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Riley RM VS MG Magnette

A pair of good sports Published: 19th Jul 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Given the choice, Derek Mathewson of DT Mathewson would go for the Riley over the MG because he says it has the looks of a pre-war car but drives like a 50s one. However, Derek criticises the RM range for being what he describes as ‘soft’ [lack of stamina] meaning that most he views are shabby. He likes the Magnette ZA and ZB but says the Farina cars, and especially the Riley 4/68 and 4/72, are the best of the lot and can’t get enough of them to sell…

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As the British motor industry came to life after World War 11, the whole face of car manufacturing star ted to change. Corporations were being formed as small brands were swallowed up. Three great groups were created in these times; British Motor Corporation, Standard Triumph and Rootes Group, the fi rst two would later combine to form the ill-fated British Leyland. Both Riley and MG came from the Nuffield Group, then after the British Motor Corporation. The RM was the last real Riley and the Magnette was the fi rst parts-bin MG which was caused by the Abingdon company’s loss of independence. The RM had been in production some nine years when the Magnette was launched in 1954 but their looks are not dissimilar, both boasting large upright radiator grilles and sloping boots. The big difference was that the RM was built on a separate chassis and the Magnette was one of the fi rst cars to be built on the monocoque chassis-less system relying on welded pressings to carry the engine, gearbox and suspension. As 50s sports saloons go these were two of the best – but what’s best for you?

Which one to buy?

Old world verses modern age

Despite being in the market together for just two years, 1954 and 1955 these cars will surely compete on enthusiasts’ classic car shopping lists. They have a lot in common coming from quality, sporting, charismatic brands. At launch both were considered poor substitutes for their predecessors although at least the Riley had a proper twin-cam Riley engine whereas the ZA was lumbered with an Austin lump which despite the detractors’ disappointment was actually more powerful and more reliable than anything that had gone before. Both have fi ne leather and wood interiors offering relative luxury for the time although the Riley was effectively coach-built and the MG mass-produced. The MG, launched in 1954 comes in just three versions, ZA until 1956 and ZB and ZB Varitone with two-tone paint thereafter. They shared the basic B-Series engine with 60bhp for the ZA and 68bhp for the ZB and Varitone. Manumatic semiautomatic transmission was available on the ZB but is very rare and not very effective so it can almost be discounted. The ZB was the more popular of the two versions selling 18,524 in just two years against 18,076 ZAs in three. There will be more ZBs around as they will have had fewer years to rust away and make no mistake these cars did rot! The Riley RM series is much more complicated and despite total sales 13,000 less than the ZA/ZB there were no less than six different models with two different body sizes (including a cabrio) and two engines. The RMA was the fi rst and was launched in 1945 with a 1.5-litre engine, four-speed gearbox, torsion bar front suspension, hydro mechanical brakes and a reasonably healthy top speed of 75 mph. Despite conservative Riley enthusiasts complaining that this wasn’t a real Riley, the press and the public were impressed with the fl owing lines, luxurious interiors, excellent road holding and handling and acceptable performance. Riley was a performance brand and 75mph just wasn’t enough so a year later in 1946 a 90 bhp 2½ litre version of the twin overhead camshaft four was dropped into the RMB which had a longer wheelbase and larger body giving useful extra room and 90 mph. In 1948 power was increased to 100bhp allowing the RMF to hit the ton in favourable conditions.

The RMC was a svelte 2½ litre, threeseater drophead, really designed for the American market and now very scarce as just 507 were produced. Another rare beast was the full four-seater 2½ litre RMD of which just 502 were built. The RME, available from 1952-1955 was an improved RMA boasting full hydraulic brakes and a hypoid rear axle. Visual differences included streamlined side lamps, fog lamps, a larger rear window, rear wheel spats and the removal of running boards. The 2½ litre RMF had the same upgrades as the RME and many were fi nished with metallic paint. The real Riley competitor to the ZA / ZB is the 1½ litre RMA and RME but in the classic world the lines are blurred. The 1.5-litre offerings from both brands offer similar performance so it may be that classic enthusiasts who want to press on will be looking for a 2.5-litre RMB or RMF with their 90 or 100bhp, an impressive output 50 years ago, around 50 per cent more than the best the Magnette can offer. Carefully bought both Riley RM and MG Magnette will be a pleasure to own although with any 50 year old car it is important to buy one already restored unless you have won the lottery and want the challenge and expense of a basket case. Thanks to the BL parts bin the spares situation is better with the Magnette which shares components with many other models in the BL range. The other benefit of this is the potential to upgrade the Magnette with MGB parts such as disc brakes, wire wheels and 1798cc engines. The suspension can also be upgraded and with all these mods the ZA/ZB becomes a very desirable car indeed.

What’s the best to drive?

You can make more of the MG

Bearing in mind the fact that these cars nearly qualify for free bus passes they both drive amazingly well. The Riley feels the heavier and the brakes, particularly the early hydromech kind struggle somewhat to pull the car down from the speeds at which the car is capable of cruising. The Riley is quieter thanks to its separate chassis and better sound proofi ng although the MG is fi ne at a 65mph cruise, more so if you graft on an MGB overdrive. Brakes apart, the Riley is the more sophisticated of the two and, if truth be told, the MG is nothing more than a bigged-up Morris Minor – not that’s meant to be a criticism. In fact, with its rack and pinion steering the MG feels quite sporty when it is further improved.

Owning and running

The attraction of a Magnette

Both cars have good support from owners’ clubs which is par ticularly impor tant with the Riley as there is not the same network of parts specialists as with the Magnette, which because it comes under the blanket of the MG badge means second to none help and assistance. The Riley will be more expensive than the MG to run simply because of the parts scarcity which naturally increases prices. Also the Riley, because of extra weight, will be less economical, although on a sparsely used classic this matters little. In terms of value the Riley is perhaps slightly cheaper and £6000 should buy a good example of either car.

And The Winner Is...

Looked at logically the MG has to be the sensible buy. It’s more readily available, has the benefi t of MG car clubs and specialist suppor t and what you can’t get hold of, then penny to a pound that some other BMC par t can do the job equally well. The answer must therefore be an MG Magnette ZB with wire wheels, MGB engine, overdrive, front disc brakes and uprated springs and shock absorbers – a combination that makes a good alternative to a Jaguar MK1 or Mk2. Yet there’s something about the classy Riley – witness a steep rise in prices of late.

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