Road Test: Riley Nine WD Tourer

Written by guest contributor, Gordon McAllan

You’d think that after well over 1,800 miles aboard the WD during the Monte Carlo Rallye Classique in January that I would be familiar with the car, but my first opportunity to drive it over a distance arose during The Scottish Riley Enthusiasts National Weekend in Kingussie. My impressions follow!

The WD or “Military” model of the Riley Nine was based upon the Monaco “Plus” chassis, introduced in 1931, fitted with heavy-duty suspension and 21-inch wheels (though this example has standard 19-inch ones). The coachwork is metal-panelled and wider, but otherwise strongly resembles the late-Twenties Riley Nine Mark 4 fabric-bodied Tourer and shares its tall radiator shell and bonnet line. In its 4-seat cockpit, the WD used the established dashboard, instrument and switch gear panels of the earlier cars, rather than the new “Plus” design.

Under the bonnet of this particular WD lies a straightforward Riley Nine 1,087cc engine, fitted with twin SU carburettors and (unseen!) “warm” camshafts. This is mated to a Silent Third non-synchromesh 4-speed gearbox, with a higher-ratio second gear; the differential is also uprated, together providing well-spaced lower gears and relaxed cruising.

John Lomas, MD of Blue Diamond, purchased the car at auction in Summer 2015. It had been the subject of extensive restoration a good many years before, but had covered few miles since. In preparation for the potentially-arduous drive to Monaco, the company’s staff completed a comprehensive and thorough overhaul of the chassis, suspension, steering and electrics, including fitting a Steve Hughes-built alternator, the better to cope with additional lighting and communications power needs. The non-original hood was in serviceable condition. A set of Blockley tyres ensured trouble-free road-holding.

Sliding in behind the wheel, I immediately felt at home in the car again. The cockpit and seating (rear seats were removed for the rally and the car is still in competition guise, with its “toolboxes” on the running boards) are simple, but comfortable, and the driver’s view, assisted by a strong Bosch windscreen wiper motor, is very good. En route to Monte Carlo and now, on test, I much preferred to run the car without its sidescreens: any advantage in better shelter is offset by restricted vision, and the occupants can travel almost draught-free, anyway.

The driver’s seat adjustment is limited. Being short in the leg, I initially found clutch control awkward, even with the squab as far forward as possible. A rolled-up travelling rug cured the grasshopper tendency. The other necessary driver aid is that of an extremely narrow right shoe. I quickly settled for driving in my sock, in order to separate safely the operation of accelerator and brake. However, after these necessary arrangements, I was very happy to venture on to the roads.

The engine itself is nothing short of amazing. It fires instantly upon demand and settles to a quiet tickover. Throttle response is immediate and there is a less obvious than usual “up on the cam” effect as the car accelerates, the strong torque being delivered smoothly and progressively, actually from tickover. It’s like a small turbine. Were you unaware of the capacity of the engine, you might guess that it is considerably larger in swept volume than sub-1,100cc. It retains the well-known Riley Nine eagerness (that which common sense reins back when these little engines want to romp away to valve-bounce in the low gears when hill-climbing), but it always feels and sounds strong and free of rattles, even at high revs.

The Tourer motors comfortably at 50-55 mph on the open road, though more is promised by the throttle pedal: I’m sure that well over 60 mph would be available, if needed. Wind buffeting is minimal and mechanical noises are not intrusive.

Although the gearbox is very reluctant to engage the next gear when cold, a mile or so’s warm-up provides for easy selection without baulking or graunching. The changes can be made neatly, providing double-declutching is practised up and down the box. The clutch (once I could reach the full pedal travel!) is smooth. The revised second gear makes a huge difference.

This little car, spartan and perhaps older-styled than its year of manufacture would suggest, is no slouch! With very accurate, positive steering and excellent grip on all but very broken tarmac, it purrs along and affords the driver real confidence. Braking is very progressive and ultimately very efficient (as was proved when the same Vauxhall Insignia driver TWICE almost collided with us, at different points on our journey). On all but long, steep climbs, it is well able to take its place among modern traffic on the traditional rural roads of our test drive. This is a very enjoyable way to travel, indeed. My co-driver, who would not have been slow to point out irritations, found our run very pleasant, joining me in delight as to the willingness of the Riley. It is a car with a most endearing character. Having relied upon it to carry John and me to Monte Carlo, I have every reason to regard it with great affection, but it has that effect on everyone who comes to know it. Folk, spotting it at rest, want to meet it!

The WD used no water or oil during our near-100-mile drive. Fuel consumption in fast road work and on some tortuous hill roads was around 24 mpg, on ordinary Unleaded. The Calormeter mounted on the radiator cap showed no hint of any tendency to overheating in the cooling system.

Accustomed to driving our own Kestrel Nine and 22T Falcon, both stylish Rileys of their period, I can understand why the WD model may have been thought by some outdated in appearance, in its day. Certainly, there is no concession to fashion in its unremarkable, simple exterior. But with now-extensive experience of the model, I can readily see why, perhaps to the Riley Company’s surprise, the WD Tourer established and maintained a very enthusiastic market following. It wasn’t the sexiest sports car in the street, but it was no slouch, was light enough to be welcomed by enthusiastic lady drivers and durable enough to acquit itself very well in endurance and off-road competition.

This particular car has benefited from a well-executed restoration in the past, giving it a second life, and from enlightened development at Blue Diamond Riley Services. It is an extremely good motor car, proven strong and reliable, and it has an unassuming way of befriending driver and passenger.

I am most grateful to John Lomas and the team at Blue Diamond Riley Services for the chance to drive their marathon Riley.