As I alluded to in my main Leadfoot Festival story, the event is a celebration of driving in its absolute purest sense. Jump in a car. Strap yourself in. Thrash it from the start line up a tree-lined hill. Have a barrel of fun.
All throughout the weekend I was pondering a question: Which of the assembled cars most accurately embodies the spirit of the Leadfoot Festival?
After some thought, a spot of head scratching and of course taking in the many possibilities, the steady thrum of Robert McNair’s 1931 Riley Special announced I’d found the answer. And so the decision was made to head to the pits and track down the man responsible for piecing together this beautiful bespoke build.
Robert is an aircraft engineer and an avid vintage car enthusiast, and this Riley is the result of a combination of two passions. If you haven’t guessed by now, the ’31 Special uses an aircraft engine to propel it along at speeds belying both the age of the car and the subdued tone of the 6.1-litre Tiger Moth-sourced four-cylinder. This particular combination came about due to the desire to own a Brooklands Riley – essentially the competition version of the base Riley 9 saloon used for the Special project. And yes, it’s quick.
Quick enough in fact to take out the honours for the event’s Pre-1960 Top 10 Shootout. Streaking up the Leadfoot hill in 64.1 seconds, it put many cars, many, many decades its junior to shame.
Beginning with the cockpit, the aircraft origins of the Riley are evident with the choice of instruments and controls. Of note is the large brass knob sitting smack bang in the center which is used to pressurise the fuel tank, essential in ensuring a constant fuel delivery. Slightly obscured to the left of the beautiful steering wheel is the ignition advance lever, while the Jaguar ‘Moss’ 4-speed gearbox sourced from a Mk VII saloon is visible in all its cast aluminium glory in the absence of a central transmission tunnel.
In keeping with the 1930s style, Robert’s Riley features a swooping set of exhaust primaries, exiting high from the upper engine cowl – usually held in place with leather straps – and running along the side of the car, dumping just below the driver’s right elbow.
Compared to its original orientation, the air-cooled Tiger Moth engine has been rotated both upside down as well as back to front; just imagine, the output shaft would have normally been driving a propellor at the front of the aircraft. This necessitated a bespoke oiling solution and the addition of a wet sump setup and a custom pressure fed feed to the rocker boxes. The engine’s good for 130hp at 2100rpm and 300ft/lb of torque at only 1000rpm, meaning the Riley propels itself down the tarmac faster than the revs would suggest.
The creation of ‘specials’ is something of a Kiwi institution; cars traditionally born of the need for performance with a finite budget and available materials. This kind of ‘shed build’ mentality has led to some exceptional craftsmanship emerging from garages across the nation; Robert’s Riley no exception. It’s all in the details, with none spared.
This craftsmanship extends to the one-of-a-kind, boat-tail styled bodywork. Inspired by Bugattis of the era, Robert has added a riveted spine that runs along the center-line of the Riley, while the hand-formed coachwork is swathed in the thoroughly appropriate shade of British Racing Green.
The Riley badge is one that is sadly lost to time; the marques last production car rolled off the factory production line in 1969. However, with individuals like Robert continuing to carry the torch, it’s clear the nameplate isn’t going to be forgotten any time soon.
And what a way to ensure the Riley marque is enduring – throwing an 85-year-old car up a hillclimb at one of New Zealand’s most auspicious motorsport occasions of the year, winning the class and then driving a few hundred kilometres back home. If this isn’t embodying the spirit of motoring, I’m not sure what does.