Gentlemen’s Breakfast Club Car of the Meet Article
my Riley 12/4 Special, along with friends Maurice, David and Bob, in Riley 12/4 Falcon, Porsche 911, and Westfield XI respectively. The sunny weather had brought out a wide selection of cars, vintage through to modern, and it was interesting to meet old work colleagues Andy, Geoff and Jason, who I’ve not seen since leaving Cobble, some 19 years ago. The Special was not quite the oldest car in attendance (that being the Riley Falcon at 83 years old), but perhaps the most ‘different’ car? Anyway, it seemed to be of interest to people, and was named as Car of the Meeting; as a result, I was asked to write an article about my car for the GBC blog.
Riley 12/4 Special at the meeting May 2018
Riley had a great competition record in the inter-war period with works cars claiming victories in the TT, and various Grands Prix. Perhaps their greatest achievement was at Le Mans in 1934, where works-entered Rileys followed the winning Alfa Romeo 8C into 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th places; privately entered Rileys also finished 12th and 13th. Meanwhile, a number of engineering wizards and racing drivers had found that the Riley chassis, engine and running gear could form the basis of extremely capable racing Specials, from Parry Thomas and Reid Railton’s Brooklands Riley 9, which became a production model, to the racing sixes of Hector Dobbs, Freddie Dixon and Raymond Mays.
The White Riley
Raymond Mays had seen great success with his Brescia Bugattis, and his supercharged TT Vauxhall, taking on the world’s best and beating them at his beloved Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb.
His big breakthrough however, came from his collaboration with Victor Riley to develop the White Riley. Taking the underslung Riley MPH/Sprite chassis, running gear and six cylinder engine, highly developed and supercharged by Jamieson, the result was an instant success, taking records at Brooklands and going on to win many races. The White Riley was the forerunner of the E.R.A. (English Racing Automobiles) voiturettes, which Mays, Peter Berthon and Humphrey Cook created, with the intention of putting an English car at the forefront of international motor racing. The influence and legacy of E.R.A. and subsequently B.R.M. on British Motor Racing is inestimable.
This car was the inspiration for my own Riley Special, having caught the pre-war racing car ‘bug’ while attending a VSCC Sprint meeting at Curborough in 2011. Having parted with my classic MG, to create some garage space, over a couple of years, I acquired a rolling chassis project, and chased-down all the necessary missing parts from all over the country. It is as testament to the standard of Riley’s engineering and quality of manufacture that many of these eighty-year old parts had been spared from the scrap-man and lived under people’s benches for decades, in the knowledge that they could be pressed back into action with a little refurbishment. I then set to the job of four years or so, restoring and rebuilding everything, with all the components being brought up to a competition specification. I’ve been fortunate to work with marque experts who have carried out the more specialist jobs, Ross Keeling rebuilding the engine, and the late Ralph Wren manufacturing several unobtainable parts. Nick Jarvis, who had an original works TT Sprite to work from as a reference, made pedals, handbrake parts and the wings. I made the dash and firewall in aluminium, then mocked-up a body with plywood shapers and cardboard sheets. The aluminium body was then made by Clive Smart of Shapecraft (better known for C-Type Jaguar replicas, Shapecraft Lotus etc. but he does enjoy a special commission).
The engine is a 1938 Riley 12/4, which is the four cylinder 1496cc unit introduced in 1935 as an evolution of the Riley 9 (1087cc) engine introduced in 1926; very advanced at the time, with twin cams, hemispherical combustion chambers, and eminently tuneable. The same basic pre-war engine design was carried forward into post-war cars after Riley was consumed by Nuffield, giving an amazing production lifespan of over 30 years. The engine ‘as found’ was seized, with valve and bore damage, but was all repairable, and the original block was re-lined, re-metalled and line bored, then ceramic sealed ready for reassembly. New shell-bearing rods were fitted, along with high compression pistons and high-lift cams.
All new valve gear and a full-flow oil filter arrangement were fitted, along with new timing gears. The flywheel (which weighed around two tons) was discarded, complete with the clutch mechanism, and replaced with a newly manufactured lightweight flywheel, with a direct-drive coupling to the rebuilt pre-selector gearbox. Every component was refurbished, remade or replaced with period-correct parts.
One topic of discussion at the GBC, and a question often asked, is “how does this gearbox work then?” This being the Wilson ‘pre selector’ gearbox, made by Riley under license from Armstrong Siddeley. This is worthy of a few more words, as it is a work of genius. Whilst initially intended to make for an easier, quicker ‘silent’ gear change, it soon found it’s way into the hands of racers who had been quick to realise the benefits of hands-free, almost-instantaneous gear changes. The gearbox comprises four epicyclic gear trains, interconnected and controlled in such a manner that four forward ratios, reverse, and a ‘neutral’ can be achieved by the actuation of brake bands and a cone clutch.
The driver ‘pre-selects’ the desired gear by moving the hand control on the steering column, then, when the gear change is required, it is effected by depressing the left (clutch position) pedal. This allows the driver to make a very fast gear change without moving hands from the steering wheel. Variants of this gearbox were used in racing cars, quality saloon cars, and also military and commercial applications. The same gearbox used in the Riley was used in the E.R.A. and the
Pre Selector Gearbox
We initially tested the car in Autumn of 2017 in stripped/racing form, and then fitted road equipment – lamps, cycle wings, making it much more usable as a regular road car. We did a track day with the VSCC at Blyton Park and the car showed good potential in terms of speed and handling, albeit hindered by a serious lack of brakes, and fourth gear. Both issues were subsequently resolved with only adjustments being required. (That Bugatti will not get past us next time…) I’m steadily building up the miles on the engine and tinkering with things, and still have various cosmetic bits to finish. All being well, the car will start competing in vintage speed events later in the season.
I would really like to thank Andrew for setting the bar on writing a great article on his Riley Special.
So now we have two GBC records to be beaten:
4th GBC Furthest Travelled member 220 miles – A30
5th GBC Oldest car to attend – 83 years old – Riley Falcon
The Gentlemen’s Breakfast Club is aimed at Vintage, Classic, Supercars, American or anything a bit different from the norm.
If you would like to put a friend, colleague or family member forward to join the club please email me the make/model car they have and their email address and I’ll send them details of the next meeting.
My thanks go to..
Breakfast Run: Jason | Blog Editor: Geoff Hemingway