Riley was a British motorcar manufacturer, and had earlier been a cycle manufacturer. They ended up part of British Leyland.
Like Rover and various other early car companies, Riley found its way into car production via the cycle industry. The Riley family had a weaving buisness based at St Nicholas Street in Coventry when, in 1890, William Riley Jr bought the ailing Bonnick Cycle Company, a bicycle manufacturer based in nearby King Street. The company did well under Riley's stewardship, and six years later Bonnicks formally became the Riley Cycle Company. Over the next two years, William's son Percy – still only in his mid-teens – built his first prototype car, although William himself had no interest in moving into motor vehicle production. However, Percy persisted with his efforts, later instigating motorcyle production, and in 1899 the company's first petrol-engined "quadricycle" emerged. The following year, Riley sold its first tri-car, although the company would not produce its first proper motorcar, the prototype Vee-Twin Tourer, until 1905.
In 1903 the young Percy Riley established the separate Riley Engine Company at Cook Street Gate in Coventry, ensuring that he had control over the production and supply of engines for the Riley Cycle Company; this would prove to be a wise decision. In 1906, the Riley Engine Company moved to new, larger premises at Aldbourne Road, to the north of Coventry. That same year, car production got into full swing at the St Nicholas Works, and by 1907 Riley had stopped producing motorcycles and tri-cars in order to concentrate its efforts on bicycles and the burgeoning motor industry. Several new and increasingly ambitious Riley motor cars entered production during the remainder of that decade, and when bicycle production was finally abandoned in 1911, it seemed that Riley had completed its transition to being a fully-fledged motor manufacturer. Indeed, in 1912 the Riley Cycle Company's name was changed to Riley (Coventry) Ltd to reflect its newfound status, yet William Riley's reluctance to commit fully to the motor industry remained, and less than a year later he decided that he would be better off building road wheels for cars rather than the cars themselves.
Four of William's five sons – Percy, Victor, Stanley and Allan – saw things differently, but in deference to their father decided to form their own company in order to continue car production. Thus, the Riley Motor Manufacturing Company was founded in 1912/1913 at a new site in Aldbourne Road, close to the Riley Engine Company's works, and its first new model, the 17/30, was presented at that year's London Motor Show. In 1916 Stanley Riley established another new firm – the Nero Engine Company – at Cunard Works in Durbar Avenue, Foleshill, Coventry, to build a new 4-cylinder 10hp car that he had designed. Riley had also become involved in the emerging aero engine industry, mainly at Percy's instigation, and when war broke out in 1914, the company was well placed to make a significant contribution to the war effort.
With the end of hostilities in 1918 the Riley operations were substantially restructured. Riley (Coventry) Ltd once more became the focus of the car-building activity, absorbing the Nero Engine Company. With Riley based at the Durbar Avenue site from 1919, the St Nicholas Street premises were disposed of, and in time, the production of road wheels for other manufacturers was discontinued. Allan Riley took control of the former Riley Motor Manufacturing Company, which was renamed Midland Motor Bodies Ltd and would now chiefly supply bodywork for Riley's cars, while Percy's Riley Engine Company continued to supply the engines. The famous blue, diamond-shaped Riley badge, designed by the newly-appointed draughtsman Harry Rush, also made its first appearance at this time.
The 1920s saw Riley go from strength to strength. At the beginning of the decade its famous "As old as the industry" slogan was coined, and the company's forté for advanced design would see this extended to include the phrase "As modern as the hour" a few years later. Success in the marketplace went hand-in-hand with victories in motorsport, and by the end of the decade Riley had an accomplished range of cars to offer, and a blue-chip reputation within the motor industry.
During the following decade, the company slowly became a victim of its own success. New models came thick and fast, offered with a bewildering array of bodywork options: at the height of the 1930s, Riley's range comprised a range of chassis which could be specified with 4-, 6- and, eventually, even 8-cylinder engines and clothed in a variety of different body styles: saloon options included the Kestrel, Falcon, Adelphi, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio and Deauville; coupes came in Ascot, Lincock and Gamecock varieties. And then there were the Lynx and Alpine tourers; the Imp, MPH and Sprite sports cars; and the Edinburgh and Winchester limousines. Even this is not an exhaustive list of what was available, but gives some idea of what the company had to contend with.
By 1937, things were going seriously wrong for Riley. Profits were being squeezed, production and sales volumes were failing to meet ambitious forecasts, and moreover, differences were emerging in how the Riley brothers saw the company's future. Victor Riley felt that big cars spelt big profits, and had established a new company called Autovia earlier that year to build a top-of-the-range 24hp, V8-engined saloon and limousine that even tilted at Rolls-Royce's exalted position in the marketplace. Percy Riley, on the other hand, favoured small cars that would sell in higher volumes. He also saw the manufacture of components as the way forward, and would soon get the opportunity to relaunch his independent Riley Engine Company as PR Motors Limited, with the aim of realising both these ambitions (see Footnote at base of this page). Meanwhile, the Riley company's own financial situation continued to worsen, and by the end of the year Victor Riley was beginning to court other manufactuers whom he felt might be able to rescue the firm.
In a foretaste of what would transpire in years to come, two of the companies approached by Victor Riley were BMW in Munich and – somewhat closer to home – Triumph in Coventry. In February 1938, with the Triumph negotiations still ongoing, Riley (Coventry) Ltd and Autovia Ltd went bankrupt and the Receivers were called in. A partnership with Triumph was ruled out at this stage, as it too was facing financial difficulties (which would soon see it snapped up by Standard). Instead, it fell to the thriving Lord Nuffield to save the day. Victor Riley had approached Nuffield, a long-time acquaintance, after the Triumph plan had been scuppered, and managed to strike a deal whereby Nuffield purchased the company for £143,000. This was perhaps the best outcome that Riley could have hoped for, as Nuffield's aim was to save the marque and provide it with the financial backing it so desperately needed. The company's name was changed to Riley (Coventry) Successors Ltd, with Victor Riley as its Managing Director, and it was promptly sold on to Morris Motors for the nominal sum of £1. The "Successors" tag would be dropped from the company name a few years later.
Nuffield wasted no time in taking drastic but necessary action to rescue the reputation of the Riley name. Autovia Ltd was wound up, having turned out barely 35 cars in its short life, and the sprawling Riley model range was radically curtailed. The 6- and 8-cylinder engines were axed, and two creditable new model ranges were rushed out in saloon and tourer forms: the 12hp, which used the 1½-litre 4-cylinder engine; and the 16hp, powered by the so-called "Big Four" 2½-litre unit. The option of the stylish Kestrel sports saloon bodywork was retained for the 16hp model and, under the skin, Nuffield Group components started to be used (sympathetically) where this would help to achieve economies of scale without undermining the Riley's inherent character.
Post-war production got underway promptly in 1945 with the introduction of the first of Nuffield's new RM (Riley Motors) series, the 1½-litre RMA, with the 2½-litre RMB arriving the following year. Promoted with the new – but still-fitting – "Magnificent Motoring" slogan, the RM series (see table below for further details) can be regarded as Riley's swansong. Designed at Riley's Durbar Avenue base during the war years, the range encompassed sports saloons, tourers and coupes which were very much in the Riley tradition and would sustain the marque through its relatively short span under the aegis of the Nuffield Group. Notably, the independent front suspension system and improved steering set-up adopted for these models had been developed after studying a similarly-equipped Citroën Light 15.
In 1947, less than ten years after Riley had ceased to be a family concern, Victor Riley was sacked from his post as Riley (Coventry) Ltd's managing director as Lord Nuffield sought to rein-in control of his empire. Within a year, production had been moved from Durbar Avenue to the MG factory at Abingdon, as part of the wide-ranging Nuffield Group reorganisation that also saw Wolseley production relocated from Brimingham to Cowley. It's worth considering here how the various Nuffield Group brands were differentiated in marketing terms. Put simply, Morris cars were aimed chiefly at those seeking value for money, much as they had always been; MG saloons offered increased performance and a few extra creature comforts over their Morris counterparts; and Wolseleys played the luxury card, ensconsing their occupants in a wood-and-leather-lined environment. So, it would seem that all the bases had been covered, and with Riley coming late to the party, it initially proved difficult to find a rôle for the cars within this extended family. In the immediate post-war period, this worked in the marque's favour: the new RM models seemed to be in a class of their own, with their elegant, flowing lines and advanced specifications setting them apart from the dowdy and bulbous new Morrises and Wolseleys, and even appealing to customers who might otherwise have visited the showrooms of such companies as Jaguar or Lagonda.
However, Riley's time at top of the tree would not last, as the Wolseley marque would gradually come to reclaim that position in the BMC years that followed (at least until Wolseley was itself usurped by the creation of the Vanden Plas brand). This was reflected in the fact only one post-war Riley was ever offered with a 6-cylinder engine – the short-lived Two-Point-Six – and even that was just a badge-engineered Wolseley 6/90. Undoubtedly, there are many present-day Riley enthusiasts who would much rather Nuffield had simply laid the Riley marque to rest in 1938/39, rather than witness its gradual decline in the post-war years, but it should be remembered that it was only during the post-1952 BMC era that the rot really set in: with so many marques to manage, the delicate balancing act became increasingly diffucult – and costly – to orchestrate. The ethos of the Riley brand within BMC came to stand more for "upmarket MG" rather than some kind of über-Wolseley, and its relevance seemed to diminish with each passing model launch. And almost inevitably, the models which followed the RM series into production would come to rely increasingly heavily on the Nuffield/BMC parts bins.
The first car to appear following the merger with Austin was the 2½-litre Pathfinder, directly replacing the RMF and carrying forward its "Big Four" Riley engine and sophisticated front suspension. In all other respects, the Pathfinder was very much a Nuffield Group design, with its bodywork having been penned by Gerald Palmer at Morris's Cowley-based drawing office. Launched alongside the similarly-styled (but smaller) MG Magnette ZA in October 1953, this pair of cars also predicted the shapes of the following year's Wolseley 15/50 and 6/90 saloons, although the Pathfinder's panelwork was subtly different from that of the 6/90. This distinction was lost in 1958, when the Pathfinder was replaced by the ill-fated Riley Two-Point-Six, in essence a Wolseley 6/90 that had been given a superficial makeover consisting of little more than a Riley grille and badges. As if to add insult to injury, the car's six-cylinder C-series engine failed to match the power output achieved by Riley's own 2½-litre Big Four (down from 110bhp to just 97bhp). At a stroke, the fundamental "Rileyness" had been lost, and the car consequently failed to endear itself to Riley's traditional customers. It was quietly dropped in May 1959 and the Riley marque would never again compete in this market, with all future models being decidedly sub-2-litre. BMC would persevere with variations on the "Magnificent Motoring" slogan well into the 1960s, but this was now little more than a forlorn hope.
Indeed, by the late 1950s Riley and Wolseley had pretty much become the Darby and Joan of the BMC empire – destined to grow old together until one of them finally perished, followed by the other a few years later. The process which brought together the Wolseley 6/90 and Riley Two-Point-Six had started the year before, with the launch of the Wolseley 1500 and Riley One-Point-Five in 1957. The introduction of these Morris Minor-based models marked the advent of BMC's new policy of applying the Riley and Wolseley marques jointly to slightly upmarket models, whose bodywork would set them apart from the rest of the group's cars in some way, but with the Riley version generally having the edge on performance. Got that? Effectively a delayed replacement for the RME, the Riley One-Point-Five's 62bhp power output was almost 20bhp up on that of the Wolseley, although it has to be said that the naming of the Riley (it really did appear like that on the badges!) smacks of a desperate attempt to differentiate it from its counterpart. MkII versions of both these models appeared in May 1960, with the most obvious difference being the adoption of concealed hinges for the bonnet and boot.
In April 1959, Riley joined the Farina set with the launch of the 4/Sixty-Eight saloon. Here was a car that had little reason to succeed: introduced as the last of the gaggle of 4-cylinder Farinas, it had to make do with the same engine as the One-Point-Five – albeit with an extra 2bhp! – but wrapped in larger, heavier bodywork which looked little different to that of any other 'Farina' saloon. Somewhat oddly, bearing in mind what had gone before, the 4/Sixty-Eight shared its altered rear wing profiles not with the Wolseley 15/60 (launched some five months previously), but with the MG Magnette MkIII, which also used the same twin-carb, 64bhp B-series engine. Still, the Riley conformed to the new BMC rule-book in other ways, offering increased performance over the 58bhp Wolseley, along with a better-specified interior. With the absence of any representation in the 2½-litre class, it fell to the 4/Sixty-Eight to act as Riley's flagship, as well as catering to former 1½-litre RME customers who found the sportier One-Point-Five too small. According to Graham Robson's book, The Cars of BMC, it achieved this feat with some aplomb: apparently sales got off to a very good start and remained strong, thanks largely to a winning combination of its attractive specification and keen pricing.
Future model launches would see the Wolseley/Riley pairing re-established, although the contrived distinction between the two marques would be watered down in various other ways. Moreover, as time went on the whole brand definition became quite muddled: while it could be guaranteed from here on in that any 4-cylinder Riley would be superior in some way to its Wolseley stablemate, Wolseley always retained the ace card in being able to boast a larger, 6-cylinder model. This blow to the overall prestige of the Riley marque would prove to be a contributory factor in its eventual demise.
Meanwhile, in 1959 an Argentinean company called SIAM di Tella Automotores had started to build the Farina-styled 55bhp Morris Oxford Series V saloon under licence, but using the front-panel and grille from the Riley 4/Sixty-Eight. This mix-and-match creation was known as the Di Tella 1500, and was joined in 1962 by the Traveller version and a pick-up derivative called the Argenta, with both these models again using the Riley front end styling. The operation fizzled out in 1965, when SIAM was taken over by another company. Di Tella production totalled just over 62,000 models of all varieties.
Back in the UK, October 1961 saw the next paired launch, with the Mini-based Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet hitting the showrooms simultaneously. This time, although a valiant effort was made at giving these cars a distinctive body shape of their own, the mechanical spec sheets for both models were identical. In fact, with their 848cc engines producing the same 34bhp output as the Austin and Morris versions, the performance of these upmarket varieties was actually blunted by the weight of the extra bodywork and equipment. The real demarcation between these models was reserved for the interior treatment, where the Elf's opulent walnut-veneer dashboard knocked the Hornet's simpler Cooper-derived central instrument pod into a cocked hat (although the latter would surely have been more to Issigonis's taste).
Revised versions of the One-Point-Five and 'Farina' saloon were also introduced in Ocotber 1961 (along with a raft of similarly revised models from the other BMC marques). Now in MkIII form, the One-Point-Five was given a mild facelift (less obvious than that bestowed on the Wolseley 1500 at the same time). The 4/Sixty-Eight became the 4/Seventy-Two, with its bored-out 1622cc twin-carb engine now producing (somewhat confusingly) 68bhp – 4bhp more than its predecessor. Other improvements included a 1-inch stretch in wheelbase, a wider track measurement and the fitment of anti-roll bars front and rear, all of which helped to improve the handling. The 4/Seventy-Two retained its original rear wing treatment (as did its MG Magnette twin), while all the other 'Farina' saloons had their rear wings reworked in some way at this stage. Incidentally, it seems that the 4/Seventy-Two was marketed as the Riley Comet in Austria, and perhaps this rather more managable name would also have served it well in the home market...