We should not be surprised that, as an ambitious and inventive manufacturer of stylish performance cars, the Riley Motor Company of Coventry should pursue a policy of continuous design and development. After all, Percy Riley’s breakthrough Riley Nine engine in 1926 had ensured a very healthy near-decade of sales success– at a time when the Depression of the late Twenties and early Thirties had stripped the ranks of British motor manufacturers of many established and even famous names, as well as consigning some of the more idiosyncratic breeds to history. In their throes of financial doom, car makers tended to try to build and sell bigger, more luxurious motor cars, often dinosaurs in technical terms. Even the grace and prestige of, say, Arrol Johnston, did not save that company from oblivion.
By 1933, Rileys could be purchased in many Nine-powered model forms: an impressive in-line 6-cylinder engine, closely following the Nine design concept had been introduced and a new 1,498 4-cylinder engine, the 12/4,based upon Nine principles, would soon be commissioned to become, arguably, the best all-round power unit the firm made, still alive in near-original form in the mid-fifties. The drive for marque distinction on road and in competition, and for customer approval, continued, stretching the company’s resources. As Riley advertising put it, “….. we make far too many models, of course. But then we have a pretty fertile design department and we like making nice interesting cars.” Just as the management struggled to reduce costs and to make the signal change to factory-built steel Briggs bodies, introducing the Merlin saloon for the 1936 year at a relatively low price and setting aside the 6-cylinder engine development in favour of an uprated 12/4, Victor Riley, the company MD, made a fateful decision, echoing the commercially-suicidal course taken by many car makers in the late Twenties: he authorised the design, development and production of two V8 engines. Bigger, of course. Potentially much more powerful. Luxury running costs. Intended to impress at a time when, fatally for the Riley Company, war in Europe was anticipated, privation and danger inevitable, and further economic downturn already gripping British industry and commerce, including the motor trade. A fuel shortage could be depended upon …..
The Riley 8/90 Adelphi Silver Streak
Among some self-appointed “purists”, the 1936-1938 Riley Adelphi saloon has too often been seen as somehow diminishing the Riley Marque. Quiet, smooth, unfussed, comfortable, able still to keep up with modern main road traffic in a new century, the 12/4 original model is in fact a very fine car indeed, with ample evidence of established Riley character. Intended to sit above the new Nine hp Merlin (expected to sell for £269, but actually listed at £308) in the Riley catalogue, it offered class-leading appointments and performance. It was on this base that Victor Riley commissioned the manufacture and installation of the first Riley V8. This 18 hp engine was also to be offered in a revised 6-lightKestrel model. Stanley Riley drove a Kestrel bodied car with a prototype 8/90 engine, but it may not have been on an 8/90 chassis and the factory accepted an order for two production 8/90 Kestrels which were undoubtedly produced.
The design department had serious problems making a usable 8/90 with a Kestrel body and only produced the two because they were obligated by the order #.
There is plenty of hearsay that they never reached the customer who was the agent Waeny of Switzerland but I have spoken to someone who owned one of them briefly in the early 1960s and rumours abound of another that survived the war in London. (source G Thomas 2016)
Both cars were priced at £450, well up-market from the £100 economy cars of the era and costing as much as a decent 3-bedroom house in a desirable area.
The new power unit was built up from two of the long-established and well-proven Riley Nine blocks, cast in monobloc. Of course, the V-formation meant little additional fore-and-aft space was required, under the bonnet; chassis and coachwork needed few modifications (though it has to be said that the new 2,178cc engine completely filled the Adelphi’s tapering nose). The two small crankcases, united at 90 degrees, were “staggered”, side-by-side, to allow for the single crankshaft and its new main and double big end bearings. Two outlying gear-driven exhaust camshafts were fitted, with a single gear-driven inlet camshaft lying along the centre of the “V”. Cylinder head design followed Nine practice, with 90-degree opposed valves and a central coil/distributor ignition system, by now common to all Riley models, supplied the sparks. Each bank of cylinders was fed by its own downdraught carburetter. A central shaft-driven water pump was complemented by a belt-driven fan.
Much attention was wisely given to the balancing of the heart of the engine (V engines can produce considerable vibration), which was estimated to give between 80 and 100 bhp, with marked smoothness. There’s no doubt that a bespoke 5-point rubber mounting system contributed to the refined character of the V8 Adelphi, which also sported the familiar Armstrong 4-speed “Preselectagear” transmission.
Within a year, the company was offering a significantly-revised Adelphi Eight-Ninety: the £470 1937 model remained similar in concept and appearance, but had undergone detail development, perhaps improvement. The chassis had been redesigned, its wheelbase extended by 3.5 inches to 9ft 8in; it was not now simply a re-engined 12/4 frame. Crucially, the V8 motor had undergone considerable change, perhaps hinting at the need to enhance its design. A telling revision was the fitting of a separate water pump for each bank of cylinders The Hi-Charge induction system, to be fitted now to all Riley models, was intended to improve torque (in fact, this brave new fitting was to prove particularly troublesome, at least on other models, customer complaint forcing Riley to offer, variously, dealer “tweaks” and (expensive for the firm) conversion to conventional carburation and manifolding). “Silken Torque”, advertised as improving the smoothness of the Adelphi in action, was a re-designed rubber mounting system for the V8. 16-inch brake drums were now standard – appropriate to a genuine 80 mph car. 17mpg was possible ….. The 8/90 was 2 seconds faster than the “standard” 12/4 Adelphi (24-28mpg and 7 cwt lighter) over the standing quarter-mile.
By this stage, the Silver Streak Adelphi, produced in penny numbers and undergoing ad hoc modifications, must have continued to demonstrate many of the attributes of “The Most Successful Car in The World” (the Riley Company claim for its models in 1933), notably in style, comfort and handling, but had proved expensive and unreliable. Behind the scenes, the need for re-engineering and modification must have been costing the company dearly.
But what may well have proved most damaging to this potentially-magnificent car was the availability of attractive competitors from the same stable. If the 1,496cc 12/4 base-model Adelphi did not seem exotic enough, despite its agility and on-road performance, you could buy a 1,726cc 6-cylnder 15hp model, with proven driving excellence, for £380 – £405. Even better, Riley had introduced a new “Big Four” by 1938, its 2,443cc 16hp in-line engine, developing over 80bhp. The company was fitting an overdrive manual gearbox and later a 4-speed synchromesh box, and the Big Four Adelphi “package” offered power and reliablity (this engine would go on to serve the outstanding post war RMB models and was destined, in developed form, to be the final Riley engine, as fitted to the Pathfinder).
The Blue Diamond Riley Services V8 Adelphi
The Riley Adelphi 8/90 acquired recently by Blue Diamond Riley Services is GS 8774 (chassis no 87A2129), registered in Perth and supplied by Macrae and Dick on 1st March 1939. Despite that date, it is a 1937 model, which probably explains how awkward they were to sell. Notwithstanding its Perthshire registration, the first listed owner was a Chemist from Colwyn Bay in 1939.
This Adelphi has led an unspectacular existence and its history is sketchy, until Peter Abbott bought it in 1953 and recommissioned the car. He worked for Crossley Bros and lived in Whalley Range, Manchester. Peter used 87A219 very occasionally, hence the genuine 36,000 miles from new on the odometer. Peter kept the Adelphi in pristine condition, but was sent to India and his brother was asked to sell the Adelphi, which was not being used. Sadly, the Riley fell into disrepair, a new owner subsequently dismantling it, and the poor car was abandoned again. Calum Hamilton eventually took charge of the Adelphi and began a considerate restoration, beginning to put right the deterioration suffered in the 60s and 70s. This Riley Adelphi 8/90 is original, right down to the wheels on which it rolled out of the Riley works Durbar Avenue.
Blue Diamond Riley Services will restore this rare Riley to pristine running order retaining its original factory body style.