1938 Riley 16/4 – Racy Little Number

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By Chris Pollitt

We’re spoiled today. Modern cars are simply too powerful, and that’s the norm now. It wasn’t so long ago that ‘performance cars’ earned that title because they boasted more than 150bhp. Today, most normal family hatchbacks have that. And then there are the modern classics that we pine over, cars like the mighty Sierra RS Cosworth. A motorsport poster child with wings and vents aplenty. Yet here’s the thing – it packed just 200bhp. That’s fewer horses than a modern Golf GTi, which packs 228bhp. 

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We’ve become desensitised to power. We expect everything to have at least 200bhp these days. We watch people on TV get giddy about cars with 800bhp. We are fixated on these numbers. Numbers which are, ultimately, pointless. 800bhp means nothing in the real world. Yes, it’s a hugely impressive technical achievement, but you can’t use it. And therein lies the problem. We’re told to lust after power, despite having no real use for it. It’s there, but it’s not accessible. 

This is where vintage cars, like the Riley 16/4 we’re looking at here, shine. The recipe is simple – low weight, accessible power. The four-cylinder engine in this racy little number from 1938 is probably somewhere in the region of 90-100bhp. That’s not much. But the car isn’t much either, and by that we mean it really isn’t physically much. It’s two seats, some aluminium, a chassis and that’s about your lot. Weight is the enemy in the grab for power, but this Riley carries none. As such, the power on hand doesn’t have to work hard. It also means that every last drop of the power is at your disposal, and that makes for a driving experience that a modern, frankly clinical supercar can only hope for. 

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Riley, Riley Special, Robin Lawton, Riley 16/4, Riley Special, classic motorsport, race car, special, motoring, automotive, race car, bespoke car, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk, vintage car, pre-war car

On a recent visit to Robin Lawton, we couldn’t help but be drawn in by the little Riley. There is something about it, something deeply captivating and exciting. The bare bones nature of it, that aluminium body that has come into existence after hours of manual graft, the spartan interior with nothing more than what is required; gauges, pedals, seats and a steering wheel. It’s pure motoring. It boasts thrills aplenty for the lucky driver despite being built without many frills at all. 

Based on a 16/4, this 1938 Riley is a long way from the saloon it would have started life as. The 12/4 Adelphi chassis has been shortened and underslung at the rear. The axles are 1938 Riley wide-track items, which work to give the car a more planted appeal. The body, as we mentioned, is crafted from aluminium, along with the arches. There’s no paint though, just glorious polished metal. And despite this car’s racing intentions, it still remains road legal as you can tell by the inclusion of head and tail lights. 

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Riley, Riley Special, Robin Lawton, Riley 16/4, Riley Special, classic motorsport, race car, special, motoring, automotive, race car, bespoke car, carandclassic, carandclassic.co.uk, vintage car, pre-war car

We asked Robin to pull the car out of the showroom so that we could more effectively get around it with our camera, and oh are we glad we did. The Riley barked into life with a pleasing eagerness, and immediately started barking and growling at us through the barely silenced exhaust. A tight, deep rasp greets the ears as this car darts through the revs. We’d buy it for the noise alone. A four-cylinder has no right to sound this good. 

But it sounds very good. And actually, it should. The original car, a Riley 16/4, was named because it had an RAC Horsepower Rating of 16hp, and was four-cylinder. Hence 16/4. However, the RAC rating was ultimately a flawed practice. Initially, the rating was accurate, yet as the years advanced and as engineering techniques become more refined, engines produced more power. So what was once simply a volumetric formula became something more complicated. On paper, the Riley’s 2,443cc engine, mathematically, should have produced 16hp. In reality, most produced more than 80hp.  

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The engine in this Special certainly produces more. Rebuilt in 2018, there are new white metal main bearings, new con-rods and shell bearings, new four-ring domed pistons, a Newman camshaft and two 1½inch SU carbs. It’s a snorty, free-revving little lump that makes its power extremely accessible. And that, to go back to our original point, is the way it should be. Not Top Trumps power, but power you can get at. Power you can exploit at your discretion. This car boasts that. 

Then, there are the other elements of the drive. The slick Nuffield gearbox, the 13-inch drum brakes that, while capable, demand respect and skill to get the most out of them. And then there is the feel of the drive through the 600×60 Avon Turbospeed rubber wrapped around the wire wheels. This is a car you feel, that you become one with as you press on. You drive it as much with your backside as you do with your hands. It’s an assault on the senses, like nothing else. An event, if you will. You can keep your 800bhp clinically-built, hermetically sealed, white-gloved modern-day supercars. This Riley from 1938, that has undergone drastic surgery in the name of speed some time in the 1970s, is driving at its purest and at its most exciting. 

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Cars like this should be celebrated. They offer a drive that commands skill and ability. The power, as we have said, is modest but it’s available in its entirety. It’s down to you, the driver, to make the most out of it. And that, quite frankly, is something magical. 

Huge thanks to Robin and Michelle Lawton for letting us shoot this beautiful Riley, which you can find for sale via this Car & Classic advert.

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