The life of Riley: Preserving a British car firm's history

The life of Riley: Preserving a British car firm’s history

“In 1998, I invited him to Gaydon for the centenary celebrations of Uncle Percy’s first car. He said he would come on the condition there would be three Rileys, including a Brooklands, parked next to the control tower that he would see from his helicopter as he flew in. Of course, I agreed. He arrived, drove the cars and later announced there would be a new Riley. I eventually saw the prototype. But soon after, he was removed from BMW and his dream died.”

Amazingly, this wasn’t the first time Riley had crossed paths with Munich. In 1937, a joint venture was proposed that would have the two companies develop a new model based on a lightweight chassis and powered by Riley’s 1.5-litre engine, but pre-war secrecy within BMW stalled the plan. These stories and plenty more are brought to life by the exhibits and volunteers at the newly opened “spiritual home of Riley”.

A key aim is to acquire the original Riley engineering drawings and digitise them for restorers. The archive is still very much a work in progress, but with Victor at the helm, it won’t be long before it’s flying, just like that 900bhp Nine Kestrel.

Top Five Rileys

1898 UNCLE PERCY’S HOME-MADE CAR: This small belt-driven vehicle featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve.

1905 9HP FOUR-WHEELER: This was the first car in the Riley company’s evolution from bicycles through motorcycles and three-wheeled cars. As speeds rose, it was deemed sensible to add a fourth wheel. The car sported the world’s first detachable wire wheels (made by grandfather William) and was powered by a 1034cc V-twin.

1926 NINE: Described by the late great racing driver Tony Rolt as “the greatest advance in light car design”, the Nine of 1926 was powered by a 1087cc four-cylinder engine with twin camshafts that would form the basis of all future Riley engines.

1928 BROOKLANDS: This sporty derivative of the Nine had twin carburettors and was much admired by the famed engineer and designer Reid Railton, who extracted more power from its engine.

1945 ONE-POINT-FIVE: The first post-war Riley was conceived in 1943 and put on ice while the company’s war work progressed. This meant Riley was the first firm out of the traps with a new car when the hostilities ceased.