Riley Pathfinder

Last week was a pretty sporty one for #bcotd, so today we'll swing back to something interesting.

The early motoring industry is a far cry from the mass produced models stamped out of plants these days. Besides the thousands more car companies, between how vehicles were made and the nomenclature used it's often difficult to piece together what made a vehicle interesting.

Some day, I'll feature the Riley MPH and the Riley Gamecock—but today will be focused on Riley's last model, the Pathfinder.

Coventry-based Riley made bicycles before turning to cars, a project that was started in secret by Percy Riley, son of company head William Riley, Jr. William didn't approve of producing vehicles, having become a successful bicycle manufacturer—gear and hub maker Sturney Archer was once owned by Riley.

But his three sons, led by Percy, saw automobiles as the future, finally convincing their father it was a worthwhile pursuit. It helped that Percy was a bit of a mechanical genius, having invented mechanical valves before Benz and going on to patent removable wheels. No, I'm not kidding—removable wheels weren't a thing before a former bicycle maker thought they'd be a good idea.

So thank Riley for that.

By 1911, Riley was exclusively an automobile manufacturer. It's difficult to get a sense of where they sat in the market, but after reading up on several models I get the impression that Riley was sort of what a Honda or Subaru is today—relatively affordable, mechanically well-designed vehicles. Their motto was, "As old as the industry, as modern as the hour."

The company had endured some rocky years as the Rileys divested their business, with the Nuffield Organisation—Morris, Wolseley, M.G., and The S.U. Carburetter Company Limited—picking the Riley concern up from voluntary receivership. Then the Nuffield concern merged with Austin to form the British Motor Corporation—BMC.

Hitting the market in 1953, the Pathfinder is considered by many to be the last true Riley, even though the family had sold their concern more than a decade before…and it was little different from the Wolseley 6/90. Sitting atop the range, its specifications make it look like quite the fun saloon car to drive.

  • 2.5-litre twin cam inline 4-cylinder engine—the "Big Four"—with 106 horsepower @ 4,500 rpm
  • Top speed of 160 km/h (90 mph)
  • 4-speed manual transmission (a 3-speed automatic was optional)
  • Power-assisted Girling drum brakes
  • Torsion bar independent front suspension; coil spring rear suspension

In all, a fast, capable sedan. Some early cars suffered from a rear suspension system that would detach itself from the rest of the car under hard cornering; as a result, "Riley Ditchfinder" was coined.

Made until 1959, by the end of its life it'd been modified by the brass at BMC with rear leaf springs—improving handling—and even though it was a holdover from the early 1950s, the car remained relatively popular until it was replaced.

Apart from the shift lever being located ahead of the driver beside the driver's door, there wasn't much strange about the car—just that it was one of the last links between the old coachbuilt British motor industry and its mass production future.