1928 Riley Nine Special
- A unique, well-executed aero engine special
- Racy, grand prix-inspired two-seat open bodywork
- Powered by a 6,124 cc air-cooled four-cylinder de Havilland Gipsy aircraft engine
- Rolls-Royce 20/25-sourced four-speed manual transmission
- Fitted with necessary equipment for on-road use
- Successful in historic racing and hill climb competition
- Ideal for touring, rallies, or a return to the track
- Featured in the April 1999 issue of Motor Sport
Stuffing an aircraft engine into a small, lightweight roadster may be the ultimate expression of hot rodding, but the results often favor fire-breathing novelty over balanced performance.
Such is decidedly not the case with this 1928 Riley Nine special, dubbed “Mr. Drake.” Designed and constructed with competition in mind, its history of success on track and in hill climb events attests to the unconventional car’s thoughtful engineering and high-quality build, which is only enhanced by sporting bodywork that recalls grand prix racing’s exciting pre-war days.
Built in the United Kingdom by Dr. Geraint Owen (in an endeavor that had, by the time Motor Sport magazine published its profile on the car in April 1999, taken over 2,000 man-hours to realize) the starting point for this remarkable car was a 1928 Riley Nine MKII. Introduced in 1926 and built until 1938, the Nine was a well-regarded and highly successful model in its own right; its 1.1-liter powerplant, however, was not known for its gratuitous output.
Enter the de Havilland engine. Used in the popular de Havilland Moth family of biplanes, the air-cooled, 6,124-cubic centimeter Gipsy inline-four engine, here fed by twin SU carburetors, produces approximately 175 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. Needless to say, this represents a more-than-ample improvement over the original Riley engine.
Of course, the mission profile of an aircraft engine, which must turn a propeller over a high but relatively narrow rev range, does not make it immediately suitable for road use. A step-up gearbox, installed between the engine and the car’s Rolls-Royce 20/25-sourced four-speed transmission (the shifter for which is mounted on the exterior of the body), allows the car to make use of a conventional-ratio rear axle. To accommodate the engine, and its corresponding power and torque, the Riley’s chassis was boxed and stiffened. It was also shortened slightly, giving the car a 102-inch wheelbase.
The resulting machine, clad in a red, open two-seater body completed by a Chenard-Walcker radiator and featuring a suitably purposeful black leather interior, looks every bit the part of an exciting pre-war racer—particularly with roadgoing elements like its cycle fenders and headlamps removed. And racing is precisely what this car was designed to do: The Riley was campaigned extensively, and successfully, in both circuit races and hill climbs across the United Kingdom.
Among this car’s most notable competitions achievements was its earning, in 2000, of the Motor Sport Brookland Memorial Trophy for best aggregate performance over the pre-war Vintage Sports-Car Club (VSCC) circuit racing season. According to its builder, further accomplishments that year include winning the Patrick March Trophy for vintage racing at Mallory Park Circuit and the John Holland Trophy at Cadwell Park. The following year, it won the pre-war two-seater GP class on two subsequent days at Rockingham Motor Speedway.
Also a strong contender in the challenging hill climb setting, the Riley earned a second for vintage cars during its inaugural appearance at the 2002 VSCC Prescott Speed Hill Climb and made strong appearances at Shelsley Walsh, Brooklands, and even at the Course de Côte d'Étretat in France.
Now offered by a North American consignor, “Mr. Drake” is presented with a well-earned patina that only adds to its charm. This unique and appealing Riley special would make an exciting—and unexpected—road car, and it is also suitable for tours, rallies, or perhaps a return to vintage competition.