The “White Riley”, The ERA, And The Healey Cars

Recently, as a follow-up to a post that I had made about the Healey cars, Even Gamblin sent me some information about the Riley cars.  The link between the Healey cars and the Riley cars is that the first engine used in the Healey cars was a 2.4 litre four-cylinder engine that was originally designed by Riley.


Riley started off as a bicycle manufacturing business, but it went through some changes to its business into engines and then by 1913 the business became the Riley (Coventry) Limited which focused entirely on automobiles.  The first real sporty Riley was the Riley Brooklands which first appeared in the mid-1920s.

Riley Brooklands 1933

Riley Brooklands

During the 1920s and 1930s Riley cars won the Brooklands Five-Hundred, finished second and third overall at Le Mans in 1934, won the Tourist Trophy three times in five years, and had a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally.  Some of the other Riley sporty cars that were produced during this this period were the Riley Sprite and the Riley Ulster Imp.Riley TTSprite-r34front[1]

Riley TT Sprite

I saw the Riley Ulster Imp pictured below at the Lime Rock Historic Festival in 2010.

Riley Ulster Imp (4)

Riley Ulster Imp

The most famous of the Riley cars was the “White Riley”.  This was a special race car built by Riley for race car development purposes.  This car was also the “test mule” for the development of the even more famous ERA (English Racing Automobiles) voiturette race cars in the 1930s.


The “White Riley”

While the “White Riley” was used as a test mule for the ERA, it is unfortunate that the ERA cars did not look more like the Riley cars.  The ERA race cars have a very plain, upright, “agricultural” look to them, while the lines of the Riley sports cars are much more attractive.


The “White Riley” Is An Attractive Car

The ERA race car that came from the “White Riley” was very successful; winning a large number of races from 1934 to 1939.  It has been said that relative to the number of ERA cars built (17 total Types A through D models) that the ERA won more races than any other marque.


Riley built their engines in both 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder versions. These engines were also built with numerous displacement sizes. All of the engines had a similar design – hemispherical combustion chamber, intake and exhaust valves angled at 90 degrees, short and light pushrods from twin camshafts mounted high on each side of the engine block.  Due to the arrangement of the valves, the engine looks like it has dual overhead camshafts, but these are parrallel valve covers.


The “White Riley” Engine

The cutaway engine image below from the book “Great Cars of the World” by Jon Pressnell shows the typical Riley engine.


A Four-Cylinder Riley Engine

As I have posted before about the Healey cars, the Chrysler engineers tested all types of engines in the late 1940s and early 1950s and concluded that the Healey engine was the most efficient design that was on the market at that time.  In fact Healey was obtaining their 2.4 litre 4-cylinder engines from the Riley company.  As a result of this testing, Chrysler embarked on a program to build the “hemi” engines.  As a result, there is a direct link from these Riley cars and the high-performance Chrysler hemi cars.


The “White Riley” During A Hillclimb

The picture below shows Canada’s Kay Petre racing the “White Riley” in a hillclimb.  Note that the “White Riley” in this picture has dual rear wheels.  This evidently was a practice that was frequently done during hillclimbs.  Kay Petre was originally from Toronto, but she moved to England and became a significant racer.  She has been inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.

KPetre-White Riley

Canada’s Kay Petre Racing The “White Riley”

During a trip to Germany in 2011, I, along with some other friends, attended the Jim Clark Memorial Races at the Hockenhiem race track.  One of the cars participating in the races that day was the ERA racer shown below.


An ERA Race Car At Hockenhiem At The Jim Clark Memorial Races In 2011

The picture below, taken by Paul Henshall at Hockenhiem, shows the engine in the ERA.  Notice the similarity between the engine in the “White Riley” and the ERA.  Clearly there was a strong relationship with the “White Riley” and the ERA cars.

ERA (1) PH

The ERA’s 6-Cylinder Engine Is Similar To The “White Riley’s” Engine

In 1938 Lord Nuffield bought the Riley company.  Shortly after World War II, Nuffield began to make tractors to help the British farmers improve food production.  I grew up on a farm on a farm on the edge of a small town in Canada.  A few farmers in that area had Nuffield tractors.  I knew about Nuffield tractors long before I ever knew about ERA race cars, but when I first saw the ERA cars it reminded me of a Nuffield tractor.  Compare the Nuffield tractor below with the previous picture of the ERA race car.

Nuffield Tractor (2)

Does This Nuffield Tractor Look Like An ERA Race Car?

This post just scratches the surface of the story about Riley cars.  I am surprised that such cars are rarely mentioned in the material that I see in races of that era, but they were clearly impressive cars.  I understand that the Riley brand name is now owned by BMW.  Perhaps some day BMW will build a Riley car that would be worthy of the Riley name.

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17 Responses to The “White Riley”, The ERA, And The Healey Cars

  1. Tom King says:

    There were many more links between Donald Healey and the Riley company, dating back to 1932 or so, when he raced the cars for the Riley Works Team.

  2. areopagitica says:

    Steve, please let me know if hotlinking this entire article to my Facebook blog, Looking Back Racing meets with your satisfaction. I am always thrilled to see well scanned techie illustrations and intelligent commentary containing well chosen photography. Your discussion here is just such a find and fits well with what I strive to do in my own literary perambulations.

    • No problem with hotlinking this article. I am appreciative of and humbled by your comments about the article. I do strive to provide both good and interesting information about the various topics about which I post. My good friend Evan Gamblin helped me put together the information included in this post. Thanks again!
      Steve McKelvie

  3. Dave Williams says:

    I’ve just come across this excellent piece whilst looking for information about a 1936 ERA-Riley special. As you say the ERA engine was based on the 6-cylinder Riley engine. If you need any more information about the ERA, try this site which gives details of each of the cars:

    Dave Williams
    Hyde, Cheshire, UK

  4. Geoff Clark says:

    Hopefully i would rather see a british company get back the name of Riley from BMW and revive it as unfortunately we have lost too many names to foriegn firms!!!!…….and no the ERA looks great for me.

  5. Ken Sink says:

    ERA Name been used in England by Tiger Racing

  6. neilsherry says:

    ERA – it’s English Racing Automobiles, not Association

  7. Calum Hamilton says:

    Hi Steve the car you are calling a 1934 Ulster Imp is not .It started out as a Riley Kestrel saloon

    • Hi Calum,
      I checked my notes from my visit to Lime Rock in 2010 where I saw this car and I wrote down what the car’s owner claimed the car was on that little plaque sitting on the ground in front of the car. Do you mean by “it started out” to be that Riley built a number of body styles (Kestrel, Imp, and others) on the same basic chassis? Which they did. Or do you mean that someone in the car’s past butchered a Kestrel and turned it into this car?
      Steve McKelvie

  8. Stewart says:

    Here is the link to my E.R.A facebook page. Enjoy it


  9. Nice page,
    I like the picture of me too, (colour pic with yelow race suit) driving the White Riley at Prescot in 1996,
    That is one hell of a magnificent motor car and I loved driving it.
    Keep up the nice writing,
    Julian Messent,
    Historic Competition Services

  10. Kurt Longeron says:

    Greetings Julian,
    I have the pleasure of knowing the current owner. It is in good hands. I have fondled it’s parts.
    Time to time I return to northern Virginia to tinker on some folks Rileys, Bristols and the like.
    At last visit we discussed the crating of all its parts to send back to England for its long overdue
    frame replacement, as it had suffered under the hands of owners who thought they could improve upon its design. Too much evidence to erase easily. I anticipate its completed return. I can only dream of having the opportunity to drive it. Perhaps after having set a few hours on the 1947 Maserati formula 2 A6 that I’m helping finish up in Palm Springs, might Ian consider my driving any of his specials!
    Cheers to all,

  11. EvanG says:

    Supporting Steve’s comment about Riley being under appreciated, David Styles commented:
    “It seems sadly true that the tremendous catalogue of Riley successes in competition, and their contributions of innovation and development to the Automobile Industry, have never been properly recognized. For surely Riley was to Britain what Bugatti was to France and Ferrari to Italy.”
    – “As Old as the Industry: Riley, 1898- 1969”

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