They say you covet the cars of your youth. I have, and I do. But for the longest time, I imagined for myself a car from an era even more ancient than my own. So I bring you news of the 1936 Riley Kestrel 12/4 Sprite six-light saloon that came this way from England a little over a year ago.
I hadn’t really thought through how this seventy-seven-year-old would drive before buying it. Although I am a decidedly postwar guy, I’d fallen in love from afar with a prewar car named after a small falcon — and for the shallowest reason. It was the most beautiful four-door I’d ever seen that I could actually pretend to afford.
The Sprite part was appropriated by Donald Healey as a full model name some twenty years later for a small Austin-Healey, then Riley’s British Motor Corporation cousin. In the 1940s, Healey used Riley engines in his first cars — and for good reason. Back when, the Sprite appellation denoted the go-faster version of the larger Coventry firm’s own crazy-sophisticated (for its day) twin-cam four-cylinder, in all its twin-carbureted and sport-exhausted glory.
The Kestrel’s technical excellence and historical significance as one of the world’s first compact sport sedans are noteworthy. So are the comparatively absurd, low (albeit rising) prices they trade for, even today. Yet set against the Kestrel’s impossibly good looks, such virtues hardly register. With six side windows (or lights) and an amazing Deco streamlined fastback, the Kestrel struck me from first sight as a most magical design, what a larger, four-door version of the MG PA Airline coupe — the car I’d first fallen in love with as a small child via the reminiscent stylized ink drawings in E. B. White’s Stuart Little — should look like. Alternately, you might call it a three-quarter-scale version of the most handsome coachbuilt sporting Bentleys of the 1930s, only better, the Kestrel’s demure size intensifying its unerring rightness of shape.
With the Kestrel, an exquisite small sports car called the Imp, and the comely but obscure Lincock coupe, Riley was an automotive style leader, barely acknowledged anymore but with some of the 1930s’ most wonderful shapes, rendered in-house in adorably compact packages, to its credit. Tragically, many Kestrels have been cut up to make racing cars and specials. Because, for years, Riley mechanicals were about as sporty as anything you could find in a U.K. junkyard. Somehow many would-be constructors failed to notice that the ash-framed bodies they were scrapping or otherwise defiling bore lines fit for mention next to the great, lovely Zagato Alfas of yore.
For decades I’d managed to steer clear of my dream Riley, although not for a lack of desire. My family knew, for instance, not to pursue a certain line of questioning at holiday time because they knew what I’d always say. “What do you want for your birthday?” they’d ask.
“A Riley Kestrel Sprite,” I’d tell them.
“No, seriously,” they’d say.
“I am serious,” I would reply.
I waited and I waited, but nothing happened. Realizing that I wasn’t getting any younger, I took matters into my own hands in 2012. By employing optimistic internal accounting assumptions of a sort that would have made JPMorgan Chase blush at the height of the mortgage-securitization boondoggle — and with the help of the flinty enablers at Premier Financial Services — I bagged a Kestrel.
In preparing to buy, I consulted frequently with Mark Gillies, this magazine’s erstwhile executive editor and author of The Golden Age of the Riley Motor Car 1926–1938. America’s Third or Fourth Favorite Vintage Riley/ERA Racer®, as I call him, and now a Volkswagen press officer, Gillies was perhaps not the best person to ask, as he starts from the position that it is perfectly reasonable to drive and even compete in old Rileys and ERAs, which he does successfully and will be happy to tell you about. In his book, Gillies traces early ERAs, with their Riley engines, backward to the famous White Riley racing car and forward to the birth of England’s near monopoly of great Formula 1 and Indy-car constructors. But the backstory is equally interesting.
A nineteenth-century firm, Riley rose from naught in the afterglow of England’s Industrial Revolution, launching in the 1870s to make weaving machines. As England’s textile industry waned, this family-owned firm was nimble enough to turn to making new things called bicycles and, from as early as 1899, cars. A prehistoric detachable-wire-wheel feature earned Riley notoriety in the day when its cars weren’t too special, but the die was cast when one of the Riley brothers, Percy, came up with a sweet peach of a small engine, a 1087-cc wunderkind that put most of the 1920s’ other powerplants on the trailer, with hemispherical combustion chambers, two camshafts, and lots of torque to boot. According to Gillies, only Bugatti’s Type 13/23 engine matched it for “high-revving, high-efficiency, small-capacity” brilliance.
In the middle 1930s it seemed as though the company had really hit the nail on the head. But small as it was, it soon bankrupted itself, unable to keep up technically and hitting itself on the head by offering a bewildering array of low-volume models — the Kestrel 12/4 was but one of almost twenty. As Gillies concludes, “Perhaps they did too good a job of making the cars and not a good enough job of managing the business.”
This is, of course, precisely the sort of hopeless tale I like, the story of firms, such as Lancia and Riley, that went broke selling cars that were too good, not too crappy. Driving my Riley today, the revelation is in how modern it feels. The engine pulls like it’s from the 1960s, and its preselector manual gearbox must have seemed futuristic in a day of crashboxes and Stone Age synchromesh, the paddleshifted DSG of its time.
The chassis is antique, but mechanical brakes aren’t bad. And the real surprise is how usable the car is. This thing cuts the mustard with modern traffic a lot better than any number of other septuagenarians I could mention.
So welcome, old car. With luck, your price will be forgotten long before your quality can no longer be remembered.