It took a British schoolboy – one with access to a fully equipped machine shop working steadily for two years, but a schoolboy nonetheless – to beat the Germans to one of the landmark engineering developments in the evolution of the internal combustion engine and to help center the British car industry in Coventry. And it took that schoolboy’s nephew two decades to pay tribute to that pioneer with a replica of the first automobile to bear the Riley name.
Late into the 19th century, internal combustion engines largely relied on vacuum and compression to actuate intake valves. These so-called automatic intake valves, according to Jan Norbye writing in Automobile Quarterly, limited internal combustion engines to rather low speeds and thus low power outputs. “The intake valve had to be opened and closed mechanically for sustained high rpm,” Norbye wrote.
Percy Riley may not have been the first to invent mechanical intake valves – French inventor Fernand Forest and British automaker Lanchester pioneered them in 1892 and 1895, respectively – but he did employ them in a manner that his forebears didn’t. While still in grade school, he designed his first automobile – one that used the mechanical intake valves in a single-cylinder 2-1/4-horsepower engine mounted in the front and driving the rear wheels via a belt – and, at age 16 in 1896, began construction on the vehicle in the workshops of his father, William, who ran a bicycle business in Coventry.
As A.T. Birmingham wrote in “Riley: The production and competition history of the pre-1939 Riley motor cars,” the completed automobile ran well.
The car was of rather conventional design for the period, having four narrow, thinly-spoked wheels (non-detachable), semi-elliptic cart springs, seating for two directly over the rear wheels and right-hand steering. Braking was by pads pressed onto the rear tyres. The engine, front mounted and air-cooled, was a vertical single-cylinder unit.
The car was completed in 1898 and, after preliminary road tests, made a non-stop journey of 18 miles from Coventry to Stratford-upon-Avon. This Riley was used for several years in and around Coventry and was subsequently sold in Belfast.
The prototype, however well it worked, didn’t lead to a production version. William Riley insisted that his company remain a bicycle producer and that it not involve itself in automobiles. He did, however, build some motorcycles and tricycles powered by internal combustion engines and ended up relying on Percy to keep that business viable.
According to Birmingham, in 1900 “a Continental firm” (that is to say Benz) tried to lay claim to the British patent for mechanically operated intake valves as a means of extracting royalties from every internal combustion engine builder using the valve system in Britain. Percy Riley managed to show British courts that he had priority on the design and so, unintentionally, Birmingham wrote, he “saved the British motor industry a great deal of money.”
Two or three years later, depending on the source, Percy and his brothers Victor and Allan went into the automobile business for themselves. Other British carmakers, unburdened by the Benz patent, proceeded to do the same, flocking to Coventry over the next few decades.
Why exactly Percy Riley sold the 1898 prototype, nobody – not even he – seemed to know. By the Thirties, he decided to track it down, offering a reward of £50 for information on its whereabouts, but nothing came of the search.
For that reason, Percy’s nephew – also named Victor – decided in the late 1990s that a replica of the prototype should be built. He hired Geoff Haviland of Bedfordshire and Philip D’Archambaud of Hertfordshire to do the work – based entirely on just a few old black-and-white photos – and, following the designation of Coventry as the United Kingdom’s City of Culture for 2021, decided to have the car complete and on public display for the year-long event.
Last week, though, just before the 2019 Classic Motor Show in the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham, the Riley Motor Club and the mayor of Coventry took the wraps off the replica, engineless but otherwise complete, at the Coventry Transport Museum. Those involved intend to have a replica engine running and installed in the replica Riley – in part with help and funding from the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group – before the 2021 event.