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.
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.
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