The Life of Riley

Mark Gillies
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Richard Newton
0308 Riley 2

A country drive in a 1934 Riley Gamecock pares motoring back to its bare essentials.



It was a perfect drive: A vintage car to a vintage car-race meeting some ninety miles distant. Clear blue skies, seventy-five degree temperatures, mild traffic. Great roads, too: fast open English secondaries through rolling countryside—roads that a Michigan resident can only dream about. My five-year-old son Cameron shared the ride, taking in all the sights and sounds, happy as a lark to be traveling in what he calls "the black Riley racing car with the spare wheel on the back."

It isn't really a racing car, but it is a Riley with a spare wheel on the back. It's sort of the family car, a 1934 Riley Gamecock 14/6 Alpine Trials works car that my dad has owned since 1961, when my mother bought it for him for the princely sum of 25 ($50 or so at the time). It's the car that took me from my hospital birthplace to the family home. It's the car that sat in my dad's garage for fully thirty-five years while he embarked on one of the world's most protracted restorations. (I think I paid for some paint or leather trim or something, but I can't actually remember.) Ironically, he finished the car just after my kids were born, and my first drive of it was with wife Jane alongside, Emma and Cameron on her lap. We didn't go very far—there are no seatbelts.

So the car has history with my family and with me. It has real history, too. Riley built a two-seater sportscar in 1932 called the Gamecock, powered by its immortal Nine engine, a 1.1-liter, four-cylinder engine that uses twin camshafts set high in the block to actuate inclined valves in a hemi head via short pushrods and rockers. (Nine stands for nine horsepower, according to an arcane taxation formula of the day. The engine actually made around 34 horsepower in stock form, and nearly 100 when tuned and running alcohol fuel.)

Just to prove that cheating in motorsport is nothing new, Riley cataloged a six-cylinder version of this car in time for the 1933 Alpine Trial. The body shape looks similar to the Gamecock Nine, but it is built on a different chassis and used the 1486-cc 12/6 six-cylinder engine that shares its basic layout with the Nine engine. Riley built three of these cars that won a Coupe des Alpes for a penalty-free run, the best award a manufacturer could get.

For 1934, the car was again cataloged, this time with the 1633-cc 14/6 engine and a preselector gearbox in place of the manual transmission fitted to the 1933 cars. (A preselector is a semi-automatic epicyclic transmission. You simply select the gear you want in advance, then engage it later by pressing the left-hand gearchange pedal. It's a fast and foolproof shift, a manual trannie for dummies.)

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Unfortunately, my dad's car, registered ADU 28, disgraced itself on the rally by blowing a head gasket, so the previous year's success wasn't repeated. We are pretty certain that Riley never actually built new cars for the '34 event, for a couple of reasons: the chassis number on my dad's car has been overstamped; and although the two different transmissions entailed unique chassis crossmembers, the mounting holes for the manual transmission's have simply been filled.

It's a terrific car to drive. It now has a 2.0-liter engine, because, er, the Riley six-cylinder engine will bore out that far. Top speed is around 100 mph, and it will cruise all day at 70 to 80 mph, with decent mid-range acceleration. The gearshift is fast and easy and the steering is a delight once you're at speed; you need biceps of steel to move it at parking velocity, but your fingertips do all the work from 50 mph up. Of course, it has its faults. The ride is harsh because it has beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, and ancient friction-type dampers all around, while the brakes are ropey. The cable-operated drums need leg muscles like Lance Armstrong's to actually slow the thing down from speed.

But the car's flaws are a part of its charm. An old car like this is a wonderfully different driving experience. I could have driven up to the Vintage Sports-Car Club's Mallory Park meeting faster in most modern small cars. But unless you're at the limit in a modern car, braving speed cameras and police speed traps and other traffic, there's little fun to be had: you're driving an appliance rather than a machine. In the Riley, the experience is total, from the airflow whipping past the upright windshield, to the engine noise, to the smells of burning oil and freshly cut grass.

A corner that is easily taken at 70 mph in a modern car becomes an event in the Riley: Guide it in via the deliciously direct steering, hope that a mid-corner bump doesn't knock you off line, and drift the car through the corner. You have to pay attention to the gauges that monitor the engine's life forces: the oil pressure, the water temperature, the fuel level. You have to anticipate stop lights and roundabouts and other traffic because momentum is important and stopping hard is an issue (especially with an unrestrained five-year-old beside you). The car makes you a better, more considerate driver. And you can enjoy driving hard because you are rarely breaking the English 60-mph speed limit by more than, oh, ten miles per hour.

And you know what? Cameron, who can rarely go more than ten minutes in a modern car without asking "Are we there yet?" in concert with his sister, waited one hour and forty minutes before asking the same question. Anything that can keep a five-year-old quiet for that long has to be special.

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