The Life of Riley: 1951 Riley RMD

Todd FitchBy Todd Fitch

This classy looking four-seat convertible 1951 Riley RMD awaits a new owner in Saline, Michigan, with a listing here on eBay. I’d never heard of Riley and my first thought recalled a pre-war Mercedes like this Typ 320. Indeed the Riley’s design heralded from the same era. Riley produced 502 of these elegant RMDs from 1949 through the year of our feature car, 1951. The phrase “drophead” simply describes a soft fabric top that can be “dropped.”

The rear-hinged “suicide doors” add an interesting touch of class. To understand the scale of this ’50s British convertible, consider its wheelbase of 119 inches, about two feet longer than the contemporary MG TD. The Riley’s 186 inch length is about the same as a 1969 Camaro (some details courtesy of Wikipedia). One thing’s for sure; the seller knows his or her Rileys, and has another for sale and a host of parts and knowledge on the topic. Despite hailing from a place named “Saline,” the body appears largely solid, and the interior parts in various conditions (pictured separately in the listing) come with the sale.

The door jambs suggest the two-tone paint may be covering a single hue of darker green, and the kick panels suggest more of a British Racing Green as the original color, perhaps like this similar car. The natural wood dashboard seems to have survived with minimal damage. Some daunting hard-wood repair awaits the new owner; the seller describes rotten wood in structural locations of the body’s “skeleton.”

The new buyer may choose among many propulsion options as the original Riley engine, “stolen long ago,” leaves a sizable hole in the front end. Where most collectors would assume, or at least hope, that their low-volume classics not become hot rods, the seller of this car includes some discussion of how modern engines (including the ubiquitous SBC, Small Block Chevy V8) might be used to get this beauty back on the road. Buying this car may or may not entitle you to live the “Life of Riley,” but it will definitely give you something to occupy your time instead of binge-watching “Ice Road Truckers.” With zero takers on the opening bid of $8500, the market is mum. What do you think of this 1 of 502 four-seat convertible? Should it be restored, hot-rodded, or something in between?

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  1. Sam

    Drop in a Jag v12, add some Italian wiring and a dash of German over engineering for the ultimate paperweight.

    Seriously…cool/classic look…maybe a 225 slant six, new paint, inerior and top for a fun reliable driver.

  2. Wagon master

    I owned one. The most reliable British car I’ve ever owned. Even though I realize that using reliable and British in the same sentence is an oxymoron

  3. Ralph

    Buick 320 straight 8 swap with twin carbs!

    • Brian

      That’s the ticket!

  4. Sam Sharp

    What the late William “Bill” (The Life of Riley star) Bendix would have said about the missing engine, ” what a revoltin’ development this is!”

    It would be great to bring her back to original (after all, look how many Crocker engines have shown up in barns) with the hope of preserving this fine mark.

    Being a realist, a conventional 6 with a 5 speed to power a street machine might be the answer. Just leave the bonnet closed.

    Or, leave it off to show the fully chromed HEMI with an 871 blower with nitrous. That would show ’em. Or make a gasser out of it.

    I’m gonna’ hit the web for a Riley engine.


      While web crawling for a Riley engine, Sam, check out the pre war sports Rileys.

      We have a Riley Sprite in the shop currently undergoing a full restoration – twin cam 4 with beautiful, sexy lines, one of 52 built. There are others, as well – Imp, TT, MPH, Kestral….

      Great marque history and heritage.

  5. Bob

    A friend of my grandfather’s had a Riley, but I don’t remember it. He traded it in for an Alvis in 1953. I’ve gone for a ride in the Alvis.

    This Riley is almost always at the Lime Rock vintage races in the spectator area:


    One of the better British cars of it’s era. I had a 1951 Riley RME, I think it was, a four door sedan with a straight six two and a half litre, (+- 150 cu in) twin overhead camshaft engine. It would hold 90 mph for hours on end traversing South Africa back in the early Noughties. As for the 2 colours of green, that was most likely the original paint designation as mine had black mudguards and green body with black fabric covered roof and beautiful leather covered seats. I hope the buyer manages to find an original Riley engine as I’m sure there must be one available here in U.K.

    • peter spooner

      l thick you will find the Riley, was not OHC engine, though is was a very fine engine and a very good car, the last model before BMC took them over.

      • KEN TILLY

        Quite correct Peter. It was a twin camshaft with short pushrods operating overhead valves and on checking my cars details it was found to be an RMF, not RME, as that was the 1 1/2 litre engine.

  7. Sam Sharp

    Thanks for the lead MGTOMMM.

  8. Ross W. Lovell

    Greetings All,

    I’m more surprised that they found this in Saline, Michigan, or even Michigan in general, and it’s in pretty good shape when compared to most foreign iron I’ve run down while there.

    Would love to buy, but I’m moving back and don’t want to move it twice.

    Wish you luck.

  9. Dave Wright

    I guess I am in curmudgeon mode……how do you get a job writing an automotive blog and not know what a Riley is and how can any comments you make have any value after stating that…………anyway, these are fine motorcars of the prewar style. I had one many years ago and it was a very nice car. This car is way to light and finely constructed for a big iron engine. At the right price, I would buy it and search for an original drivetrain. It is the only way to preserve the value and character of this fine automobile.

    • Dave Wright

      Again, there is no wood in the frame structure….typical of British construction, wood was used to support some body panels.

    • Nevis Beeman

      I believe that a small but well regarded classic car restoration firm in Alyth, Perthshire, Scotland, PH11 8DY, restored this rare model of Riley,over very many years….it’d been locally owned, though origionally driven up north from London. I recall reading the fascinating story of its resseurection, in a UK classic car magazine.The new owner maybe wise to read that artical too….

    • Howard A Member

      Hi Dave, you old curmudgeon you. We don’t hear from you in a while, then when we do, you rip the poor authors a new corn chute. Remember, the author isn’t selling the car presented, just a brief outline, and the commentors can fill in the rest. What irks me, is when the SELLER ( not here) knows nothing of the car they somehow aquired. REALLY??? No, Riley! What a cool car!
      ( and for the record, IRT is totally scripted,,,gasp,,,that’s right, total baloney)

      • Dave Wright

        I have missed you Howard……..I was chasing a bear and some trout in northern Idaho and Montana. I need a rug for my wall. You are correct about illinformed sellers. I am getting old…..I am bored with all the late model (to you and I) so called (80’s) hot rods wagons and totally pedestrian stuff being showcased so often here lately. I just delete the listing after reading the headline. I do disagree with you writers, they put themselves in a posisition of authority by accepting the job. There is plenty of time to do some research prior to posting there information. As for me….I have to go look for a bear again and have a great Rover P5 on bid that I am very excited about. (That will give the writing staff something to look up) good to talk to you. Howard…..I just looked….13 people agreed with me…….

    • Jesse Mortensen Jesse Mortensen Staff

      Hey Dave, why haven’t you sent in your application?

      • Dave Wright

        First, My spelling is terrible, I would be much more responsible for any bone headed thing that might slip out……….and I don’t want to appropriate the amount of time that it deserves. You older guys have been beat up enough that your words and facts are chosen carefully as they should be. Sometimes when I study some old car, Google brings up an article written by you years ago……the articles here can result in the proliferation of automotive myths if not carefully and accurately written. They already provided a base of information used in every day research. You and your crew are to be commended for a great job but that doesn’t insulate you from an occasional criticism. So…….do you guys want to work on my P5?

  10. ROAR

    It would make a great SUNDAY car for motoring to car shows, races or the beach (for those that have one) slide in a modern in line with an A/T so you could get parts and work on it anywhere. It can be done without chopping the car up so one could return it to it’s original state, A 292 chevy or 300 Ford with an AOD would probably screw right in.

  11. Carey Hill

    The timber frame of the body with body panels nailed and leaded might prove rather daunting to most of us..
    I read a restoration account by a restorer of one of the sedan models (saloon in Britain)… and the woodwork and getting the body to sit right on the frame was no walk in the park

  12. James Mogey

    There was a Riley that lived on the street where I grew up in Oxford. That v-shaped lip at the top of the grille was a trade mark of the breed. A buyer might well source a used engine from England? Try Ireland too, Riley was a popular brand over there. The left hand drive configuration is a surprise.

  13. Wagon master

    Touchė Howard A!


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