From A Bench Front Seat (Part One)

The 1953 RMH Pathfinder was Riley’s last in-house designed car. Andrew Miles profiles its short and troubled history. 

1953 Riley Pathfinder. (c) bestcarmag

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.

That bench front seat. Image: classic-trader

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.

(c) classiccarcatalogue

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.

(c) periodpaper

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

22 thoughts on “From A Bench Front Seat (Part One)”

  1. thank you Andrew, another terrific exposé. the mystique of
    the Pathfinder soaked deep into my boyish bones in the 1950s.
    such a lovely beast. in my ideal world the Pathfinder, like the
    original Lotus Elite, would still be in production, all faults
    engineered out, but looking just as charming, just the same.

    1. And in my ideal world too Lorender; the Pathfinder, in era, just looked ‘right’ in every detail (unlike so many of its peers) – as did, later, the Elite. I look forward to Andrew telling the rest of the tale.

  2. Good morning, Andrew. I was completely unfamiliar with the story of the Pathfinder and its troubled development, so thank you for bringing it to us. Looking forward to Part Two.

  3. Such a pity the Ditchfinder was never properly sorted, and many Riley fans stuck with their RMs, which were better cars for cross-country trips.
    It was a lovely car — in theory only.

    It was left to the Minor-based One-Point-Five to redeem the marque’s reputation, but that too needed suspension mods to stay on the road. But its B-Series engine made it highly tunable, up to full-race MGA spec, whose camshafts still fetch high prices.

  4. There is of course a part-state-owned French manufacturer that still leaves the buyer to do its snagging for it.

  5. Know that Gerald Palmer being viewed as an outsider by others at BMC did not help matters, yet he ultimately got the last laugh upon finding his way to Vauxhall and playing a large role there in spite of his other designs at BMC either being badly executed without his in-put (e.g. B-Series Twin-Cam) or not remaining beyond the drawing broad (e.g. MG sportscar prototypes and C-Series Twin-Cam).

    Also wonder to what extent internal sabotage of the Riley Pathfinder played a role in Palmer’s downfall as well as those within BMC who were perhaps more than willing to undermine Riley as a marque even after being paired with MG?

    Have mixed feelings of Riley. Obviously the Riley Pathfinder as well as the Riley Wayfarer RMG prototype (should the latter be a 1.5-litre version of the Wolseley 4/44 and MG ZA Magnette rather than an experimental under-engined 1.5-litre engined Riley Pathfinder prototype some inexplicably believe it to be), deserved much better fates and reputations than they received as well as the necessary improvements (e.g. B-Series Twin-Cam for Wayfarer and C-Series Twin-Cam for Pathfinder) to fully realise their potential.

    One hypothetical engine both the large pre-war and post-war Rileys missed out on would have to be a doubled-up 2.5-litre-derived 4.9-litre V8 version had it been built (in a similar manner to the pre-war 1.1-litre-deirved 2.2-litre Riley 8/90 and the 1.5-litre-derived 2.9-litre Autovia despite being considered expensive failures), it would have been a suitable engine in places like the US and competitive against the early post-war V8 engines by other marques until at least the late-1950s to early-1960s (before ideally being replaced by the planned Palmer designed C-Series Twin-Cam engine). Especially if the hypothetical double-up 2.5-litre-derived 4.9-litre V8 could fit into the engine bay of the Riley Pathfinder.

    Yet cannot see Riley having much of a future even had it received the attention it deserved, it was a niche player within a large company without the brand recognition of MG outside of the UK that at least had the potential of being rehabilitated and coaxed into becoming a more upmarket marque (beyond building mainstream sportscars – though others can agree to disagree) with a bit of work ultimately at the expense of Riley.

    Agree on the Minor-based Riley One-Point-Five doing its bit to redeem the marque’s reputation despite needing suitable mods, had Gerald Palmer got his way both the Riley One-Point-Five and Wolseley 1500 versions would have received similar sleek styling to the larger Wolseley 4/44 (later 15/50) and MG ZA Magnette (later ZB Magnette).

    Prefer the Palmer styled cars compared to their Cambridge A55-derived and Westminster A95/A105-derived Pininfarina styled rear-tailfin Farina successors, BMC IMO received a poor deal out of the recycled Pininfarina designed used by Fiat, Peugeot and others (on top of BMC choosing an inferior mechanical to clothe the models) whereas the Palmer styled cars bring to mind the Jaguar Mk1/Mk2/S-Type and with a bit work the basic style could have remained in production much longer into the 1960s.

    That said though the following is speculative on my part. Had Riley (or MG) received a complete properly developed range of cars from the Wolseley 1500-based One-Point-Five and Wolseley 4/44-to-4/50-based Wayfarer prototype up to the Pathfinder, all equipped with Twin-Cam engines. How would the a Twin-Cam “One-Point-Six” be differentiated from a larger Twin-Cam version of the Wayfarer (bearing in mind consideration was given for the Magnette to be powered by the B-Series Twin-Cam at one point) short of the latter being enlarged to around 1762cc+?


    A photoshop suggestion of what a Riley Wayfarer RMG may have looked like (Credit: Riley Bob’s Pages)

    1. Your RMG’s rad shell is a tad too big.
      Also, what differentiates it from the Magnette ZB really?

    2. Cannot claim credit for the photoshop, am sure had it been built there would have been more differentiation (even if it would be ultimately viewed by some as an unnecessary duplication) though the aging pre-war 54 hp 1.5-litre Riley engine would likely have been on borrowed time against the 60-64 hp 1.5-litre B-Series powered MG Magnette ZA/ZB.

      No idea what could have powered a production RMG from the outset in place of the existing 1.5-litre Riley engine (to put it a cut above the Magnette and 4/44 later 4/50 in addition to creating distance with the smaller One-Point-Five) prior to the B-Series Twin-Cam, short of the RMG receiving the 1.5-litre B-Series instead of the Magnette (the latter being forced in this scenario to use an early detuned 54 hp 1466cc TF 1500 engine), an earlier enlarged 1762cc B-Series engine above the 1.5-litre Magnette or some hypothetical 1750cc 4-cylinder C-Series that was allegedly tested in the early-1950s in an experimental Morris Oxford.

  6. Some examples of British post-war industrial compromise left a lot of bodies lying around so we remember them: Austin, Triumph etc. This story is one where the incompetence was so severe only a few cars made it out of the factory. That means that people can´t see what the car was like. I´ve seen one in the metal and it´s a very handsome car, strikingly so, in a serious Bauhaus way. Many also rans- were so for a reason; the reasons for Pathfinder´s failure are not inherent in the design but in the bodging along the way. If this car had been made in Germany it´d have been pinned up with the other greats of Post-War car design.

  7. A very nice article on a very nice car I did not know.
    Palmer’s behaviour and explanation, i.e. “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.” aroused my curiosity, because I was not aware of problems with Girling brakes.
    So I did some search, resulting in the fact that the Girling Autostatic/ Hydrastatic braking system was after WWII a widely used drum hydraulic brake system devoid of special features, the only one being that due to its nature of “trailing shoe system” it needed a lot of power to be operated, as Andrew correctly stated.
    Lots of power means we need a servo, and here enters the Clayton-Dewandre brake servo, which reveals itself as the real responsible for the brake problems: in those times it was a prehistoric device, born in the Twenties for lorry use, featuring LEATHER seals and a separate lubrication which needed a frequent oil level control.
    In other words, it was a mechanism inherently unreliable, which could only work when constantly maintained by a mechanic, for instance in the army or in a lorry fleet.
    To use it in a privately owned car meant certain failure.
    So the problem was the servo, not the Girling brake system itself.
    In turn this leads me to a couple of questions:

    – why did Palmer say that they had no knowledge of the brake system? They built cars, there was nothing special in the Girling/Clayton-Dewandre combination.
    Would he mean that they bought the brake system as a whole from Girling, comprised of the prehistoric device, and nothing could be done against it?

    – Being the servo the real culprit, and not the drum braking system itself, why did they not try to find a different, more modern option for the servo unit?

    1. Weird, really, as there’s plenty of room under the bonnet for a servo.
      By the 1980s, when I was uprating Riley 1.5s, we used the Girling Powerstop.

  8. I like the Pathfinders, you don’t see many at shows these days snd when they do they attract a lot of attention. I’m sure owners these days will upgrade the brake servo to something more modern and reliable. I’m always attracted to quirkiness in a car, and I love the right hand gear never, didn’t it’s BMC stablemates share the same set up? I’m looking forward to part 2. 👍🏻

  9. Thanks for the article about the Pathfinder, a vehicle that is completely outside of my car universe.
    Had I been a car buyer in the UK at the time, I would have bought the car for the very reason that the door handles are integrated into the chrome strip below the windows.
    There is no better and more beautiful way – there have been several attempts to copy it…

    But there is one detail I don’t understand: Was there any reason for the position of the gearshift on the right hand side of the driver between the door/entrance and the seat/bench?

    1. Ah, Fred, that was to allow the driver to change gear without interfering with the knees of the third person sharing the front bench seat…. not unique to the Pathfinder; Bentleys of the era were similar. handbrake levers were even more commonly sited between the driver’s seat and the door.

    2. Many thanks for the explanation. Now I get it.

      (Even though I don’t quite understand it, because most of the times it can be very nice to interfer with the knees of the person sharing the front bench seat. I mean isn´t that the main reason for a bench, beside the one other. But I´m drifting away with memories…)

  10. Terrific article about an unfamiliar car from a largely unfamiliar (to me) brand: Owing to my age, I suspect I only heard of Riley originally when a certain anglophile ex-chairman of BMW fantasised about resurrecting the brand during the BMW-Rover years.

    The Pathfinder is a lovely-looking thing, isn’t it?

  11. Very nice article – as others have said, it’s not a car I know much about.

    I think this is a Pathfinder in this film from the Nuffield Organisation from the early 50’s. It’s having its rollover angle checked at 5.28.

    1. Fantastic film. Thanks so much for finding it. It cover so much ground (as it were).
      The rollover check seems to be a Morris Oxford, though, not a Pathfinder.

    2. Thanks, Vic. Having looked at it again, I think you’re right in that it’s not a Pathfinder – the bumpers are wrong for that. I think it’s also too sleek to be an Oxford, though. My money would be on an earlier RM series Riley, looking at things like the boot hinges and fabric roof covering.

  12. Another very interesting article Andrew so thanks as always for posting. Keep them coming!

  13. In the 60’s I found a Pathfinder in a scrapyard in Waltham Cross, and had to sit in it just to experience the R/H gearlever, which had been a common feature of pre-war cars and was a feature of Rolls-Royce cars before they adopted automatic transmissions.
    In recent years I read in an MG magazine that when the Abingdon production line tried to mate the Pathfinder bodies with the chassis, which both came from different sources, they seldom fitted together properly.

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