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Riley RM

Riley RM Published: 16th May 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Riley RM

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 2½-litre cars
  • Worst model: RME
  • Budget buy: 1½-litre cars
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes, but fit tuftrided valves
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L 4720 x W 1610mm
  • Spares situation: Superb, thanks to the club
  • DIY ease?: Maintenance easy, resto less so
  • Club support: Outstanding
  • Appreciating asset?: Only very gradually
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Look past that vintage styling and you’ll discover RMs much more usable than you’d expect
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Too often overlooked sports saloon that’s better performing than its staid looks suggest. Still fine value but prices are rising. Surprisingly good spare and club support given car’s rarity

When it was launched, straight after the end of World War 2, the Riley RM was one of the most desirable cars on British roads – and also one of the most unattainable. The first post-war car that wasn’t just a warmed-over pre-war design, the RM, built on Riley’s sporting and luxurious models of the 1920s and 1930s. But in an age of austerity and rationing it was also a car that was out of reach for all but the most wealthy and privileged.

While Riley had done well in the twenties and thirties, mismanagement led to bankruptcy in 1938. Lord Nuffield stepped in, adding the marque to his existing portfolio of Morris, MG and Wolseley. Seventy years after the RM arrived, this traditionally styled classic still cuts a dash yet the drive is more modern than you might expect, thanks to an advanced specification when new. With rack-and-pinion steering, torsion bar front suspension and twin-cam engines that provide a surprising amount of pep, the Riley RM is one of the most stylish, affordable and usable post war British classics you can buy and a good alternative to an MG Y-Type.


1945 The Riley 1.5-Litre is first shown, retrospectively known as the RMA. The design is inspired by Citroen’s Traction avant, of which Riley had acquired two examples before the war. The RM project hadn’t started until 1943, under the auspices of chief engineer Harry Rush. The RM would immediately go on to gain a following among the elite, including with Lord Mountbatten, brother of King George VI. While many were reassured by its very traditional looks, others – especially those in export markets – were more inclined to see the car as rather old-fashioned. Just six RMAs would be registered in the UK in this year though, as production didn’t really get under way until 1946.

1946 A 2½-litre RM is announced, which would become known as the RMB. These models with the bigger engine also have a wheelbase that’s stretched by six inches compared with the 1 ½-litre cars. RMs with the bigger engine have a light blue enamel Riley badge; the 1½-litre cars have a dark blue badge.

1948 At the Geneva motor show the 2 1/2-Litre Roadster is unveiled; it’s unofficially known as the RMC. Production begins in October with UK sales starting a year later. But with production lasting for little more than two years, and with most of the 507 cars built being exported to the US, the RMC is a rare sight in the UK.

That May power of the 2.5-litre engine increases from 90bhp to 100bhp while the tail end of summer saw a Drophead Coupé announced, but not available until the following year. This variation on the theme is now known as the RMD and just 502 were built.

1951 Drophead Coupé and Roadster production ceases.

1952 The RMB engine gets shell-type bearings in place of the previous white metal items. In July the 1.5-Litre becomes the RME, with a hypoid rear axle, all-hydraulic brakes and the same body as before. The 2½-litre becomes the RMF, boasting the same mechanical changes as the RME, but the same bodywork as previously. Come October and the RMF gains a new bodyshell, with a larger rear window.

1953 RME also gets a revised bodyshell, with no running boards, rear wheel spats, integral fog lamps and a crease in the front wings. At the same time, the RMF is replaced by the ZA Magnette looking Pathfinder (or the RMH). There was never an RMG, but one was proposed; it would have been a 1½-litre version of the Pathfinder, known as the Wayfarer.

1955 The final RME is built, after 13,950 1.5-litre examples and 8962 2½-litre cars have been produced.


Thanks to the fitment of rack-and-pinion steering plus double-wishbone independent front suspension, the driving experience is surprisingly modern (much more than the body styling suggests) and it’s comfortable too. When Autocar tested a 2 ½-litre in 1953 it wrote: “To those used to the extreme softness of some of the modern suspensions the Riley may appear to provide a somewhat ‘vintage’ ride. Whilst is does not follow a transatlantic tendency towards sick-making softness, neither is it harsh, for the proportions of the wheelbase relative to the size of the car and the layout of the suspension result in a vehicle that is pitch-free and comfortable to ride in over all types of surface. It provides a taut, well-controlled ride; there is very little roll on corners.

“Rack-and-pinion steering, a type well known for its general excellence for a car that is designed to be driven rather than used, is well suited to this car. With 2 ¾ turns from lock to lock it is a little heavy at low speeds, but this is more than offset by the positive feel and absence of backlash”.

The RM is a heavy car and the 2 ½-litre models are noticeably quicker than the 1 ½-litre editions. But don’t be too quick to dismiss the smaller engine; it provides better balance along with greater agility as the 2 ½-litre RMs can suffer from heavy steering. Whichever engine you go for you’ll find that the RM can keep up with modern traffic; the 1 ½-litre cars will cruise at 60mph, while the 2 ½-litre editions will sit at motorway speeds all day. If you’re aiming to do a lot of motorway miles the bigger engine is the one to go for and with this unit the RM makes a superb tow car if you need something to pull your period caravan. Just bear in mind the 2½-litre cars tend to cost more to run, with the fuel consumption typically running at a somewhat thirsty 20-22mpg.

As well as the 2½-litre RM, Autocar also tested a 1½-litre in 1953, and they both suffered from a heavy clutch pedal. But seat comfort, refinement, visibility and cabin space all got the thumbs up. Even now the RM can easily carry the whole family in luxury – with their luggage – thanks to the spacious cabin and boot, comfy seats and an interior that’s swathed in wood and leather. In a nutshell the Riley is as sporty as an MG Magnette and, according to owners who have owned both, as good as a Jaguar Mk1.


Alec Gatherer is a long-term RM fan and owner and editor of the RM Club’s magazine. He comments: “Most really good RMs are well known within the club and they’re owned by long-standing members. So unsurprisingly, when those cars come up for sale they usually move between club members which is why it’s so important to join the owners’ club.

“There are more really good cars around than you might think, and although a reasonable number of good cars come up for sale each year, demand still outstrips supply. Buyers only really want cars that are ready to go, so projects rarely sell easily. It’s not unusual for a ropey RM to be bought by someone who then realises it needs significant work so they quickly sell it on. This can happen several times in quick succession, so beware of cars that have had lots of owners in a short space of time”.

Roadworthy 1 ½-litre models (RMA, RME) are worth £1000-£1500 less than equivalent 2 ½-litre models (RMB, RMF), with the facelifted RME (from 1953) the least sought after of the bunch. If you’re on a budget, you’ll get the most for your money with one of these.

For something roadworthy you can expect to pay at least £5000, but this will be for an unrestored car that’ll be an unknown quantity. Better to spend £10,000 on something that’s probably already been restored at some point; spend £15,000- £18,000 and you can secure a superb RMB or RMF. Most valuable of all is the open-topped RMD, which starts at £20,000 for a good car; an RMC is about £18,000.

Few open-topped RMs change hands each year, which is why some people convert closed cars. If buying an open car, make sure you’re buying the genuine article, as some of the conversions aren’t great; genuine factory dropheads have substantial strengthening in the sills and aft of the rear window. Restorations can be Jag-like costly but, telling, they are being carried out. The RM club’s David Pettican says these Rileys are becoming increasingly popular overseas and particularly in Germany where close to 100K has been spent on the best cars!


Says the RM Club’s Alec Gatherer: “Few RMs are modified in any significant way as most owners tend to prefer originality – plus the cars are so usable in standard form. Radial tyres are favoured by the majority these days; they give slightly higher gearing as they have a shorter rolling circumference over crossplies. It helps that they’re also a fraction of the price and give a much better ride. Some say that they’re heavier at manoeuvring speeds, but I find them just fine. LED lightbulbs are creeping more into use these days, but can be a tad tricky to fit”.

David Pettican (who has restored and owns a Jaguar Mk2) adds that a known power hike can come from fitting an XK engine and forwards this helpful link: groups/642597662442457/ search/?query=riley.


Whether you’re restoring an RM or just enjoying owning one, membership of The Riley RM Club is essential. Not only has the club invested in a huge number of remanufactured parts but it’s even put together a series of detailed technical manuals to help anybody reviving or maintaining one of these machines.

The RM Club has a growing list of workshop manual supplements; the first, covering body repair, is a huge book that’s virtually essential for those embarking on a rebuild, and incredibly useful even for anyone not intending to perform any work, but wondering what is going on under that graceful skin. Next off the press was a supplement dealing with the various electrical aspects of RM maintenance, including worthwhile upgrades and improvements. A gearbox supplement is the next one planned. The RM Club Forum is a huge and growing resource on which the answers to most problems are dealt with by a forum search, and those yet to have an airing are swiftly answered by a small army of those who have been there and done that.

What To Look For


  • Given the RM’s rarity and lack of popularity, spares and support is simply incredible! Most of the parts that you’re likely to need to revive an RM are available from one source or another (generally The Riley RM Centre Ltd, the spares operation of the Riley RM Club), but some parts are also from overseas suppliers.
  • The chassis number is stamped into the chassis frame on the upper inner corner adjacent to the starter motor and on a chassis plate on the bulkhead timber cross-rail. The body number is stamped into the front face of the timber cross-rail under the bonnet on the front of the battery box. The engine number is most commonly on a diamond plate on later engines or stamped into the timing cover on earlier ones.
  • The wood and leather-lined cabin is opulent, but gets tired. Look for stitching that’s falling apart, tears in the leather and delaminating wood. Patching up tends to look obvious while a professional retrim is costly. The club produces kits that allow you to revive a tired interior on a DIY basis, at relatively low cost.
  • There’s a fair bit of exterior brightwork, most of which can become pitted and any of which could be missing. However, you can find anything on a used basis and it needn’t be costly.


  • Two different four-cylinder twin-cam engines were fitted to the RM, displacing either 1496cc or 2443cc. Cars with the smaller unit feature a dark blue grille badge; 2½-litre cars got a light blue badge.
  • RM engines can run on unleaded petrol without modification, but when a rebuild is needed some say that it’s worth fitting tuftrided austenitic stainless steel exhaust valves along with hardened valve seats. Others happily run with no modification whatsoever.
  • Make the usual checks for wear, such as rattling, knocking and oil being burned; look for blue exhaust smoke under acceleration for the latter. The oil should have been changed every 1500-3000 miles; keep an eye on the oil pressure gauge to see how healthy the engine is. At 40mph expect 40psi on a 1½-litre car, or 30psi on a 2½-litre. Significantly lower readings suggest wear; much higher, and the oilways are possibly clogged up or the relief valve is incorrectly set.
  • If you’re looking at a 2½-litre RM, check for a blown head gasket and make sure it doesn’t run hot once up to temperature. These powerplants are prone to overheating, usually because of a build up of sludge in the block, which is why a high-gain radiator core is worthwhile. Most cars have one by now – but not all, so budget on spending £150 to have one fitted if an original-spec core is still fitted. Also check the coolant-heated inlet manifold on a 2 ½-litre engine, which can suffer from a corroded water jacket, leading to leaks.


  • Pre-war construction means rusted steel panels aren’t unusual and neither is rotten timber in the doors, A-posts and windscreen surround; the rear of the car is largely steel. The wood is largely covered by steel panelling, making inspection tricky. The key area is the base of the A-post, visible at the back of the underside of the wheelarch. You can see only the base of it, but if what’s showing is rotten, the rest of it will probably be ropey too.
  • Over the timber structure are steel panels, although some bonnet tops are aluminium, and periodically until 1953, so were some bonnet side panels – all 2½-litre cars got steel panels here while 1½-litre models got aluminium or steel. Start by looking at the door bottoms and the edges of the front wings, then inspect the corners of the boot along with the spare wheel compartment. In the case of the latter there’s potentially rusty steel to contend with as well as rotten timber framing, and on post-1951 cars there’s a complicated release mechanism too.
  • Rotten steel and timber are common, so scrutinise the base of each A and B-post, the rear window surround, the sills and the roof frame. All these are timber, with the latter covered in vinyl cloth. Underneath is a perforated steel panel topped with wadding covered in hessian, which absorbs moisture, rotting the structure beneath.
  • The vinyl cloth shrinks with age, allowing water to get underneath, speeding up the deterioration of the metal and wood. However, degradation of the car’s structure and fixtures can look like shrinkage when it’s actually more serious. Press on the various pillars as well as the main roof panel, to feel for any crumbling below; if major work is needed it’ll be costly, although nearly everything is available.


  • The four-speed manual gearbox is strong but wears eventually, so listen for rumbling that signifies a worn layshaft. Also listen out for rumbling bearings, while major whining betrays tired gears. All cars feature a floor change except for the early Roadsters (RMC), which had a column change. These contain a mass of linkages, all of which wear.
  • Adjustment of the clutch release bearing can be fiddly, which is why clutch drag is common, so check for slipping and make sure there’s no judder. This is common on 2 ½-litres, signifying tired engine mountings, but replacements are cheap and easy.
  • On the RMA and RMB, oil leaks from the rear axle are common. If things are bad, there’ll be oil all over the rear brakes, so feel for pulling to one side when braking.
  • The steering rack is durable, but it wears eventually, so feel for play. You can source a new rack from the club (without the pinion) for £174.
  • The suspension is durable if maintained properly, but there are eight greasing points including the track rod ends (plus one on the steering housing of post- 1952 models) and they’re sometimes neglected. Check for play in the kingpins by jacking the car up at the front, putting a heel bar under the tyre, then looking for play as the wheel is prised up and down.
  • The rear leaf springs also sag with age, while the lever arm damper lower links of pre-1951 2½-litre cars can break. The problem was solved by a move to telescopic dampers for the later cars.
  • Until the introduction of the RME and RMF in 1952, there was a hydromechanical braking system. Even this is up to the job of reining in the RM, but the later set up is even better. Both systems are reliable.


Three Of A Kind

Launched just as the RM bowed out, the Mk1 is a great car and yet owners say not a huge advance on the Riley in terms of driving pleasure. The original car was a 2.4 only with only moderate performance and decidedly skittish handling (cured by reversing the wheel rims or, better still, sitting a Mk2 rear axle). For years the Mk1 trailed the Mk2 but the tables turned a couple of years back and you have to pay big money for a good one.
Launched soon after the Riley, the Jowett Javelin debuted in 1947, complete with torsion bar independent front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering plus a flatfour engine to open up the cabin and lower the centre of gravity. With its monocoque construction and surprisingly modern driving experience the Jowett is left-field, but also charming, quirky and eminently usable. Plus it’s supported by a superb owners’ club.
It may be little more than a badge-engineered Wolseley 4/44 but that doesn’t make the Magnette any less desirable. This was the first car to feature MG’s legendary B-series engine, so it’s easily tuned, while rack-and-pinion steering makes the driving experience more sporting. Most cars come with a close-ratio manual gearbox but a Manumatic clutchless transmission was offered; you’re unlikely to find one though.


The more you look at these overlooked classics then the more you appreciate what you’ve been missing. Quite simply, the RM is a genteel GT that is a fine sports saloon and one that’s remarkably easy to own.

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