Almost a Citroen – Riley RM

Earlier this year, I got a second chance to spend some time at the wheel of a Riley RM. It was a chance I leapt at as it happens to be one of my absolute favourite classic cars.

A superb blend of old and more modern in the form of the Riley RME

A superb blend of old and more modern in the form of the Riley RME

The Riley engineers took their inspiration from the Citroën Traction Avant, which explains features like the low-slung, sleek bodywork, rack-and-pinion steering and torsion bar independent front suspension. The engine is arguably more advanced than that of the Traction, with twin camshafts perched high up to allow for shorter pushrods. This allows the engine to rev more freely and the 1496cc engine in this RME puts out 55bhp, which is pretty much the same as the 1911cc Traction.

On the other hand, there’s still a separate chassis, the bodywork is still wrapped around an ash frame and the back axle is a simple live axle with leaf springs. Riley was tight for cash, so there were limits to just how far it could go in its pursuit of sport saloon glory.

The larger RMB/RMF used a 2443cc engine to give actual sports car performance. I’m very aware that this RME is a rather more gentle affair.

Clambering aboard is the first challenge. Suicide front doors and a narrow scuttle mean you have to slide your bum in, then squeeze your feet into the tiny footwell. It feels absolutely archaic, in a way that the flat-floored Traction just doesn’t. This example has an Open 5-speed transmission fitted, so there’s no worry about crunching into first gear. Just select and ease away.

Cosy inside, but beautifully appointed

Cosy inside, but beautifully appointed

On the move, this car is a revelation, casting aside its ancient demeanor to feel much more impressive than cars that came decades later – some wearing the same marque as badge-engineering was forced upon Riley. The ride isn’t that impressive perhaps – you’re under no illusion as to the elderly nature of the back end – but it feels taught and responsive in a way many older cars just don’t.

Sadly for France, I’d rate it ahead of the Traction Avant even. The steering is not so heavy, though the steering wheel is still enormous. Hustling a Traction through the bends will cause you to develop muscles in places you didn’t think existed, but the Riley feels light by comparison and cornering is an absolute joy.

Ok, so performance is leisurely at best, but it’ll ease its way up to a 55mph cruise and is comfortable to remain there all day. The brakes are up to the task with such limited performance and the car stops well.

It’s an odd mix then of old and more modern and for that reason remains one of my favourites.

A longer version of this feature was printed in the December 2012 issue of Classic Car Mart

The first long journey

Well, after just under two months of ownership, a lot of hard graft had the BX prepared for its first long journey. It now had MOT, replacement second-hand tyres, a new battery, radiator, water pump, cambelt, oil and filter. Test drives and local journeys had allowed me to clock up about 80 miles since returning it to the road. I was now going to undertake a 250 mile road-trip to Anglesey and back in a bid to locate some much-needed parts.

A drive the day before revealed a sudden drop in coolant level, but this seems largely to have been down to trapped air in the system. I carefully bled the system again, raising the front of the car by driving it onto ramps. Time was running out though, so I could do little else than keep my fingers crossed!

BXs

Ian's BX meets a few friends on its first long drive in years

After about 30 miles, I was really settling into the groove. I had some concerns about a slight looseness in the steering. I suspect a tired strut top and wishbone bushes. There was an occasional scraping from the rear too, which I suspect is flakes of rust resting on the brake disc. I’ll get that checked out. Being a normally aspirated diesel, and the earlier 65bhp incarnation of this engine (later BXs had 71bhp), she was struggling on the hills a bit, and perhaps more than I remember from my last BX. There was no doubt that she was barreling along quite merrily though, especially on the flatter sections. The engine settles down to a gentle hum on the move.

A quick stop at my mate’s house to fit a new accumulator sphere didn’t hold us up for long before we headed out onto the road once more, discovering just how bad the wind noise is. There are many broken window seals, and a massive hole in the boot floor! The tailgate still doesn’t fit very well either.

With parts collected – including a new tailgate – we could return home, with only the rhythmic THUMP of the windscreen wiper detracting from an otherwise easy first trip. I guess that needs some work as well as it’s going off the bottom of the windscreen…

So, still lots to do, but at least the BX seems happy to be used while the work continues. Now it’s just a case of finding the time…

Reliant cherry popped

Yesterday was a very important day for me. I popped my Reliant three-wheeler cherry! And how.

Thanks to Joe Mason at Reliant Spares, I finally experienced the slightly-unbalanced world of plastic Staffordshire motor cars. I enjoyed the experience very much indeed.

Regal three-wheeler

Perhaps Del Boy chose well...

We began with a Reliant Regal. Makes sense. This car was an enormous leap forward for Reliant, with pretty Ogle-designed plastic bodywork and Reliant’s own four-cylinder, all-alloy engine. The engine was necessary so that Reliant could finally move on from using licence-built Austin Seven side-valve units. Knowing that low weight was essential, the company bravely decided to opt for an all-alloy construction – very brave at a time when most other British car manufacturers were nervous about using even just an aluminium cylinder head.

What struck me about the Regal was how iffy the build quality was – the doors banged on every bump – but also how perky and stable it was. With such light weight, power just isn’t necessary. It was also very noisy – the result of the engine effectively sitting in the cabin. The rear-ward mounting of the engine is one thing that helps keep the car stable.

We then moved up to a Robin, which felt very different indeed. Quality was definitely improved and the tiny steering wheel made it feel somewhat like a dodgem. It was much quicker too and thankfully also quieter. I was entirely charmed. Within a mile, you forget that you’re in a ‘different’ car, well apart from the expressions on the faces of people coming the other way. You don’t have to constantly worry that the car might fall over though. They really are stable and capable of cornering much more quickly than you expect.

The only problem seems to be that Reliants aren’t cheap anymore. I should have bought one years ago!

Goodbye to sensible motoring

Today, I have waved goodbye to the most sensible car I’ve ever bought.

My Saab 9000i 16v was bought to do a job, and it did it admirably. On one crazy weekend, we clocked up 700 miles driving to various family functions in the UK, including driving from home in West Wales to the curious landscape of Norfolk. For  that journey, the car made perfect sense. Rarely for one of my motors, it was supremely quiet, quick and entirely reliable.

Saab 9000 i 16v rear

Bye Bye Saab. Thanks for all of the efficiency

It then ended up on another 500 mile weekend trip to Devon and back, before proving to be the ideal vehicle for a wedding in Wiltshire. The enormous boot was useful as we were helping to organise the event while the rear seat offers luxurious comfort to those asked to sit there.

Then there was all the ‘convenience’ features. Heated seats, heated mirrors and electric everything. The economy wasn’t bad either – averaging 32-34mpg. Not bad for a 150bhp 2.3 four-pot. It started every time it was asked to and ran like clockwork. Everything worked all of the time – from the headlamp wipers to the seatbelt buckles that light up in the dark.

The price for all this efficiency was a complete and total lack of character. It wasn’t a car to excite. In fact, when it came to dealing with Welsh roads, it was a car that failed to satisfy at all. Typical of multi-valve engines, there’s no grunt unless you extend the revs and the steering was about as accurate as a monthly weather forecast. Mix in a frustratingly jiggly ride and a clunky gearchange and it was obvious that with its job done, the Saab would have to go.

As often said at the end of a doomed relationship though, the problem wasn’t with anything she had done, it was with me. The grumblings in no way got close to matching the number of plus points and  the Saab is certainly no worse than many other modern cars in those regards. Romance just didn’t blossom.

I really am the problem. The Saab has gone, yet I still own a semi-functioning Range Rover, which I’m starting to like a great deal. Why on earth do I rate a ropey, battered off-roader ahead of a super-efficient Swedish luxo-barge? The list of non-working toys on the Range Rover is almost as long as the list of cars I have owned. Ever. The clutch feels funny. The steering is all wobbly. The heater blower doesn’t work at all – handy for Winter – and the interior is built with the sort of plastics you’d complain about if you found them as part of a toy in a Christmas cracker. Kinder surpise is aeons ahead.

Thing is, for all its faults – and there are many – the Range Rover puts a smile on my face. It’s hard to argue with that basic fact.

Maserati Traction Avant

No wonder Citroën went bankrupt in the 1970s. Not only were they building some of the wackiest cars available to the public, but they bought Maserati and decided to have a go at building wacky supercars too.

Quattroporte II at Auto Italia

Even more bonkers than a Citroën SM - the Maserati Quattroporte II

Take the Maserati Quattroporte II as an example. The previous Quattroporte was pretty much the first super saloon. Capable of seating five adults yet transporting them at a constant 125mph (top speed was 140mph), the quirky Quattroporte managed to sell pretty well with 760 sold in an eight year production run. Power came from two sizes of iconic Maserati V8 equipped with four Weber carburettors. Not exactly a thrifty ol’ motor.

A neater, Frua-styled version was on the cards, but then Citroën took over – and they had some very advanced ideas. As if the Citroën SM wasn’t a big enough White Elephant, the Quattroporte II was, in hindsight, absolute madness. To create it, a lengthened SM platform was used, complete with front-mounted Maserati V6 and front-wheel drive. The full range of hydraulic suspension, steering and brakes were fitted and Bertone was commissioned to come up with a dramatic shape – complete with six headlamps behind a glass nosepanel – just like an SM – and triple windscreen wipers.

With only 190bhp, compared to at least 250bhp with the previous QP, performance suffered in this hugely weighty car. 125mph was perhaps just about possible, though only 13 were finally built. Citroën and Maserati both ended up in huge financial straits. Maserati was bought by De Tomaso – who quickly killed this extravagance – while Citroën fell into the arms of arch-rival Peugeot. It can’t really be considered in any way a success – but I’d still quite like one. Shame the only one for sale in the UK at the moment has a price tag of £124,999 – but then, where are you going to find another?

Civic reception

The brilliant thing about having my own blog is I can prattle on about all sorts of crap cars that magazine editors would tell me are ‘not suitable.’ A case in point is the 1991 Honda Civic I owned a few years ago. It was a 1.4GL and despite being built by the Japanese in the early 1990s, still had a manual choke and twin carburettors.

Honda Civic and 2cv friend

A much-loved Honda Civic (right) alongside a much-loved 2CV

Yet it was astonishing. For all the world, the engine felt like it was fuel injected. I loved it. In typical Honda fashion, it was a revvy little thing, not really waking up until 4000rpm. Insane fun yet I was also rewarded with 40+mpg. Now that’s my kind of car.

I bought it locally when we lived in Cambs, for all of £195. It needed new CV joints, as they clacked like a footballer’s rattle on sharp turns, and had rather serious rot in the left-hand rear wheelarch. I wasn’t going to complain at the price and I clocked up a good few thousand miles in it before flogging it while it still had MOT.

What I really liked about the Civic was that you could still feel the soul of Soichiro Honda in the very design of the thing. It was light, you sat low and the engine screamed like a starving baby. The bonnet was so low that you felt you could use it to stop a trailer rolling away on a hill – you wouldn’t sit on it because it seemed as low as the ground. Wonderful engineering shone out of every pore – from those achingly efficient carburettors to the fresh air vent on the driver’s side of the dashboard – rare to have a fresh air feed on such a modern design, but really rather good.

Naturally, the electric windows and sunroof worked perfectly and the only negative point about the driving experience was over-light, feel-less power steering. Once I fitted budget tyres, this lack of feel became quite an issue on wet roundabouts. It had all the directional stability of a shopping trolley full of bricks. Lesson learnt – don’t buy cheap rubber!

It all went a bit downhill from here for Honda. The Civic gained weight until it became the monstrosity that wears the badge today – relying on quirky looks rather than clever engineering, and a form-before-function mentality that poor Soichiro would never have been able to relate to.

PS – before you ask – yes, I did put the bonnet stripes on it. Me and my wife were the only people in the world (apart from the chav who bought it from me) who thought it looked cool. And don’t ask why I have a picture of it in a car park in Peterborough alongside my 2CV. I’m still struggling to recall exactly how I took two cars to work that day.

An Oxford Six nearly kills me

To be a classic motoring journalist, you need driving skills like no-one else. You must be able to jump from one classic to the next and quickly adjust – well, you can’t go around pranging people’s lovely classics because you didn’t know where the brake was.

Ergonomics were yet to be discovered even as late as the 1950s. Take a Citroen DS, Ford Zodiac Mk2, Daimler Conquest and Austin Westminster A90 for example. All were in production in 1956 and the differences are staggering. Sure, the DS was quite unlike anything else at all, but let’s focus for the time being on gearchanges.

DS semi-automatic

Baffling controls an everyday challenge for the motoring journalist

On the DS, you move a small arm that sprouts from the top of the steering column in its own quadrant. The car looks after the gearchange and clutch operation for you – you just tell it what gear to be in. The Daimler uses a pre-select gearbox, so while there is a ‘clutch’ pedal, you don’t use it as one. To move away, just select first and raise the revs – the fluid flywheel transmit the power. Select  the next gear using the column change and operate the pedal when you want it to engage.

In theory, the Ford and Austin are much closer. Both have a column gearchange to a conventional gearbox – the Ford packs three cogs while the Austin manages four. But consider how you select first. On the Ford, you push the lever away and down, the Austin away and up. Second? Towards and up on the Zodiac, but straight down from first on the Westie.

It’s learning to adjust to these differences that enables us to do our jobs quickly and without breaking stuff. Yet there’s always one that nearly catches you out.

Austin Sevens I always find hard work. The clutch is a button with about an inch of travel, the steering is exceedingly vague and the brakes – especially on earlier uncoupled versions – are horrifically poor. I always return with a smile on my face though, even when one recalcitrant Ruby conked out on my test drive and only came back to life after vigorous hand-cranking. A journey in a Seven is never dull.

But it was a Morris Oxford Six, dating from 1933, in which I almost came a cropper.

1933 Morris Oxford Six

This 1933 Morris Oxford Six proved a challenge! A beautiful car however

For a start, the pedals are in the ‘wrong’ order. The throttle is in the middle, the brake where the throttle would normally be. The gearbox thankfully had synchromesh – I had driven an earlier Oxford without it and found coming down the gearbox a real challenge. What I didn’t know is that it had a freewheel! You can picture the scene as I come down a hill towards a red traffic light. I’m already focussing my mind on the pedals, so I don’t accidentally accelerate. My foot is right down and not a lot is happening  – brakes weren’t very good in the 1930s. To make matters worse, there is no engine braking as the car is now freewheeling down the hill!

My heart was truly in my mouth as I sailed just past the stop line. I’m very glad brakes have improved since then! While it may have scared me, it was a beautiful car. It had a top speed of barely 60 miles an hour, but sounded absolutely beautiful. While it came close to killing me, I still did rather like it!