Riley cars timeline

The Riley car company started in 1890 as the Bonnick Cycle Company of Coventry before William Riley Jr incorporated the Riley Cycle Company in 1896.

His son, Percy Riley started working on his first car secretly, aged 16, in 1896 and completed its build in 1898. It featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve and was driven by Percy and Victor Riley to Stratford-upon-Avon and back.

William Riley, founder

By 1899, Percy Riley moved from producing motorcycles to his first prototype four-wheeled quadricycle.

Meanwhile, the elder of the Riley brothers, Victor Riley, although supportive of his brother’s embryonic motor-car enterprise, devoted his energies to the core bicycle business.

But in a u-turn in 1913, William decided to halt car production to focus on detachable wheel production. Bicycle production had also ceased in 1911.

By 1903 the Riley Engine Company was established, and in 1913 Percy was joined by his three brothers, Victor, Stanley and Allan to focus on manufacturing entire cars, at around the same time changing its name to Riley (Coventry) Limited.

Riley’s founder William Riley remained resolutely opposed to diverting the resources of his bicycle business into motor cars, but driven by Percy and his three brothers, the company’s focus shifted to manufacturing entire cars in early 1906.

A post-war restructure, Riley grew rapidly through the 1920s and 30s and, in 1926, introduced an innovatively designed fabric-bodied saloon, Percy Riley’s ground-breaking Riley 9 engine- a small capacity, high revving unit.

Regarded as ahead of its time in many respects and called the most significant engine development of the 1920s, it attracted the attention of sports car engineers, going on to achieve track success at, among others, Le Mans, Ulster TT and Brooklands.

By the mid-thirties however, the business had overextended, with too many models and few common parts, and the emergence of Jaguar at Coventry was a direct challenge. Disagreements between the Riley brothers about the future direction of the enterprise grew.

After the death of Percy Riley in 1941, his business began producing transmission components and still exists today in his works in Aldborrne Road, Coventry, trading as NDE Clarke Pitchline Ltd.

Separately PRM Newage Limited is based in Aldermans Green, Coventry. Percy’s widow Norah ran this business for many years and was named Britain’s Businesswoman of the Year in 1960.

The last Riley badged car was produced in 1969 after British Leyland announced an immediate end to Riley production.

For a short while, following BMW’s purchase of the Rover Group in 1994, there were hopes that Riley might be revived, since the then Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder was an enthusiast. But after Pischetsrieder’s removal in 1999, and BMW’s divestment of the MG Rover Group in 2000, these hopes faded; though the rights to the Triumph and Riley marques, along with Mini were retained by BMW.

Top Five Rileys

1898 UNCLE PERCY’S HOME-MADE CAR: This small belt-driven vehicle featured the first mechanically operated inlet valve.

1905 9HP FOUR-WHEELER: This was the first car in the Riley company’s evolution from bicycles through motorcycles and three-wheeled cars. As speeds rose, it was deemed sensible to add a fourth wheel. The car sported the world’s first detachable wire wheels (made by grandfather William) and was powered by a 1034cc V-twin.

1926 NINE: Described by the late great racing driver Tony Rolt as “the greatest advance in light car design”, the Nine of 1926 was powered by a 1087cc four-cylinder engine with twin camshafts that would form the basis of all future Riley engines.

1928 BROOKLANDS: This sporty derivative of the Nine had twin carburettors and was much admired by the famed engineer and designer Reid Railton, who extracted more power from its engine.

1945 ONE-POINT-FIVE: The first post-war Riley was conceived in 1943 and put on ice while the company’s war work progressed. This meant Riley was the first firm out of the traps with a new car when the hostilities ceased.

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