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

Victor Riley has always aimed to preserve the history and legacy of the manufacturing company his grandfather started. We met him at the new museum in Coventry.

Victor Riley, the grandson of the founder, was first seen by me last year during my attempts to break the 500-metre and quarter-mile speed records set by a 1935 Riley Nine Kestrel at Elvington. You read correctly: A 1935 Riley Nine Kestrel.

Kestrel Beer sponsored it (naturally). It was owned and sponsored by Kestrel Beer. The engine, which produced 8.9bhp from a four-cylinder engine, was not the engine Victor’s Uncle Percy had designed. Instead, it was powered by a turbocharged 2.5-litre five cylinder engine from an Audi RS3 that produces, after some tweaking, 900bhp.

As with all high-speed endeavors, power doesn’t always mean everything. Aerodynamics also matter. The record car was not only strengthened in key areas, but also fitted with larger dished tires, powerful disc brakes, and all of the safety equipment, it looked almost exactly like the original Nine Kestrel. It was so light that it began to wobble at 110mph on its first official run. It rolled several times and careered off the track.

Jon Webster, the legendary engineer and modder, was uninjured. The experience convinced everyone to improve the aerodynamics of the car before trying again.

After months of hard work and a day in MIRA wind tunnel, the team finally gathered at Elvington. The Riley was now wider, smoother, and lower, and it also has a half of the Audi Quattro and a sequential gearbox. It looks and feels completely different.

It also broke a record. It broke the record for fastest standing start half mile by more than one second, with a speed at 159.638mph. It established six new speeds and reached a peak speed of 169mph.

Victor, who was jubilant, said that “What everyone has accomplished is remarkable” and that, despite modifications, elements of the Riley Kestrel’s body can still be seen.” “Uncle Stanley, one of five sons who guided Riley to success, learned to fly aeroplanes. He also incorporated aerodynamic principles in the Kestrel’s design. The Flying Kestrel is a real flying machine!”

At that moment I saw Victor’s pride in his family business and also felt some of the same pragmatism which helped them soar from humble beginnings. Although the Flying Kestrel might have looked different and had a motor that wasn’t Uncle Percy’s, it was the end result that was important – and it was great.

Victor was 85 years old at the time. You wouldn’t have known. He was energetic, passionate about his family business, and fascinated by Flying Kestrel. He was and still is a joy and inspiration. He shared with me his lifelong dream to open a center dedicated to preserving Riley’s name. It would contain photos, documents, and memorabilia that relate to the company’s activities from 1898 to 1969. Many of these items will be digitalized for future generations. It would be located in the middle of the city in a small building near Coventry Canal Basin.

Although it seemed ambitious, I believed that anyone could accomplish it. And Victor was right. In September, despite several Covid-induced delays the Riley Cars Archive Heritage Trust opened.

Victor tells us that he is proud of the work Riley and all those who love and support him when they meet up at the centre in November. We are all volunteers but everyone involved in the trust, even Coventry’s officials, have worked hard to make it a success.

Victor’s grandfather William is the first to be mentioned. He was a weaver and, as the industry started to falter under foreign imports he asked Henry Sturmey, his friend, what to do. Autocar’s launch editor advised him to “Move into bikes.” They’re the future.” He did so, founding the Riley Cycle Company 1896.

William had five children, each of whom was confusingly also called William. They were all known by their middle names. Victor says that Percy was the creative genius of the family. He was an engineer by trade who built his first car while still in school. He and Victor, his brother, drove the car to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1898. Grandfather was not impressed. Grandma, however, gave the boys PS39 to lease and equip a shed. From there, in 1903, the Riley Engine Company designed and built engines for Riley motorcycles, and later motor cars.

This venture was the birth of Riley (Coventry) Limited, a car-making company. The firm’s success was attributed to Percy’s innovative engines, which were the top-selling models.

Lord Nuffield bought Riley in 1938. In 1952, the Nuffield Organization joined Austin and formed the British Motor Corporation. Unfortunately, Riley was no longer a badge on cars of other manufacturers.

The story does not end there. After BMW purchased Rover Group in 1994, Bernd Pischetsrieder became its boss and admitted to having strong feelings for Riley. Victor says, “He said they shared their sporting elegance and BMWs.”

“I invited him to Gaydon in 1998 for the centenary celebrations for Uncle Percy’s first car. He agreed to come under the condition that there would be three Rileys and a Brooklands parked near the control tower, which he could see from his helicopter. I accepted. He drove the cars, and then he announced that there would be a new Riley. The prototype was eventually shown to me. He was soon removed from BMW, and his dream was over.

It was not the first time Riley and Munich had met. A joint venture between the two companies was suggested in 1937. It would have seen the two companies create a new model that was lightweight and powered by Riley’s 1.5-litre engine. However, pre-war secrecy at BMW stopped the project. The exhibits and volunteers at Riley’s newly opened “spiritual house of Riley” bring these stories to life.

The main goal is to digitize the original Riley engineering drawings for restoration. Although the archive is still a work in process, Victor will soon be able to fly it, just like the 900bhp Nine Kestrel.

Top Five Rileys

1898 UNCLE PRY’S HOME-MADE CROSS: This small, belt-driven vehicle was the first to have a mechanically controlled inlet valve.

1905 9HP FOUR WHEEL:This car was the first in the evolution of the Riley company from bikes to motorcycles to three-wheeled cars. It was decided to add a fourth wheel as speeds increased. It was powered by a 1034cc V-8 engine.

1926 NINE Tony Rolt referred to the Nine of 1926 as the “greatest advance in light car design”. It was powered by a 1087cc four cylinder engine with twin camshafts. This engine would be the foundation of all future Riley engines.

1928 BROOKLANDS This sporty version of the Nine featured twin carburettors. Reid Railton, an engineer and designer, was fondly impressed by it. It also had more power.

1945 ONE POINT-FIVE The first postwar Riley was created in 1943 and kept on ice during the company’s war work. Riley was the first company to emerge from the traps with a brand new car after the ceasefire.

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