as Old as the Industry, as modern as the Hour

In the 40 or so years from 1896-1938, Riley were often at the forefront of motor car design and the development of new ideas and technologies. Between them, it is thought that the Riley Brothers registered over 100 separate patents between 1896 and 1938, many of which were copied by rivals, or they bought the rights, or even the product from Riley.
Some of the many ideas that originated within the Riley companies are outlined below, along with some of the more unusual (today) ideas of other companies that Riley developed, or used on their cars.


Mechanical Valves

In an era when most internal combustion engines were using vacuum operated inlet valves, with the suction of the piston travelling downwards opening the valve, the young Percy Riley invented a system of mechanically operated valves on his first car. His design was later refined and patented in 1903. This system proved so successful that it was copied by other manufacturers, and a later patent filed by Benz in Germany could not be imposed in Britain as it post dated the Riley system!


Detachable Wheels

It seems a remarkably sensible idea today, but in the early days of motoring, when wheels had solid tyres, there was little need to have a detachable wheel. Later, the wheel rim was sometimes formed in two pieces, allowing the outer rim to be removed, by removing up to a dozen bolts, with the tyre. However, salvation was jusy around the corner, and in 1907 the Riley 9hp V Twin was the first car in the world to be sold with fully detachable wheels.
Victor Riley and his brothers filed a series of patents from 1908 (if not earlier) regarding detachable wheels, and before world war one they were supplying over 180 car manufacturers with wheels, such was the prowess of the Riley Design. The design had a single, locking, spin off hub in the centre, allowing the whole wheel to be removed in one piece, a simple enough design that it still used on wire wheels to this day.


Disc Wheels

In 1919, Riley went further with their wheel production, and introduced a laminated disc wheel. Details are scarce, the project short lived, and there are few survivors, but at the time it was a unique product on the market.


Torque Tube

In place of the normal prop shaft favoured by most manufacturers over the years, Riley developed the torque tube design which was more common in the early days of motoring. The problems of maintaining a smooth drive to the rear axle, located in movable springs was solved in a variety of ways over the years, and the torque tube effectively held the axle in place relative to the gearbox. Riley persisted with the design, and indeed late in 1935 filed a patent for refinements. However, one of the first acts on the new cars for 1939 was the removal of the torque tube in favour of the standard Morris open propshaft.


Self Lubrication

Over the years, there were many attempts to design out grease nipples and lubrication points on cars to minimise the maintenance requirements of the owners. Riley used a system of chassis self lubrication . By 1933 this system had been developed with the provision of Enot's One Shot system, which was operated from a lever mounted on the steering column


Recessed Footwells

It may seem an obvious idea today, but in the 1920s the majority of cars had flat floors, much like trucks still do today, sitting above the drivetrain. This rendered a high centre of gravity, with the floor of the car having to sit above the axle centre line - not a problem on the potholed roads of the early years of motoring. Riley, however, could see the potential of dropping the floor to either side of a transmission tunnel, with the rear chassis members then sweeping up over the rear axle. This was first developed on the Nines of the late 1920s, before becoming standard across the range, allowing for the sleek sporty models such as the Kestrel, which many competitors followed.


Silent Third Gearbox

The new Riley Nine was launched with Riley's constant synchromesh 'silent third' gearbox, which made gearchanges both easier and quieter than the more familiar 'crash' boxes of the time. The gearbox, as can be seen by the patent date of 1925, had been in development for some time, and was by no means the first, nor the last of the Riley patents relating to gears as Riley strove to make gearchanges as simple and quiet as possible. Indeed, a similar type of gearbox appears to have been in use as early as 1913.


Fabric Bodies

Riley made a big leap with the launch of the Riley 9 Saloon (later called the Monaco) in 1926. Up until that point, Fabric bodies had mostly only been used on cheap cars, and were often flimsy and easily damaged. However, by using the Weymann coachbuilding system, which had already been used on far more expensive models since c1923, Riley brought good quality fabric bodies to the mass market, and were quickly copied by others. However, the fashion soon faded and the last Riley fabric body was built in c1932.


Triplex Glass

For 1928, Riley offerred Triplex Safety Glass as an option for the windscreen on all Nines. The following year, Triplex laminated glass became standard on all Rileys. The story behind this is apparently that in 1928 Allan Riley was test driving a new 11.9 Chatsworth when it was involved in an accident, shattering all of the glass on one side. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt, but the Riley Brothers quickly looked at alternative glazing solutions.


Rear Wing

In 1930 a patent was lodged for the inclusion of the leading edge of the rear wing into the rear door, which was itself rear-hinged. This was intended to aid access to the rear seats, and was first used on the Falcon Prototype of 1933, but did not make production.


Roof Doors

In order to combat a problem of their own making - namely the restricted access to some models caused by the sunken footwells and low rooflines - Riley developed patent Roof Doors, whereby a small flap in the roof over each door opened on a special mechanism at the same time as the door. Whilst it made the opening larger to improve access, the flaps weakened the structure of the car and were difficult to make weather tight, so they were dropped after just one year.


Preselector Gearbox

The Wilson-type Preselector Gearbox was available on many Riley Models (and indeed other brands such as Daimler and Armstrong Siddeley) through the 1930s. It had been developed by Major WG Wilson, who rose to fame through his development works on Tanks in the first world war. The design had a gear selector lever on the steering wheel, and then a gear change pedal where the clutch is normally found, so a gear could be selected on the approach to a hill, and then the pedal depressed the instant the car started to struggle, without losing grip on the steering wheel. The gearbox was also available with Overdrive on some models.



From 1937, Riley introduced the optional Borg Warner Overdrive system to first the Nines, then the 12/4s and finally the 16/4s. This system had been launched in America in 1934, and as such it appears that Riley was one of the first UK manufacturers, if not the first mass-market manufacturer, to offer such a system. The overdrive system provides an additional gear speed in both 3rd and 4th 'normal' gears once the car passes a certain road speed, through an additional overdrive gear box mounted behind the standard box. This resulted in the engines in some models being moved forward to accommodate the overdrive unit in the existing transmission housing.


Hi Charge

Just to prove that not all Riley Innovations were successful, in 1937 as the management desperately tried to keep the company at the forefront of the motoring world, they introduced an induction system promoted as 'Hi Charge'. The system had been developed by Lewis Ord who was brought in as a sort of Management Consultant to fix the problems. The system was designed to provide a better flow of air-fuel mixture from the carburettors to the cylinders, and whilst it worked well on the test bench, it was disastrous on cold starts in the real world. Introduced half way through the year, Riley found themselves in the position of having to send engineers out to fit the system to new cars recently bought, and then a few months later remove it again to satisfy disgruntled owners.


Automated Hood

Not a Riley innovation, but nevertheless fitted to a Riley car. The Automated Hood system fitted to the one off Riley 16/4 Maltby Redfern model predates todays array of automatic hoods by around 60 years. It used a hydraulic system, operated by a push button on the dashboard, to raise or lower the hood. Whilst it seems doubtful that such a system was connected to a speed sensor as on todays cars, it would have been a foolish driver who pressed the button whilst the car was in motion!