The 1953 RMH Pathfinder was Riley’s last in-house designed car. Andrew Miles profiles its short and troubled history.
Let the customer do the development work was perhaps never written down, uttered even, but in all too many cases, is what actually occurred. From these unhappy beginnings did the Riley Pathfinder oh-so briefly shine from that hallmark of British engineering, BMC. For just shy of fourteen hundred pounds (and those indecipherable to me, shillings and pence), you got quite the voiture de grande tourisme as designer, auto architect (and outside of DTW devotees) perennial underdog, Gerald Palmer believed his creation to be.
The fact that only 5,152 Riley Pathfinders were built and that worldwide, roughly 250 survive (in wildly different conditions) makes it a rare jewel indeed when (infrequently) seen. Throw in those beguiling hub caps and my knees weaken. Hand on heart, this is my epitome of a Blue Diamond that given an alternative start could, and should have, gone on to be a world beater. The Pathfinder makes me want to don a flat cap, light my pipe and head off for fish and chips at the seaside returning home the long way round, listening to the Light Programme from the BBC on the Little Nipper, HMV radio. All whilst ensconced in the lap of luxury.
With a modernist mid-Fifties look, the Pathfinder was the successor to the respected but fading RMF, gaining the moniker RMH, though what happened to the Gee? A perimeter chassis, all-steel body, coils springing that live rear axle, with restraint in the forms of radius arms and that nemesis-like panhard rod. More on that errant component, momentarily.
The big four cylinder 2443cc power unit (Twonarf to enthusiasts since its 1937 inception), featured improved oil circulation and cooling, initially developing 102, but uprated to 112 bhp and 100+ mph under favourable conditions. Late 1953 saw but a handful of these large, rapid, right-hand gear-levered, and long-legged saloons head onto the streets, only for most of these returning to either point of sale or, more pointedly, to the Abingdon workshops for rectification.
The sad cause of this deleterious state of affairs being the somewhat cavalier attitude of the Cowley based management towards the customer. Grimly determined for the RMH to make its debut at that year’s motor show, (sales of the outgoing RMF having become a trickle) undue pressure was placed upon Riley’s engineers to hastily cobble together Gerald Palmer’s design.
Let’s clear the elephants from the room early doors; bad nicknames and reputation busters. Early in 1953, Charlie Griffin, chief test engineer at Morris was putting a pre-production Pathfinder through its paces on the tried and tested Woodstock Road and wound up through a hedge when the car would not turn, hence Hedgefinder.
Police forces (Sussex, in particular) when employing a RMH found, in their experience that the Panhard Rod could tear from its mountings in high speed manoeuvres, causing cars to roll or more probably, locate the ditch – Ditchfinder becoming an equally common sobriquet from both Plod and plebeian alike.
Those problem mountings were attributable to slapdash workmanship and poor assembly, owing to a lack of an alignment jig on the production tracks and management checkers not doing their job. Sadly these facts are borne out, the result being the inevitable sticking mud references, but one can easily find a pro to every con; the Pathfinder having just as many fans as critics, they’re just a trifle trickier to spot.
Other protagonists in this tale include John Thornley, Cecil Cousins and Jack Tatlow. Thornley was of course the Abingdon works General Manager, famous home of MG, and where Rileys would be built until their demise. Cousins, another MG chap, informed Thornley that the RMH as given “Was not ready for production, as you could neither steer nor stop the bloody thing.”
Tatlow was a Riley man through to the core, now production manager. All three eventually realised they had the makings of a great car – with many necessary alterations. Nuffield Metal Products of Coventry built the bodies, Wolverhampton based John Thompson the frames, for final assembly in Abingdon. With hindsight we can probably blame too many (ill-prepared) cooks spoiling this delightful broth, though this is indicative of how cars were built (especially in Britain) at the time.
1954 saw production improvements. The Panhard Rod was beefed up with extra ties and stronger radius arms, clutch judder all but excised, however the brakes would forever remain a thorn. Riley’s Pathfinder was not alone in suffering such maladies; glossed over by their other striking attributes, the Jaguar marks I, II along with VII shared the Clayton-Dewandre brake servo and it’s inherent, of the time, problems.
Fine in principle, the trailing shoe brake drums required a consistent pressure from the servo. Great when it played ball but a total disaster otherwise. Hardly conducive to road safety, the Girling Autostatic/ Hydrastatic braking system had no viable alternative but was already in production, assisting whole car production deadlines. The servo needed careful and meticulous babysitting for decent operation; poorly placed underneath the cars rear pan (yet again, a very late design alteration) some owners nefariously ditched the servo altogether, doubtless never informing their insurance provider.
Palmer opined that again, under his jurisdiction, the examples he was shown worked perfectly fine and that tests proved positive, hence his decision to go ahead. He does however sound almost resigned to the fact that Riley had little to no understanding or knowledge of the system, being “entirely in Girling’s hands.”
There are other heinous historical wrongdoings to address afore focussing on the good: Gerald Palmer was Leonard Lord’s scapegoat, removed due to criticism the braking issue created. In addition, he was disliked by Lord, who preferred Alec Issigonis both as a designer and as a person. Palmer, too humble a gentleman to retaliate was given the option to resign or be demoted.
Nor was it even Lord who did the deed, leaving the task of firing squad to his trusted henchman, George Harriman (knighted in 1965). But the attrition didn’t end there – Cecil Cousins also targeted for alleged ineffective management of the issues. He also fell (or was pushed) upon his sword.
Part two continues shortly.