Five Trials: How to live with one of the finest post-war era classics
The Riley RM is shorthand for the true essence of fine British motoring from the post-war era
Do you know, no-one we’ve asked is able to say what the RM in, Riley RM actually stands for. But maybe I can help. Obviously it’s not Routemaster, the name of which is oft shortened to the same initials. Trying to find the answer began to intrigue, then irritate, then almost disturb.
Finally, the other night I woke up with a start to find a ghostly blue diamond-shaped Riley logo dancing on the ceiling. Maybe it was a breeze rattling through my loft’s windows but I swear I heard a spectral but booming voice echo in delightfully clipped English tones: ‘How can you not know the answer, you imbecile? RM means “Ruddy Marvellous!” Tell everyone that in your pointless 2016.’
Ruddy Marvellous. Just the merest glance at our test car and you’ll see why. That expression may have seemed caddish when these cars were new but is so much nicer than today’s lesser world of disenchanted and disconnected loudmouths bullying away in their new Audis and BMWs en route to Primark, via KFC.
The RM really is the essence of immediate post-war classic motoring in a single package. Indeed there is even a lot of pre-war spirit here, but in a car so much easier to drive and live with than many of its contemporaries.
Forget MG. To many a motorist in the 1930s and beyond, Riley was the purveyor of affordable and innovative sports cars. ‘As old as the industry, as modern as the hour’ was the company’s motto. Ground-breaking engineering, turbo-cooled brakes (in 1919) and superb engines characterised the cars. That was until Morris took over in 1938. Fear ye not, for Riley was allowed a fair degree of autonomy in pre-BMC days and the first RM, the 1 ½ -litre RMA, had the great twincam, overhead valve engine, along with other bonuses such as front torsion bar suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and hydraulic brakes.
Our test car here is a later RMA, with some improvements such as a larger rear window. There’s just about every styling cue you could want from this era on these vehicles: sublime, flowing, running boards (on most models, though not our 1954 RME), a split windscreen, centre hinged bonnet and a wonderful chrome radiator. Open the rear-hinged ‘suicide’ driver’s door and you are back in a ‘proper’ car cabin, with beautiful, soft, green pleated seats, a vast spoked steering wheel you’d expect to see in a something at pre-war Brooklands, more polished woodwork than a Victorian library and a lovely instrument panel featuring what appears to be a line-up of town hall clocks, both round and square. Actually one is a clock but we also have a speedometer, ammeter, oil pressure gauge and fuel level dial.
Activate the starter, ease the delightful short throw gearlever into first, dig for the handbrake and we’re off. Performance from the 1 ½ -litre engine isn’t going to subject you to G-forces but it is a lovely flexible unit with an urgent sound, accompanied by wonderful gear whine. What a place to be, looking out through the split screen over that bonnet, the wings gently falling away and… well, it’s almost all too much. It’s Ruddy Marvellous.
Riley is best cruising at around 60mph, though it should be fairly happy at this speed all day. The cabin is a deeply glorious haven of wood and leather, with wonderful attention to detail and quality of materials.