Riley Elf – Just a Posh Mini

The last Riley Elfs rolled off the production line at Longbridge in 1969 when the BMC (now British Leyland) rationalised their marque ranges. Since the car market was sluggish at the time, it is possible to locate 1970 badged Rileys.

The Riley marque was established when 3 of the sons of William Riley, founder of the Riley Bicycle Company, pooled their cash, borrowed a bit from their mum and set up the Riley Engine Company in 1903. They did this because their dad refused to move into car production and that interested them more, both commercially and on an engineering basis. They were based in Coventry. Despite introducing innovations to engine design, such as the mechanically activated inlet valve and hemispherical combustion chamber with valves at an angle, they went into receivership in the late 1930s. Lord Nuffield purchased the goodwill and assets in 1938 and the ownership of the marque passed to Morris Motors Ltd. The situation was a bit more complex than that but that’s it in a nutshell.

The Riley Elf was a rebagded Mini which looked pretty similar to the Wolseley Hornet but was the ‘sporty’ version. It was built as a more luxurious version and was elongated by just 8.5 inches to include a proper boot (with the customary 1950s tail fins and top-opening lid and the nickname of the ‘Riley Shelf’) rather than having the flush rear end of the Mini and drop-down boot lid. In 1968, a Riley Elf Speedster concept car was produced, looking like a posh Mini Moke.

It featured also the traditional upright radiator grille. This must have been a bit irritating to mechanics as the damn thing was attached to the bonnet, getting in the way whilst working on the engine. Two smaller grills were added horizontally just above the front bumper tapering to the indicators. There were other external trim additions to give it the more luxurious appearance plus a more ‘finished’ interior including full walnut veneering to the dash. The British Motor Company figured that it needed to be a bit retro in order to appeal to buyers looking for something like a luxurious Mini. It weighed slightly more than its less sporty counterpar, the Hornet.

The Riley Elf was aimed at the well-off middle managers who wanted to have a small runabout that looked expensive for their well-heeled wives to trundle around in. Fewer than 31,000 were made. Examples of the Elf are rare (fewer than 600 are known to exist in the UK) and you can expect to pay upwards of £4000 for a working vehicle, closer to £10,000 for a concourse standard one. If you are buying an Elf, check the subframes at the front and rear – they have a tendency to rot and snap.

The first version appeared in 1961 and, although more luxurious in appearance than the Mini and slightly better appointed than the Wolseley Hornet, still had a long way to go. For example, there were no bumper over-riders and the seats were only partially leather. The first models used the 850cc twin-carb (?) engine whereas the MkII use the 1000cc Mini Cooper engine and better front brakes to cope with the increased power. The better power to weight ratio also improved the fuel consumption to an average 35mpg from around 33mpg. The MkII and MkIII versions of the Riley Elf had the same hydrolastic suspension as the Mini.

The gearbox was a 4 speed manual with partial synchromesh, an automatic version was available in the MkII and III versions. Full synchro gearboxes were intoduced late in the production run, in 1968.

Unlike the Mini, the MkIII Riley Elf was given wind up (and down!!) windows, better ventilation and concealed door hinges which were eventually used on the Mini a couple of years later. It was definitely more comfortable than the Mini and also featured a better sized glove box. There was also the kudos that still existed in the 60 of owning a car that had a prestidgious name.