Looking back now, the way in which the British motor industry developed after WW2 – the mergers, the sharing of components and the dilution of marque identity – was already in evidence during the second half of the 1930s.
Both offered advanced, sporting models that reflected their competition success.
They traded overall victory in the prestigious RAC Tourist Trophy for six consecutive years, with no less a driver than Tazio Nuvolari claiming it for MG in 1933.
Renowned tuner Freddie Dixon soon hit back, taking consecutive wins for Riley in 1935 and ’36.
And then there was Raymond Mays’ ‘White Riley’, based on the Brooklands Six model and which formed the stepping stone on his way to building the voiturette ERAs.
MG soon discovered, however, that all of that success didn’t necessarily pay the bills.
In 1935, the company became part of the Nuffield Organisation, the expensive racing programme was halted and the design office was shifted from Abingdon to Cowley.
Rather than being given a relatively free hand at the head of the marque, Cecil Kimber was instructed to concentrate more on the bottom line than the chequered flag.
The first new model to upset the purists was the SA of 1935 – a luxurious, heavy 2-litre saloon that signalled a shift in ethos for the company and was designed to take on the SS.
A year later came its little brother, the 1½-litre VA.
While the chassis and the bodywork (saloon, tourer or drophead) were bespoke, the 1548cc engine was developed from that used in the Morris Twelve and Wolseley 12/48.
Much of the running gear was sourced the same way and, while enthusiasts pined for the old school of MGs, there was no doubt that this approach put the company on a far more stable financial footing.
Almost as many VAs were sold in the first year of production as Magnettes over the previous three.
In Coventry, meanwhile, Riley was focused solely on expansion.
In 1935, and still revelling in the success of the Nine, the firm reintroduced a 1½-litre four-cylinder model to its range, something that had been missing since 1928 and which put it in direct competition with the VA.
While Percy Riley wanted to develop the existing 1633cc six-cylinder powerplant to cover this sector of the market, his brothers – Victor and Stanley – preferred to create an entirely new unit.
It was designed by Hugh Rose, who had previously been working on the company’s transmissions, and used many of the elements that could be found on its smaller sibling, such as hemispherical combustion chambers and twin camshafts that were mounted high in the block.
The ‘hot-spot’ induction system – in which the exhaust gases heated the intake manifold to ensure the most efficient flow – was retained, albeit altered from that found on the Nine.
In 45bhp Standard form, carburetion was via a single Zenith.
The later Special Series option had twin Zeniths or twin SUs, and upped the output to 52bhp, while from 1936 the really sporting customer could specify the 61bhp Sprite Series engine, with crossflow cylinder head and water-heated inlet manifold.
A new chassis was developed, too, featuring box-section side members and tubular cross-members, and further braced via diagonal cables that crossed at the centre.
As for body styles, the Kestrel saloon (which would be offered at £345) and Lynx four-door tourer (£335) were already popular on other chassis, so they were adapted for use on the 1½-litre, which became known as the 12/4.
There was a newcomer, too, in the shape of the Falcon saloon. This design was slightly more upright than the svelte Kestrel, with the intention that it would be for buyers who desired a little more room and practicality.
Trying to keep up with the development of Riley models of this era is a time-consuming business.
In 1936 alone came four more variations on the 1½-litre theme: the spacious six-light Adelphi; the two-seater Sprite, which was based on the MPH platform; the entry-level Merlin; and a six-light version of the Kestrel.
There were also three chassis, each with a different wheelbase.
The shortest was for the Merlin, the middle one carried the Falcon and Lynx, and the longest was for the Adelphi and Kestrel.
Into this ever-changing maelstrom of bodies came the Touring saloon of 1937, and it is this elegant shape that adorns our featured car.
The model is commonly referred to as the Continental, which was to have been its official name until Rolls-Royce objected.
It was offered for only one year in this form – the 1938 Touring is, confusingly, a completely different car.
As with so many Riley saloons of the era, it’s beautifully resolved – perhaps not quite as flowing as the six-light Kestrel, but more sporting than the Falcon.
The idea was that it would be a practical choice, hence the boot, which looks as though it should be spacious yet is anything but.
The spare wheel prevents you from packing much luggage, which rather blunts the ‘Touring’ objective.
The MG looks more substantial than the Riley – especially around the rear three-quarters – and it features a more upright boot, which again is not as capacious as you would expect.
The upright grille and twin spare wheels (a factory option fitted to Keith Bush’s car) both contribute to the feeling that the VA is the more conservative, grown-up design.
It’s full of neat details, though.
The liberal use of the Octagon badge was apparently at the behest of Cecil Kimber, who was keen that MG’s identity should still be clearly stamped upon the new model.
As such, you can find it on everything from the doorhandles to the interior lamps.
Inside, both cars offer the combination of atmosphere and discreet good taste that can only come from a 1930s saloon.
Into the staple diet of wood and leather are woven contemporary touches such as Art Deco sunburst door cards and elegant dials set – on the Riley as in the MG – within a centrally mounted wooden dashboard.
The VA feels more airy and spacious, but both cars offer cosy, comfortable and beautifully sculpted rear seats.
Slide behind the wheel of the MG and your feet rest quite high, with the pedals close together.
It’s a commanding viewpoint that enables you to easily place the car when you’re on the move.
As with so many models of this era, the VA and Riley ‘wander’ down the road, the wheels following every little variation.
If you are clumsy with the steering – especially on badly maintained B-roads – you can easily end up overcorrecting, but you soon adapt to the way in which they chatter along.
Contrary to its exterior appearance, the MG feels like the more sporting of the two thanks, in this instance, to Bush having uprated the engine to the 1708cc, 63bhp specification that was used in police VAs.
It therefore sounds stronger than the Riley’s ‘four’, pulling well through the gears, although both cars are equally happy maintaining a 50mph cruise.
There is synchromesh on all but first gear, but nonetheless Bush double-declutches his way up and down the ’box, moving the stubby lever through its delightful open gate – complete with a ‘lock-out’ for reverse – so I do likewise.
On more than one occasion, we approach a corner and I go to change down, only for him to assure me that it’s fine where it is and the torque will pull the car through, which – of course – it does.
The Riley features Armstrong Siddeley’s preselector gearbox that was adopted as part of the company’s determination to make driving as easy as possible.
Operating it is indeed simple: once you’re on the move, you slide the column-mounted lever into the relevant position.
When you next press and release the gearchange pedal, that ratio will be selected.
Coming from a time when synchromesh was in its infancy, you can see the appeal for owners who struggled with a manual gearbox.
That said, Riley did offer a three-speed, dual-overdrive transmission as an option from mid-1937.
In fact, when the 12/4 was launched at the London Motor Show, the Falcon on display was fitted with an all-synchromesh unit, the development and production of which was subsequently abandoned.
The harsh lessons that had been learned at Abingdon, and which resulted in the VA sitting comfortably within a streamlined range between the SA and T-series sports cars, took a little longer to reach Coventry.
By 1938, however, Riley’s ambitious approach had caught up with it and, on 24 February, the Receiver was called in.
That September, Riley joined MG as part of the Nuffield Organisation after a proposed merger with Triumph failed.
Assurances were given by William Morris himself that “the company may add to the great reputation it has so deservedly won”.
In mid-1936, the Riley range comprised four different engines and 22 model variations. For 1939, only the 1½- and 2½-litre engines survived, in saloon or drophead bodies.
While the VA proved unpopular among the diehards when new, it was – and remains – a classy and very able rival for the 12/4, a car introduced at the height of Riley’s powers.
The latter’s crisp, delicate styling gives it the edge it for me but, in this uprated form, the MG feels impressively sporting and adds up to more than the sum of its relatively humble parts.
The rivalry between the two marques would continue but, once they were under the same roof, it would never be quite the same again.
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to The Riley Register
This was originally in our June 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication
- Sold/number built 1937-’39/2407
- Construction steel chassis, ash frame, steel panels, aluminium-skinned doors and bootlid
- Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 1549cc ‘four’, twin SU carburettors
- Max power 54bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque not quoted
- Transmission four-speed manual, no synchro on first, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front beam axle rear live axle; semi-elliptic leaf springs, anti-roll shackles, adjustable hydraulic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and nut
- Brakes hydraulically operated 10in drums
- Length 14ft 3in (4343mm)
- Width 5ft 2in (1575mm)
- Height 5ft 1¾in (1568mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft (2743mm)
- Weight 2574lb (1168kg)
- 0-50mph 15.8 secs
- Top speed 76mph
- Mpg 22
- Price new £325
Riley 12/4 Continental
- Sold/number built 1937/150
- Construction steel box-section chassis, tubular crossmembers, ash frame, aluminium panels, steel wings and running boards
- Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 1496cc ‘four’, single Zenith carburettor
- Max power 45bhp @ 4800rpm
- Max torque not quoted
- Transmission four-speed Armstrong Siddeley preselector, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front beam axle rear live axle; semi-elliptic springs, Luvax dampers f/r
- Steering worm and segment
- Brakes rod-operated drums
- Length 14ft 6½in (4430mm)
- Width 5ft 1½in (1530mm)
- Height 4ft 11½in (2629mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 4½in (2840mm)
- Weight 2799lb (1270kg)
- 0-50mph 17 secs
- Top speed 73mph
- Mpg 27
- Price new £350