Riley


The History of Riley

   

Riley began as the Bonnick Cycle Company of Coventry, England, bought in 1890 by William Riley Jr. and re-named in 1896 to the Riley Cycle Company.  Riley's younger son, Percy, left school and began to dabble in automobiles. He built his first car at 16, in 1898, secretly, because his father did not approve. It featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve. By 1899, Percy Riley moved from producing motorcycles to his first prototype four-wheeled quadricycle.  Little is known about Percy Riley's very first "motor-car". It is, however, well attested that the engine featured mechanically operated cylinder valves at a time when other engines depended on the vacuum effect of the descending piston to suck the inlet valve(s) open. That was demonstrated some years later when Benz developed and patented a mechanically operated inlet valve process of their own but were unable to collect royalties on their system from British companies: the courts were persuaded that the system used by British car-makers was based the one pioneered by Percy, which had comfortably anticipated equivalent developments in Germany. In 1900, Riley sold a single three-wheeled car.
Company founder William Riley remained resolutely opposed to diverting the resources of his bicycle business into motor cars, and in 1902 three of his sons, Victor, Percy and younger brother Alan Riley pooled resources, borrowed a necessary balancing amount from their mother and in 1903 established the separate Riley Engine Company, also in Coventry. At first, the Riley Engine Company simply supplied engines for Riley motorcycles and also to Singer, a newly emerging motor cycle manufacturer in the area, but the Riley Engine Company company soon began to focus on four-wheeled cars. Their Vee-Twin Tourer prototype, produced in 1905, can be considered the first proper Riley car. The Engine Company expanded the next year. William Riley reversed his former opposition to his sons' preference for motorised vehicles and Riley Cycle halted motorcycle production in 1907 to focus on cars. Bicycle production also ceased in 1911.
In 1912, the Riley Cycle Company changed its name to Riley (Coventry) Limited as William Riley focused it on becoming a wire-spoked wheel supplier for the burgeoning motor industry, the detachable wheel having been invented (and patented) by Percy and distributed to over 180 motor manufacturers, and by 1912 the father's business had also dropped car manufacture in order to concentrate capacity and resources on the wheels. Exploitation of this new and rapidly expanding lucrative business sector made commercial sense for William Riley, but the abandonment of his motor-bicycle and then of his car business which had been the principal customer for his sons' Riley Engine Company enforced a rethink on the Engine Company.
In early 1913, Percy was joined by three of his brothers (Victor, Stanley, and Allan) in a new business focused on manufacturing entire cars. This Riley Motor Manufacturing Company was located near Percy's Riley Engine Company. The first new model, the 17/30, was introduced at the London Motor Show that year. Soon afterwards, Stanley Riley founded yet another company, the Nero Engine Company, to produce his own 4-cylinder 10 hp (7.5 kW) car. Riley also began manufacturing aeroplane engines and became a key supplier in Britain's buildup for World War I.
In 1918, after the war, the Riley companies were restructured. Nero joined Riley (Coventry) as the sole producer of cars. Riley Motor Manufacturing came under the control of Allan Riley to become Midland Motor Bodies, a coachbuilder for Riley. Riley Engine Company continued under Percy as the engine supplier. At this time, Riley's blue diamond badge, designed by Harry Rush, also appeared. The motto was "As old as the industry, as modern as the hour."
Riley grew rapidly through the 1920s and 1930s. Riley Engine produced 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines, while Midland built more than a dozen different bodies.
The Riley Brooklands was one of the most successful works and privateer racing cars of the late 1920s and early 1930s, particularly in hill climbs and at Le Mans, providing a platform for the success of motorsports' first women racing drivers like Kay Petrie and Dorothy Champney. It was based on Percy Riley's ground-breaking Riley 9 engine, a small capacity, high revving engine, ahead of its time in many respects. The Riley Engine Company had been renamed PR Motors (after Percy Riley) to be a high-volume supplier of engines and components. Although the rest of the Riley companies would go on to become part of BMC, PR Motors remained independent.
By 1937, Riley began to look to other manufacturers for partnerships. The Rileys were interested in a larger British concern, and looked to Triumph Motor Company, also of Coventry, as a natural fit. In February, 1938, all negotiations collapsed as Riley (Coventry) and Autovia went into receivership.
Both companies were purchased by Lord Nuffield for £143,000 and operated by Victor Riley as Riley (Coventry) Successors. It was quickly sold to Nuffield's Morris Motor Company for £1, with the combination coming to be called the Nuffield Organisation.
Nuffield took quick measures to firm up the company. Autovia was no more, with just 35 cars having been produced. Riley refocused on the 4-cylinder market with two engines and some components were shared with Morris for economies of scale.
In 1947 the Coventry works were shut down as production was consolidated with MG at Abingdon. Nuffield's marques were to be organised in a similar way to those of General Motors: Morris was to be the value line, MG offered performance, and Wolseley was to be the luxury marque.
There was confusion with the positioning of the marques however which became critical in 1952 with the merger of Nuffield and Austin as the British Motor Corporation. Now, Riley was positioned between MG and Wolseley and most Riley models were, like those, little more than badge-engineered versions of Austin/Morris designs.
A BLMC press release dated 9 July 1969 announced "today that all Riley models produced at British Leyland's Austin-Morris division will be discontinued".
Riley production ended with the 1960s, and the marque became dormant. The last Riley badged car was produced in 1969. After BMW's divestment of the MG Rover Group in 2000, the rights to the Triumph and Riley marques, along with Mini/MINI were retained by BMW.

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