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Riley history
Rob Malpas



The Riley Cycle Co. Ltd. was founded on 23/5/1896 by William Riley Junior. In 1870, he had taken over the families weaving business, in Coventry. In 1890 he also acquired the Cycle works of Bonnick & Co. Ltd. The two companies were effectively merged in 1896, with new works being bought alongside the Bonnick works in King Street Coventry. In 1899, the first Rileys powered by an internal combustion engine were shown. They were a Quadricycle, and a Tricycle, both called 'Royal Rileys'. They were shown by the company of Messers William, Basil and Herbert Riley - the three brother shareholders of the company. These were the first official Rileys to be offered for sale to the public. However, between 1896 and 1898, Percy Riley, one of William's sons, had developed a car of his own. The Car was hand-made by Percy, to his own design, in the Workshops of the Riley Cycle Company, however, it was never put into full production. The only thing of note in his design, was that for the first time in a cars engine, he used a mechanically-operated inlet valve. However, although this car was a very successful prototype, which was used by the family for many years, it didn't reach production, meaning that the 1899 Royal Rileys are thought of as the first Riley Motor Cars.

Over the next few years, Riley developed the 2 Royal Riley designs, as well as adapting some of their bicycle designs to take petrol engines. However, the directors were beginning to find the problems in simply adapting pedal-driven machines to petrol-driven, and so decided to design a tricycle that was intended to be motorized from the beginning. This resulted in the 1904 Tricar. The Tricar, although obviously based on the Motor-cycles, was undoubtedly designed to be petrol-driven (as indeed was the 1903-model motorbike). It featured the first Riley-designed engine, from the Riley Engine works, run by 3 of William Riley's Sons - Percy, Victor and Allan. The engine works were run entirely by Percy, and situated alongside part of the 13th century city wall in Coventry. The 1905 Tricar was the first Riley to use a steering wheel in preference to Handlebars. It also had some form of bodywork, and started to look less like a converted Motorcycle. This also meant that the saddle was replaced with a bucket-seat, like that already used for the passenger. These 9hp Riley Tricars were the first to enter motorsports, and their success lead to Rileys inter-war domination of their class at many races. Over the years, the Tricar design was developed significantly, until it ended production in late 1907, due to more modern 4-wheeled Rileys.

Since 1905, a 'proper' 4-wheeled Riley had been under development, and was ready for production towards the end of 1906. The development of this car had lead to the Riley Engine Co. having to move in that summer. This was done with the aid of a lorry that they specifically built themselves, and was able to carry up to 2 tons, simply using the v-twin 9hp engine from the Tricars. The Car was a light 2-seater, using the V-twin engine, and available with an optional hood. Throughout 1906 and 1907, the cars were successful in many of the events (mainly hillclimbs) that they were entered in, winning a large number of them outright, although mainly due to Handicapping procedures.. A significant development that Riley used on this car, was the patented detachable wheel, which meant that the puncture didn't have to be repaired in-situ, but the wheel could simply be replaced. During this period, the success of the cars led the Riley Cycle Company to cease production of bicycles by 1911. However, before this, in late 1907, Riley had decided that a larger car was necessary. Therefore they had developed the Riley 12-18hp.

This still used a V-twin engine, but scaled up to about 2 litres. The car was usually a 4-seater, but had many different bodies put on it in it's lifetime. These bodies included a Landaulet, 2-seater, and 4-seater with rearward facing rear seats. Most models featured tool-trays under the front passenger seat, an idea which was used on many further Rileys (although later transferred to an under-bonnet location). By the 1908 Motor Show, another new model had been launched, in the shape of the Riley 10hp. This was generally a 2-seater model, with a shortened chassis, and smaller engine than the 12-18hp. Most of the development of the Riley Cars was now being carried out by Percy (Engines/Mechanics) and Stanley (Body design). The other family members played lesser parts as controllers of the various Riley companies.

10hp Riley

During 1910, the 9hp model was gradually phased-out, leaving the company running a 2-car production line. Then, during 1913, many changes were made in the Company infrastructure. The Riley Motor Manufacturing Co. took over car production, at new works next to the Riley Engine Co., and the Riley Cycle Co. changed it's name to Riley (Coventry) Ltd., and concentrated on the patented detachable wheels. These wheels were to prove very popular with other manufacturers, and in 1913 alone, Riley supplied over 183 manufacturers with wheels. During this period of reorganisation, a brand new car, The Riley 17hp was launched. It featured a brand new 4-cylinder, 3 litre engine. Again various bodies were available, but production hardly got under way before war was declared.


At the end of 1913, Stanley Riley returned from his world-tour, and transferred his attention from the successful Riley Motor Manufacturing Co., to another Riley company, The Nero Engine Co. Ltd., which Victor Riley had founded some time earlier. He almost immediately started work on a new 10hp engine, and then a new car to carry it, as a sort of replacement for the discontinued 9hp. The car was finished later in 1914, but the outbreak of war stopped any production. In 1916, the Nero Engine Company bought some land at Foleshill, on the edge of Coventry, to further the war-materials production. After the war, this site became the new headquarters for Riley, replacing the many small, cramped and old workshops and offices in the centre of the City.

Straight after the war, Riley underwent further re-organization, with Riley (Coventry) Ltd. ceasing production of Wheels, and absorbing the Nero Engine Company and the Riley Motor Manufacturing Co. and moved to Foleshill. In the mean time, until a new car was developed, the Riley Engine co. continued production of the 17hp. This car continued in production until 1921, when the Horsepower tax was introduced. The company then transferred to Electric lighting, and engines / equipment for boats, until 1926. Also, in 1918, a new company based at the old Riley Motor Works, called the Midland Motor Body Co. was set up, under Allan Riley. By the 1919 Motor show, the new Rileys had been fully developed, and were ready for Launch. The first Riley was the 11hp, bearing the now famous 'V-radiator', and Diamond Badge. The car's chassis' were made at Foleshill, before being transported to the Midland Motor Body works, to have the bodies lowered into place. The bodies were either 3 or 4-seaters, and could be removed fairly easily, whilst still leaving all of the mechanical and electrical components in place. This car continued for several years, and in 1921 it was the first Riley to be marketed with the slogan 'As old as the industry, as modern as the hour'.

By 1923, the bodyshop had also been transferred out to Foleshill, where further land had been acquired, to accommodate the factory. The Riley 11hp was also renamed the 11-40hp, and considerable successes were made in all of the racing events that Rileys entered. Most were private entries, but several were aided by the Riley companies. Throughout the early 1920's, the Rileys had been available with 2 engines, the 10.8hp, and the newly-upgraded 11.9hp. Customers had the choice of either engine in their cars, and the split was roughly 50/50 with all bodies, except the 2-seater. This car (unofficially known as the Redwing, due to it's polished aluminium body with Red wings) generally had the 10.8hp. However, despite the success that these models were gaining for Riley, the company had decided that a new model must be developed. The designs for the new 9hp engine / chassis were finished in 1925, and the first few cars were built in early 1926. This was the now famous Riley 9 'series'.


The Riley 9 Prototype, with Monaco Bodywork was first unveiled in 1926. It aroused great curiosity, as it was unusual for small cars of that time to be fitted with closed-saloon bodywork, still less covered with fabric. The engine was completely new, with overhead valves for the first time. Another interesting feature was the integral boot at the back of the car. By the 1926 motor show, the Riley 9 was fully developed, and several bodies (including the Monaco) were on show. Also on show, was a supercharged 11-40, and the 'new' 12hp, which was basically just a renamed 11.9hp 11-40! The Riley 9 entered full production in 1927, with a slightly revised Monaco body, or tourer. Later in 1927, 2 further bodies were made available - a 2-seater tourer with dickey-seat, and the San-Remo 4-seater saloon. Also by the end of 1927, the sporty Brooklands had been developed, on a shorter chassis, with a shorter radiator set behind, rather than on top of the front members. In 1928, Riley dramatically improved the now ageing 12hp, with a modified engine, and new bodies. These were all now given names, rather than just descriptions. The main bodies were the Lulworth, Midworth and Grangeworth Saloons, also the Wentworth Coupe, and Chatsworth Saloon.


During 1928, the success of the Riley 9 led to the demise of the old side-valved 12. Also during 1928, the Riley 9's managed to set many new speed-records, and win many races, mainly due to the excellent performance of the Brooklands model. At the end of 1928, the old Riley 12 was replaced with the all-new 14/6. This was a 14hp 6-cylinder Car. In general appearance, the car was very similar to the popular 9, but it was larger in all dimensions. The car shown featured fabric bodywork, and was called the Stelvio (essentially a larger Monaco). In addition, the Deauville Saloon, and Special Tourer were launched shortly afterwards. At the same time, the 9 Monaco was slightly improved, with a bigger boot, and a new 9 Biarritz was introduced. This featured a one-piece bonnet, hinged at the rear. Between 1926 and 1929, over 6,000 Riley 9's had been produced, with demand still high for the exceptional cars. Despite being older than much of their competition, they were still winning many races at the end of 1929, and continued to do so throughout the 1930's.

"Our native automobile engineering industry contains one or two examples of undertakings owned by a single proprietor. For the rest, with one exception motor-manufacturing companies in England are publicly owned. The unique case is that of Riley, which has always been, and remains in effect, a family concern...." From the preface of "The Riley Romance", by Edward H. Reeves, Jan.1930.
This statement probably helps explain the success that Riley found - the fact that it wasn't run by a single person, or by a board of squabbling directors, but by a family who all had roughly the same ideas for the company.

Despite only launching one new model in 1929 - the 14/6 6-light saloon, Riley had a very successful year. This was mainly on the track, with many new lap records being set, as well as many wins at the races that the Riley team entered. This helped to lead to a record 1,000,000 worth of sales, quite some feat for a small company in the 1920's! In 1930 Riley introduced an all new 9 'plus' range. This comprised the Monaco and Biarritz Saloons, Brooklands Sports, Open tourer and 2-seater Coupe. The 14/6 range also underwent modifications, with the 6-light being renamed the Alpine, as was the 4-seater tourer, and the Stelvio saloon and Sportsmans Coupe were updated. The success of Rileys in Motorsport continued, and was further improved with the new 9-plus. In additions, the Riley engines were made available to the new Brooke-Riley motorboats, which proved a popular success for the Riley Engine Co. Late in 1931, another new model was launched, in the shape of the WD or Army tourer. This was a civilian version of the Riley 9 tourer used by the War Office. The 1932 range was launched shortly afterwards, and comprised of 7 bodies on the 9 - Monaco, WD, Brooklands, 2-seater Gamecock Sports, Ascot Coupe, and 2 and 4 seater Tourers. However, the 14-6 stayed much the same, with just the Alpine and Stelvio Models. The end of 1931 saw William Riley's 80th Birthday, and also Riley (Coventry) Ltd. taking over Riley Engine Co., and the Midland Motor Body Co., so that all of Riley's production was carried out by one Company.


Following winning the 1100cc class in the 1931 Monte Carlo rally, 9 Rileys were entered in the 1932 event. The previous years winner came 3rd overall, with other Rileys gaining 4th and 5th places. This was just one of the many rally successes of 1932, not to mention the Grand Prix events. During 1931, the plant at Foleshill had been enlarged, in order to start export production. Many Rileys had already been exported, but mainly by private people, and professional exporters - Riley itself had never exported a car. The Rileys that were for sale overseas were all built from exported components, by companies licensed by Riley, although many had unique bodies. Later in 1932, the 'new' 14-6 engine was adapted, to make the 12/6 engine. The idea behind this was that the engine would then be eligible for the under 1500cc class. The first few cars with this engine were fitted with larger Brooklands-style bodywork, and mainly used in trials and races. By the end of the year, however, the 12/6 was available to the public. This meant that the Riley range now consisted of 9 Riley 9's - The Monaco, Ascot and Gamecock which remained relatively unchanged, and also 6 new models - The 4-seater Kestrel and Falcon Saloons, The re-named Lynx 4-seater tourer, as well as the Lincock 2-seater coupe, March special and 2-seater Trinity tourer.

alpine tourer

The 14/6 range also underwent some changes, with the Stelvio and Alpine continuing, while the new Edinburgh 5-seater Limousine was launched, along with the Winchester, a slightly more moderate car. All of the 9hp 'sports' bodies (ie: no the Monaco or Ascot) were also now available. However, all of the 9hp bodies were made available on the 12/6 chassis, although the Monaco was called the Mentone, as the bodywork had to be adapted more than the others to fit the chassis. By Mid-1933 the Riley Motor Club had become the largest single-make motor club in the world, with over 2,000 members. Many more racing successes were made during 1933, further promoting Rileys. For 1934, many improvements were made across the range, but the only all new car was the Imp. This was a 2-door, 2-seater sports tourer, essentially intended to succeed the long-departed Brooklands. The Kestrel, and Lynx were also modified in appearance, as were the Mentone and 14/6 Stelvio. In addition, all of the closed-saloons were now metal bodied, and it was the last year for the fabric bodied Tourers as well. In Mid-1934, Riley started public testing of another new car - the MPH. This car was essentially a 6-cylinder Imp, and apart from a longer bonnet and only 2 seats, it looked nearly identical.

For 1935 another new engine was launched - the 12/4. This was a completely new design, although it bore many resemblances to the existing Riley engines. It quickly replaced the 12/6, which lost demand to the new 1 Litre engine. This new chassis featured a completely new Falcon body, which later replaced the existing falcon throughout the range, and also a modified Kestrel body, at launch. In addition, the 14/6 engine was replaced with a new 15/6, which took all of the standard bodies, as well as the new Stelvio.

TT sprite replica

Racing successes still abounded for the Riley teams, and for many races, Rileys were THE cars to beat in their class. 1936 saw some major changes to the Riley range, with a modified Falcon body, and new Merlin, intended to replace the 9hp Monaco, and 12hp Mentone, as the 'base' model. In addition, a new V8 engine was introduced, and many of the lesser models were dropped. The range now consisted of 23 cars:
9hp: Merlin and Kestrel.
12/4: Merlin, Kestrel (now 6-light), Falcon, Lynx, and the new Adelphi.
15/6: Kestrel, Falcon, Lynx, Adelphi and MPH.
8/90: Kestrel and Adelphi.
Many of the models in the range were also available as 'special series' (making the 23), an idea which was launched in about 1930, and basically consisted of uprated suspension, engines and gearboxes to give a sportier feel to the car. Extra body features were also included. The 8/90 V8 was basically 2 9hp engines places at 90 to each other. It was not a success, and only about 25 are believed to have been built. In addition, Riley later launched the all new Sprite, a 2-seater sports with streamlined front end and the 12/4 engine.

"....we make far too many models of course. But then we have a pretty fertile design department, and we like making nice, interesting cars." - Riley Advertising. Sep.1936.


For 1937, the Riley Monaco reappeared, although with very different styling. The new design was very much similar to the larger Adelphi. In addition, the Kestrel 9 and Merlin 12/4 were discontinued, as they were effectively replaced by the new Monaco. All models now had bumpers, Trafficators and interior lights (even the Tourers). Throughout 1936/7, Rileys sporting excellence continued, although less outright wins were recorded, they were still a team to be reckoned with. Late in 1936, a new Marque, called Autovia was launched in Coventry. One of the companies directors was Victor Riley, and the Engine and gearbox were obvious developments of those used in the Riley 8/90. Although not a Riley, the Autovia shared too many design features with Rileys to be regarded as a completely new / different car. The only new Riley for 1937 was the Continental Touring Saloon, on the 12/4 chassis. By Mid'37, Riley had completed development of it's all new 2 litre 4-cylinder engine. This was intended to be the new range-topper in place of the unsuccessful V8 8/90, and was called the Big-Four. The new Big-Four was available with Kestrel, Adelphi, Touring, or Close-Coupled Saloon bodywork.

For 1938, with the advent of the new Big-Four engine, the range was drastically changed again, with the demise of the existing 9, and all 15/6 models. This left Riley essentially with a 2-engine Line up:
12/4 (1 litre): Adelphi, Kestrel, Lynx, Continental-Touring, Sprite.
16/4 (Big-Four): Adelphi, Kestrel, Continental-Touring, Close-Coupled Saloon.
The Adelphi could also be bought with the 8/90 or 15/6 engines, direct from the factory. It is also interesting to note that the Sprite is the only open top model left in the range. The Rileys now had a radiator Grill, with vertical slats mounted in front of the traditional Honeycomb radiator, and the Bonnet Louvers had been removed. Bumpers were standard on all models, both front and back, and so were steel covers for the spare wheels. In addition to the models listed above, A brand new 12/4 or 9hp Riley, the Victor was launched at the motor show. This was the cheapest Riley model.

In November 1937, at the AGM, the first hint of Financial Trouble was sensed outside the company, with the announcement that the previous 18 months accounts were to be rigorously checked through. By February 1938, a merger with Triumph was rumoured, but at the end of the month, Victor Riley the Chairman of Riley (Coventry) Ltd. announced that the receivers had been called in. The many attempts to reduce expenses that the receiver made were to close the London Spares depot, liquidate the bodies branch and Riley Engine Co., and sell off all Riley shares in Autovia (a significant amount). This financial difficulty led to a dramatic drop in staff, and so production levels. However, privately entered Rileys still performed exceedingly well in all the races they took part in. By September, rumours of a take-over by Lord Nuffield had been confirmed. He stated that:
"Lord Nuffield in acquiring the Riley Organization is desirous of preserving in every way the development of those characteristics that have made the Riley car so outstanding."
Immediately after purchasing Riley, Lord Nuffield re-sold it to Morris Motors, so as to generate a large amount of capital for the company. The company was then re-named Riley (Coventry) Successors Ltd., with Victor Riley appointed Managing Director. Lord Nuffield made it clear that the company could continue as before, with financial backing from Morris Motors. However, many detail changes were made to the cars, including some parts being replaced with standard Morris stock, to reduce cost but not affect Riley performance, or style. Shortly after the take-over, Morris Motors became the Nuffield Organization, now comprising Morris, MG, Wolesley, and of course Riley. Before long, however, it was announced that the 1939 Riley range would be trimmed to the Kestrel Saloon, and Lynx Tourer - the 2 best selling models.

This meant the final demise of the Riley 9, after well over 20,000 had been built since 1926. Shortly after the 1939 range was launched, however, the Foleshill plant like so many others across the country was turned over to war production. It was during WW2, in 1944, that the founder of Riley Cycle Co., William Riley died. He had outlived his own company, which had survived for 40 years, and produced some of the most outstanding cars of its time.


This was the final development of the pre-war 12hp engine, clothed in a sleek new body. The car handled impeccably with its new independent front suspension, good brakes and sophisticated suspension. A maximum of 80mph came from 54 BHP.

Only 13,950 of these new cars were made between 1945 ( the RMA) and 1955 (RME) and of these 8,661 were exported.  As only a quarter of the total production were thought to have been exported in Right Hand Drive form, the 1,100 registered in Australia in the early 1950's demonstrates their relative popularity here.


Between 1946 and 1953 just 7,956 2 1/2 litre cars were made. Of these, 5,215 were exported, and by the early 1950's over 2,000 were registered on Australian roads. Maximum speed was well over 90 MPH from 100 BHP.


This rare version of the 2 1/2 litre (the RMC) was designed primarily for export, with the American market in mind.

Only 507 were built between 1949 and 1951. Of these, just 147 were marked for Right Hand Drive export, and it is believed that over 120 came to Australia.