Rileys 1896 - 1939 The Pre-Nuffield Years.
The Beginnings of a Marque - 1896-1914
The Riley Cycle Co. Ltd. was founded on 23/5/1896 by William Riley Junior. In 1870, he had taken over the families weaving business, in Coventry. In 1890 he also acquired the Cycle works of Bonnick & Co. Ltd. The two companies were effectively merged in 1896, with new works being bought alongside the Bonnick works in King Street Coventry. In 1899, the first Rileys powered by an internal combustion engine were shown. They were a Quadricycle, and a Tricycle, both called 'Royal Rileys'. They were shown by the company of Messers William, Basil and Herbert Riley - the three brother shareholders of the company. These were the first official Rileys to be offered for sale to the public. However, between 1896 and 1898, Percy Riley, one of William's sons, had developed a car of his own. The Car was hand-made by Percy, to his own design, in the Workshops of the Riley Cycle Company, however, it was never put into full production. The only thing of note in his design, was that for the first time in a cars engine, he used a mechanically-operated inlet valve. However, although this car was a very successful prototype, which was used by the family for many years, it didn't reach production, meaning that the 1899 Royal Rileys are thought of as the first Riley Motor Cars.
Over the next few years, Riley developed the 2 Royal Riley designs, as well as adapting some of their bicycle designs to take petrol engines. However, the directors were beginning to find the problems in simply adapting pedal-driven machines to petrol-driven, and so decided to design a tricycle that was intended to be motorized from the beginning. This resulted in the 1904 Tricar. The Tricar, although obviously based on the Motor-cycles, was undoubtedly designed to be petrol-driven (as indeed was the 1903-model motorbike). It featured the first Riley-designed engine, from the Riley Engine works, run by 3 of William Riley's Sons - Percy, Victor and Allan. The engine works were run entirely by Percy, and situated alongside part of the 13th century city wall in Coventry. The 1905 Tricar was the first Riley to use a steering wheel in preference to Handlebars. It also had some form of bodywork, and started to look less like a converted Motorcycle. This also meant that the saddle was replaced with a bucket-seat, like that already used for the passenger. These 9hp Riley Tricars were the first to enter motorsports, and their success lead to Rileys inter-war domination of their class at many races. Over the years, the Tricar design was developed significantly, until it ended production in late 1907, due to more modern 4-wheeled Rileys.
Since 1905, a 'proper' 4-wheeled Riley had been under development, and was ready for production towards the end of 1906. The development of this car had lead to the Riley Engine Co. having to move in that summer. This was done with the aid of a lorry that they specifically built themselves, and was able to carry up to 2 tons, simply using the v-twin 9hp engine from the Tricars. The Car was a light 2-seater, using the V-twin engine, and available with an optional hood. Throughout 1906 and 1907, the cars were successful in many of the events (mainly hillclimbs) that they were entered in, winning a large number of them outright, although mainly due to Handicapping procedures.. A significant development that Riley used on this car, was the patented detachable wheel, which meant that the puncture didn't have to be repaired in-situ, but the wheel could simply be replaced. During this period, the success of the cars led the Riley Cycle Company to cease production of bicycles by 1911. However, before this, in late 1907, Riley had decided that a larger car was necessary. Therefore they had developed the Riley 12-18hp. This still used a V-twin engine, but scaled up to about 2 litres. The car was usually a 4-seater, but had many different bodies put on it in it's lifetime. These bodies included a Landaulet, 2-seater, and 4-seater with rearward facing rear seats. Most models featured tool-trays under the front passenger seat, an idea which was used on many further Rileys (although later transferred to an under-bonnet location). By the 1908 Motor Show, another new model had been launched, in the shape of the Riley 10hp. This was generally a 2-seater model, with a shortened chassis, and smaller engine than the 12-18hp. Most of the development of the Riley Cars was now being carried out by Percy (Engines/Mechanics) and Stanley (Body design). The other family members played lesser parts as controllers of the various Riley companies.
During 1910, the 9hp model was gradually phased-out, leaving the company running a 2-car production line. Then, during 1913, many changes were made in the Company infrastructure. The Riley Motor Manufacturing Co. took over car production, at new works next to the Riley Engine Co., and the Riley Cycle Co. changed it's name to Riley (Coventry) Ltd., and concentrated on the patented detachable wheels. These wheels were to prove very popular with other manufacturers, and in 1913 alone, Riley supplied over 183 manufacturers with wheels. During this period of reorganisation, a brand new car, The Riley 17hp was launched. It featured a brand new 4-cylinder, 3 litre engine. Again various bodies were available, but production hardly got under way before war was declared.