to compete in GT class auto races.

    The last of the Rileys, a 1969 Kestral 1300, foreground. ()

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