Riding into Nostalgia: The Riley RM

Riley cars are emblematic of a bygone era of classic engineering, and few cars epitomise the golden age of British motoring quite like the Riley RM series. Launched in 1945, it was a beacon of hope and a symbol of recovery for a nation emerging from the shadows of World War II. This is the Riley RM history, the tale of a true British hero.

Automotive History
8 April 2024

The Riley RM was a beacon of classic automotive design, melding the grace of pre-war craftsmanship with the optimism of post-war Britain, creating a driving experience that was as luxurious as it was timeless. As American carmakers eagerly embraced the immediate post-war era by diving headfirst into innovative trends, British companies took a more conservative approach, often updating and refining their pre-war models well into the early 1950s. One of the most successful proponents of this concept was the Riley RM series, starting with the iconic Riley RMA.

This methodology, born out of the challenging economic conditions of post-war Britain, inadvertently led to the creation of some remarkable machines. These cars, with their elegant curves and classic aesthetics reminiscent of Europe’s great pre-war sports cars, seamlessly transitioned into the new age, carrying with them the proud legacy of what went before.

The Riley RM series, encompassing models such as the Riley RMA, RMB, RMC, and RMD, was meticulously crafted to embody the luxury, style, and engineering excellence that the marque had been known for since its inception in 1890. These cars were designed to cater to a society eager to leave the austerity of war behind, offering a blend of comfort, performance, and elegance.

This is the story of the RM, Riley, and a company that rode the rollercoaster of excellence followed by the slow train to obscurity.

The Life of Riley

c.1930 Riley 9 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Riley began in the late nineteenth century in Coventry, evolving, as many of the early British car companies did, from humble beginnings making bicycles. This set the stage for their foray into the nascent automobile industry, heralding an era of vehicles celebrated for their craftsmanship and style.

In the inter-war years, Riley emerged as a symbol of innovation and excellence in British motoring, crafting vehicles that seamlessly combined performance and engineering sophistication to captivate a generation.

Despite the earlier success, in the decades following World War II, Riley faced significant challenges, culminating in the last car leaving the production line in 1969. Yet even when facing this decline, the company could still excel, and the Riley RM was arguably its greatest creation. This is its story.

Riley RMA

The Riley emblem. (Credit: François Pugnet/Sygma via Getty Images)

Billed as Britain’s first post-war car – perhaps more for the marketing kudos than a factual statement – the Riley RMA was an instant success when it was launched in August 1945. ‘As old as the industry, as modern as the hour’ was the company’s motto, and this was a perfect description of the RMA.

The 1.5-litre straight-four was a real head-turner. The wonderful sweeping lines of the wheel arches and running boards were complemented with independent front suspension and hydro-mechanical brakes. It had a top speed of 81 mph (130 km/h) and a launch price of £709. The first of the Riley RM series, over 10,500 RMA models were built before it was replaced in 1952 with the RME.

The RME was effectively the same as the RMA but with hydraulic brakes and a bigger rear window. It still used the 1.5-litre straight-four, and later models dispensed with the 1930s-style running boards. More than 3,400 rolled off the production line until it was discontinued in 1955.

Riley RMB

1948 Riley RMB. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Launched in early 1946, the second car in the Riley RM series was the RMB. It was ostensibly a longer version of the Riley RMA that used the company’s excellent pre-war 2.5-litre straight-four. It was fast – with a reported top speed of around 100 mph (160 km/h) – and luxurious. Yet sales were not as good as the RMA, with only 6,900 produced in the six years from 1946 until 1952.

The RMB was replaced in 1952 by the RMF, of which just over 1,000 were built in a production run that ended barely a year later. The F shared the same 2.5-litre straight-four with the B but was slightly longer. With a few subtle improvements, the RMF is often considered by Riley purists to be the company’s best post-war model.

Riley RMC

Classic Riley engine (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

The RMC was a bench-seat, 2-3 seat convertible which launched in 1948. It was designed for the newly-lucrative North American export market. The cutaway doors, lower bonnet line, fold-flat windscreen and the elongated rear end made it look somewhat clumsy and sales weren’t as strong as the company had hoped.

The RMC used the 2.5-litre straight-four engine, and in an attempt to boost flagging UK sales, small numbers were made available in right-hand drive configuration, though it was quietly dropped from the line-up in 1951.

Riley RMD

Riley RMD Drop Head Convertible (Credit: Fotoholica Press / Contributor via Getty Images)

The last cabriolet to bear the Riley name, the RMD was launched in 1949 and was arguably the prettiest car in the Riley RM series. It was reminiscent of Riley’s beautiful pre-war dropheads and, like many of its stablemates, used the 2.5-litre straight-four.

Unfortunately, it had something else in common with its stablemates. It wasn’t as successful as Riley needed it to be, and was axed from the line-up after two years.

A Classic in the Making

The dashboard of a 1948 Riley RMB. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

While the RM series was never able to achieve the sweeping commercial success the company required, over the years it has nevertheless come to enjoy a prominent status among classic car enthusiasts. It’s often celebrated for its contribution to the golden age of British motoring, with its blend of elegance, performance, and engineering excellence. Revered as a timeless icon, the RM series not only encapsulates the spirit of its era but also stands as a beacon of Riley’s illustrious legacy in the heart of the classic car community.

The Riley RM: A Remarkable Machine

The sleek lines of the Riley RMD (Credit: Fotoholica Press / Contributor via Getty Images)

The legacy and longevity of the Riley RM series are a testament to its design, engineering, and the emotional connection it forged with its owners and enthusiasts. The iterations of the RM, Riley’s most celebrated car, are notable not just for their historical significance but also for their contribution to the nation’s automotive heritage. These vehicles are more than just machines, they’re post-war style icons, embodiments of a bygone age, and an enduring symbol of a unique period in the history of British motoring.

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