Cars from the pre-war era are almost from a different planet compared to the machines we know today.
Be just how different is a vintage car from the 1930s to drive? We visited Blue Diamond Riley Services at Bicester Heritage to find out
Riley 9 War Department Tourer
This Riley 9 WD Tourer was intended to ferry military folks around in the run-up to and during wartime. In the custody of Blue Diamond, it has recently completed the Monte Carlo Rally, raising money for mental health awareness in the process. More on that in an upcoming article.
Pop the door, climb aboard the leather bench seat, get a feel for the enormous and wobbly steering wheel. Look at the gauges. It feels amazingly basic, coming from a time when seatbelts weren’t even an option.
You prime the ignition and then hit a starter button (very modern). Up it fires, albeit nowhere near as loudly as I expected. I even held my finger down thinking it hadn’t fired yet: a testament to the clever design and smoothness of the Riley 9’s hemispherical twin-cam engine.
Thankfully, I’m getting expert instruction from Blue Diamond owner, John Lomas. The first thing you need to know about vintage cars, he says, is they don’t change gear like normal. Yes, there’s a clutch where you’d expect, but think of the gate as mirrored, with first top-right and second bottom-right. It’s not a case of clutch-in, shift, clutch-out, either. You need to double de-clutch: dip to get it out of gear, then lift, then dip again to go from neutral to the next ratio.
As for downshifts, you need to perform perfect rev-matches unless you want significant crunching and eventually smashed synchros. All this seemed rather daunting until John reassured me of how difficult everyone finds driving with these gearboxes. “,” is his mantra.
The real stars are the @BluediamondGB Rileys. Driven from Scotland to Monte Carlo (for the Rallye Monte-Carlo Classique) last month and just given a wipe down to go out on track with @Editorial_MR and @EthanIsSaying. Some modern cars would struggle with that… pic.twitter.com/EukGGN7See
— Hannah Burgess (@hannahburgesspr) February 27, 2019
The engine has no rev-limiter (bar the stickers on the speedometer), but the sweet spots for upshifts are easy to find. Downshifts are a different story. I managed one, with a significant amount of crunching, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Wrangling a pre-war Riley around Bicester,’s test-track nailing that gearshift, mastering the heavy imprecise steering and pedals; it all feels like a massive achievement when you get it right, and you’re barely cracking 25mph.
Forget power-sliding AMGs and master the juggling act of driving a pre-war car. It’s the most fun you can have under 40mph.
Riley 9 Kestrel
I also sampled the Riley 9 Kestrel, a saloon that could fairly be described as the BMW 3 Series of its day. It features the same engine, with a closed four-door saloon body and, in this case, a pre-selector gearbox.
To call the pre-selector an automatic would be something of an untruth, but the result is similar to how a modern dual-clutch feels. ‘Pre-selector’ works as it sounds: you select the gear you want via the shifter stalk on the steering column. Then, when you want it, you quick-dip the clutch.
It’s quick and smooth, but heavy. John also tells me that it’s expensive and can be unreliable. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine how revolutionary this transmission would have felt in the crash-manual era running up to the early 1950s.
Video: How to drive a pre-war car
More vintage cars coming soon
— Ethan Jupp (@EthanIsSaying) February 27, 2019
Both of these Rileys are eye-openers. To see how the car has evolved over the last nine decades is fascinating.
As a reminder, we have another article coming soon on Blue Diamond’s excursion to the Cote D’Azure in support of better mental health. It’s a heart-warming story with inspiring people on an amazing journey. And incredible cars, obviously.