The MG Connection
Octagon Newsletter … May and June 2002
By Peter Lee
Only a mere handful of years ago, in the days when real cars leaked oil and the word reliability didn't mean what it does today, there was British Leyland. This monster of the British motor industry was flying high and it's products were diverse. Rolling off the assembly lines were vehicles of all types for all occasions. But just like today, to retain an individual's loyalty in a particular marque, badge engineering was relied on to give some individuality to "cookie cutter" type production. Sometimes quite blatantly the fitting of a different label moulded in plastic turned an Austin into a Morris, or vice versa. Other models went deeper with subtle differences in body pressings, more luxurious upholstery and real walnut veneer.
But in the final analysis, they remained a product of British Leyland, the names on the badges were simply an indication of what use the vehicle might take. A Rover could possibly belong to a doctor, whereas a Morris was regarded as a family car. To all those who are rising to their feet in protest, I offer this simply as an indication, not a rule.
So let us take one make from the BL range and see where it came from … the Riley.
Victor Riley was the head of the family business and built his first sports car in 1923, a flashy polished aluminum body flanked by red painted wings, hence the name Redwing. It's performance, even by the standards of the day, was mediocre. A 1500 cc engine of sidevalve configuration bellied its appearance. It was the next offering that was to set the standard for many years ... a small saloon called the Monaco Nine, the brainchild of Percy Riley, one of Victor's sons. The basic engine design would remain unchanged for many years, the designation of Nine referred to the taxation class of the day at an assumed rate of eight horse power to a litre. Therefore a capacity of 1100 cc equaled nine horse power. The novel engine had camshafts set high up on each side of the cylinder block, with very short pushrods working rockers on valves inclined at 90 degrees from the centre-line. This resulted in a very efficient hemispherical combustion space. The initial output from 1100 cc was only 28 bhp at 4200 rpm … not bad for 1926.
A year later the firm of Thomson and Taylor built a two seat model named the "Brooklands" under license to the Riley company, so named because their works was in the centre of the Brooklands race track. By now the bhp rating was up to 41 at 5200 rpm, giving very good performance from a very light car. So started the sporting side of Riley cars.
Over the years the engine size was increased and cylinders were added, but the basic design of the "Nine" continued to win races and set records. The Brooklands evolved into an Imp, still retaining the 1100 cc engine. It's bigger brothers were the Sprite, still with four cylinders and the M.P.H., a six cylinder engine … both were 1500 cc.
The Riley engine was also the heart of the ERA (English Racing Association) founded by Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon et cie. In it's ultimate form of two litres and equipped with a Zoller supercharger it gave out 300 bhp. Who says racing doesn't improve the breed? In this guise it took on the might of Auto Union and Mercedes as the prewar racing formula changed to the 750 kilogram rule. This formula was to produce incredibly complex and powerful engines from the two German manufacturers, nevertheless on certain circuits the out engineered ERA still managed to win.
The Riley engine was also the choice of Donald Healey and the series of cars he built post 1947. Except that by this time Riley was a part of the Nuffield organization, nevertheless the engine design was retained until BMC pensioned it off in 1952.
The sports car side of the company was certainly the minority, the bulk of production was four seat saloons. I hesitate to call them Family saloons, although that's undoubtedly what they were. The quality and style lifted them above the norm of the day, with a flowing bodyline and purposeful stance, it was distinctively a Riley. As is with today's production vehicles, Riley shared certain items with other makes. S.U. carburetors, Lucas electronics, etc. One item certain models shared with MG was the "pre selector" gearbox. Only after driving one did I understand how good it was.
Can I take you back to a time before disc brakes and independent suspensions. A time when a drive in the country was occasionally equivalent to a full body work out.
Spirited driving in a leaf sprung car with live axles took determination, especially on the bias ply narrow section tires of the time. To line up for a tight corner, brake, change down a gear in a "crash" box and steer, demanded discipline and concentration. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a "crash" box means a gearbox without synchromesh. The only way to change in a hurry was to depress the clutch, shift into neutral, let the clutch back and "blip" the throttle to synchronize the engine speed with the road speed, then depress the clutch again to engage a lower gear. While all this was going on what was your right foot doing? It was standing on the brakes for all you were worth with a heel working the accelerator. This left one hand to change gear while the other attempted to hang on to the steering wheel. Sounds exciting doesn't it? Imagine then being able to select a gear long before a corner, making it select with a single stab of the left foot on the clutch and without synchronising anything. Leaving you free to brake and steer then accelerate round the corner. Is it any wonder it won races?
The "pre selector" gearbox has evolved into the epicyclical automatic transmission that many of us drive on a daily basis. So when you come hurtling into that tight bend down the road, and the transmission slickly changes almost without you noticing it, then remember the grin on the face of Tazio Nuvolari as he drove the MG K3 for the first time. The year was 1933 and the event was the RAC Tourist Trophy in Ulster … lapping so precisely to knock shards off the post on a corner with his wheel spinner. The racing rules at the time commanded a "mechanic" occupy the passenger seat. Elected for this was Alec Hounslow … you can also imagine the terror of the poor fellow forced to keep out of the way of Nuvolari's flailing elbows by keeping himself as small as possible. Nuvolari's only language was Italian. I am assured none of the MG crew were bilingual, which won't apply to the person in your passenger seat, so don't risk those spinners.
Of the last Rileys to be built before the name was pensioned off, one was called an Elf, quite obviously a Mini, but with the front altered to accept a very neat Riley radiator shell. The other was the One Point Five with, once again, a traditional Riley radiator shell but sharing the body pressing with the Wolsley 1500. The connection with MG was the 1500 cc engine also to be found in the MGA. Notwithstanding, the last of the Rileys upheld the honour of their name in the hands of drivers like Jack Sears as it carried off the production saloon car class, often beating more powerful but less nimble opponents. The Riley was a real sports car, whether two seats or four.
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