Buyers Guide Riley RM

Buyers Guide Riley RM

Art-deco style with modern engineering and still undervalued – for now. Words Richard Dredge. Photography John Colley.

Buying Guide Want Art Deco swank with postwar sensibility? That’ll be the Riley RM

Six steps to buying aRiley RM

Although it didn’t look modern, the RileyRM was the first all-new British post-warcar design. Its combination of sweeping Art-Deco lines and advanced-for-its-time twin-cam-powered running gear would surely command a fortune nowadays were it to hail from Milan or Detroit, but its homespun and mass-produced nature means that a decent example can be yours for a four-figure sum if you shop around.

It’s more straightforward to run than your average pre-war tourer but specialists aren’t exactly plentiful and club membership is vital for support. To this end, we consulted marque specialists Roger Lamb, David Holden, and Neil Hardy of Hardy Engineering to find out how to get an RM in your garage.

Buyers Guide Riley RM

Which one to choose?

Riley RM 1ó-litre, Britain’s first all-new post-war car design, was launched at Earls Court at the end of 1945 initially in four-door saloon form only.

The 2 1/2-litre RMB was launched in 1946, causing the 1ó-litre to be retrospectively named the RMA.

RMC Roadster, based on the 2 1/2-litre RMB, was previewed at the 1948 Geneva Salon with production beginning in 1949.

1949 also saw the introduction of the RMD drophead coupé, also 2 1/2-litre-based. Both RMC and RMD production was discontinued in 1951 ahead of a major range overhaul.

The chassis was upgraded with a hypoid rear axle and hydraulic brakes in 1952. Reduced back to two models, the RMA was renamed RME and RMB renamed RMF. RMF’s rear window was enlarged for 1953 but the car was discontinued later that year. The sole remaining RM, the 1 1/2-litre RME, was treated to a re-design in 1953 that boarded up the rear wheels with spats, incorporated the front fog lights into the wings and dispensed with the running boards. Production ended in January 1955.


The very best RMs usually change hands within the Riley RM Club ( Be wary of RMs that’ve gone through several owners in quick succession – it’s not unusual for someone to buy a seemingly good car, realise that it actually needs a lot of work doing to it and then quickly sell it on again. Very few open-topped RMs change hands at all so it’s important to make sure that you’re buying the genuine article because some saloon conversions aren’t great; genuine Dropheads have substantial strengthening in the sills and behind the rear window. If that strengthening isn’t there on a converted car, be prepared to bargain accordingly. Rotten steel and timber are common so scrutinise the base of each A- and B-post together with the rear window surround, sills and roof frame. All of these are timber and in the case of the roof it can be tricky working out what’s going on because it’s covered in vinyl cloth. Underneath is a perforated steel panel topped with wadding covered in hessian. This absorbs moisture, rotting the structure beneath and the vinyl cloth shrinks with age, allowing water in and accelerating the deterioration. However, degradation of the car’s structure and fixtures can look like shrinkage so be sure to press on the various pillars as well as the main roof panel, feeling for any crumbling that may be lurking below.

The timber structure is clothed in steel panels although some bonnet tops are aluminium and – periodically until 1953 – so were some bonnet side panels. All 2ó-litre cars got steel panels here while 1ó-litre models got aluminium or steel. Start by looking at the door bottoms and C-posts then inspect the boot aperture and floor edges, along with the spare wheel compartment near edge.

Getting a rotten saloon rebuilt is a relatively straightforward if expensive task that will easily eclipse the value of the car – think £3k worth of replacement woodwork before strip-down and reassembly has begun – easily a £10k job even before a further £3.5k is spent on a respray. RMCs and RMDs are more viable restoration subjects but the absence of spare structural parts makes each restoration a bespoke prospect that will be even more expensive, even if you’ll recoup more of the costs.


Two different four-cylinder twin-cam engines were fitted to the RM, displacing either 1496cc or 2443cc. Cars with the smaller unit have a dark blue grille badge; 2 1/2-litre cars got a light blue badge. Check for the usual wear-related rattles and knocks while blue exhaust smoke under acceleration points to oil being burned. The oil should be changed every 1500-3000 miles; keep an eye on the pressure gauge to see how healthy the engine is. Expect 40psi at 40mph on a 1ó-litre and 30psi on a 2ó-litre. Much lower readings can suggest wear; much higher and the oilways are clogged up or the relief valve is set incorrectly. Check 2ó-litre cars for a blown cylinder head gasket and ensure that it doesn’t run hot once up to temperature – it could be a build-up of sludge in the block. If either engine needs a professional rebuild, the work can run to £5000 plus a £1500 rebuild kit. A high-gain radiator isn’t necessarily the answer because of the fan design, although many cars have one now. If yours doesn’t, budget £150 to have the radiator re-cored. Also check the coolant-heated inlet manifold on a 2ó-litre engine, which is prone to a leaking frost-damaged water jacket – whether the system is drained or not.


The four-speed manual gearbox is strong but a discernible rumbling signifies a worn layshaft. Also listen out for grumbling bearings while a loud whine suggests tired gears. All cars feature a floor-mounted gear change apart from early Roadsters (RMC), which have a column shifter. These contain a mass of linkages – wear here creates a vague gear change. Re-bushing everything is likely to work wonders and it’s easy to do although you’ll need to have everything made in a machine shop first – budget £700 all-in for a professional rebuild. Adjustment of the clutch rod mechanism can be fiddly, which is why clutch drag is so common, so check for slipping and judder as you pull away. This is common on the 2ó-litre cars, signifying tired engine mountings or inappropriate steady cable rubber but replacements are cheap and easy to fit. Oil leaks from RMA/RMB rear axles are not uncommon, so make sure that there isn’t lubricant all over the underside. Pulling to one side under braking can signify oil contaminated rear brakes.

Steering, suspension and brakes

The steering rack is durable but a new one from the club (£174 without the pinion) should cure any excess play. Properly maintained suspension lasts well but the eight greasing points – including the track rod ends (plus one on post-1952 cars’ steering housing) – are often neglected. Check for kingpin play by jacking the car up at the front, putting a heel bar under the tyre then looking for excess movement as the wheel is moved up and down.

The rear leaf springs also sag with age while the lever-arm damper lower links on pre-1951 2 ½ -litre cars can become disconnected, although repair is straightforward. Telescopic dampers were used from late 1951 and rarely give trouble.

Rileys used a hydromechanical braking system until the introduction of the RME and RMF in 1952, at which point it was replaced by a fully hydraulic setup. Both of these systems use drums all round and while the earlier system is well up to the job, the later setup is even better. Both are reliable, so just make the usual checks for leaks, wear and tear and evidence of poor adjustment.


Look for stitching that’s falling apart, tears in the leather and delaminating wood. A professional retrim is very costly – in the region of £2000. The club recommends kits from Woolies to revive a tired interior on a DIY basis.

There’s a substantial amount of exterior brightwork, but the only real problems here involve pitting and missing items. Much of the trim is still available used however and isn’t expensive.

What to pay

  • The cheapest way into an RM is with an honest, roadworthy RMA or RME saloon, with decent runners starting at £5750 for a private sale. Condition one examples go for £11,500 with dealers asking £16k. 2ó-litre RMB/RMFs command a £3k premium.
  • Scruffy RMD dropheads can be found for £13,500, but the best make £22k-£28k.
  • The best private RMC Roadsters make £30k, with dealers and auction houses collecting towards £45k for concours examples.

‘Pulling to one side under braking can signify contaminated rear brakes’

Rebuilds to either engine will cost around £6500.

Trim is largely available but any substantial work will soon start to add up. Beware horrors hidden in the timber roof frame that’s often concealed by the vinyl covering. Despite the pre-War visuals of its cycle wings and seperate headlights, the RM was otherwise modern for its time

Owning a Riley RM

Steve Pettyfer, Hertfordshire

‘I have two RMs, and have owned four,’ says Steve who, together with his wife Karen, runs the Riley RM Club Spares Team. ‘I was always drawn to their beautiful style ever since seeing a rotten one under a tarpaulin in a garden many years ago. Then a contact of mine in Wakefield put me in touch with Phil Hallam who had three in his garden. First I bought an RMA from him, then an RMB at the NEC show – which I’ve still got – a second RMB, which I sold on to be restored, and finally an RMD drophead which had been hidden in a bodyshop in Boston, Massachusetts, since 1965.

‘They’re very easy to drive, with roadholding and cruising manners far more modern than the styling. They’re mechanically simple, easy to work on and over-engineered, which has led to such a good survival rate.

‘The first thing to check is the ash frame. While all of the wood to rebuild a saloon is available pre-cut off the shelf, you’ll spend a huge amount of time and money fixing a rotten example, plus you need to find a specialist who knows what they’re doing.

‘Mechanically they’re tough and simple, but clean oil is essential. If you haven’t already, clean out the crankshaft oilways because sludge can cause big end failure. Also check that the water jacket isn’t clogged, leading to overheating.’

Danny Hopkins, Cambridgeshire

‘I’ve always loved the RM, that perfect marriage of Thirties deco and Fifties forward-thinking technology,’ says Practical Classics editor and, until recently, RME owner Danny Hopkins. ‘I mentioned wanting one in the magazine and a reader got in touch to say that he had one in need of restoration.

‘It was a long process with a lot of unusual skills involved, including wood and fabric work – the roof’s honeycomb structure is especially tricky to work on.

‘The 1.5-litre engine struggles with motorway traffic but it drives younger than it looks, with telescopic dampers, independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. ‘The RM Club and its Parts Centre makes sure that everything is available or re-manufactured. Mine never let me down but I had a few issues with bleeding the brake master cylinder – it sits in the middle and acts simultaneously on the hydraulics at the front and mechanics at the rear. Balancing it is a right fiddle!’

Sponsored by Carole Nash Insurance

Peter McIlvenny of specialist classic car insurer Carole Nash says, ‘As with many vehicles from this period, values have been pretty static in recent times and look to remain so in the coming years. ‘That does mean that you can get a lot of period classic car for your money, but be sure to buy with care – and that includes getting a professional to give the structure a good once over. MoT exemption may seem convenient as an owner, but it makes buying a good one more difficult. ‘These cars are really for buying and enjoying, so if sunny drives surrounded by walnut and leather are your thing, what are you waiting for? Go grab yourself a bargain.’ Classic car insurance quotes: 0333 005 7541 or

1953 Riley 2.5 RMB – £12,590

1953 RMB 2.5 saloon in a very nice original two-tone colour scheme of maroon and black, with matching leather seats. Modest mileage of 65,567. Manual gearbox, right-hand drive. I’ve owned it since 2011 – car is accompanied by plenty of history. The 2.5-litre engine runs brilliantly with no issues – it always starts and drives without any fuss.

‘The RM would surely command a fortune nowadays were it to hail from Milan or Detroit’

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