Concluding our brief examination of Riley’s ill-fated Pathfinder.
Let us now allow this Oxford flower to flourish a little, let the sunlight dance upon its flanks. One could choose black, maroon, green, blue or grey for exterior hues. Early 1956 models could be had with a factory duo tone effect, the roof having the second colour although a considerable amount of custom effects were available from the beginning. J. James & Co, a London Riley agent supplied Pathfinders finished with a contrasting colour to bonnet, roof and boot lid.
“Riley cars are for the discerning motorist” and their own Magnificent Motoring tag lines were highly applicable, even to the troubled Pathfinder. John Bolster, the Autosport reporter and motor racing correspondent noted in 1955, “I have driven every Riley model produced in the last twenty five years and this RMH is the best to bear the name of Riley.”
Once Palmer had vacated Abingdon, Riley engineers designed and built an experimental and improved Pathfinder, codenamed RMJ. With disc brakes and Palmer’s tweaks to the BMC C-series engine, which included overhead cams, this could well have been the perfect Pathfinder. Once more, management had other ideas, rejecting the idea out of hand and being guided by the inherently boring route of penny-pinching conformity, the final hundred Pathfinders (MY1957) were given a Wolseley 6/90 chassis, rigid rear axles and leaf springs. Throughout 1956 and just prior to the 1957 British Motor show, the Pathfinder was the only Riley being produced. The end was nigh.
Prior to all this, Palmer sought council from Swiss salesmen on a trip to the 1952 Geneva show, gleaning that a six seater was most definitely the way to go. This would see the new Riley compete with Jaguar and Mercedes, the car’s natural competitors in Palmer’s eyes where his Cowley and Abingdon masters envisaged the car to seat four. Those bench seats admirably and comfortably seating the whole family with friends. Palmer openly admits to his concerns and surprise of the Pathfinders failings whilst at Vauxhall but in his autobiography, Auto Architect, he states that no problems occurred on his watch.
To the modern day, where Riley, once “As old as the industry, as modern as the hour” club members use and run cars regularly with some committed to providing spares to continue the Pathfinder journey.
Certainly not to be confused with the Pathfinder truck from Nissan some forty years later (with its hidden rear door handles!) this British slice of fifties motoring history has an ever dwindling yet proud, global following. Existing examples run from used enthusiastically (some in excess of half a million miles), pampered like a Hollywood pooch, to restored within an inch of their lives or in bits, in boxes, in trouble – but still there – just.
Classic car magazines, so prone to offering comparisons may pit a Pathfinder against a Rover 90, an Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire (where a chap could still wear his hat), a Mercedes Ponton or the Jaguar 2.4 litre (Mark 1). As one hopelessly biased toward the Blue Diamond (stemming from nothing but pure interest in the RMH), these (also-rans) have their approbatory nods but nothing of the Pathfinder’s underdog, blighted yet honestly amiable demeanour. Palmer’s masterpiece is, to these eyes, peerless.
Notable Pathfinder owners include Colin Grainger, The Singing Winger. A Yorkshireman football player who had a parallel career as a successful singer bought himself one of Riley’s finest for £400 in 1956. This after scoring for England against Brazil alongside lucrative offers from stateside groups for his lyrical charms. He stayed home and adored the “lovely leather luxury in a lovely car.”
Taking a darker route, in 1962, right-wing politician, Sir Oswald Mosley took his son Max (later to become FIA President) on a European tour, chauffeured in a grey Pathfinder; a tale which is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Two TV shows have used the RMH: Dangerous Knowledge and The Chief. Dangerous Knowledge was aired in the U.K. back in 1976. From the moment the opening titles roll, there she gleams. For its time, the show was probably cutting edge, naturally dated now but along with hard drinking main man John Gregson, love interests and a trip over to France to deal with the bad-guys, the car is most definitely the star: silver roofed over maroon bodywork.
Twenty years old even, then, she is a delight to behold. It is believed that the Pathfinder in question was Gregson’s own. He had only learnt to drive when he landed the role of Alan McKim in Genevieve (1953) and died shortly after filming Dangerous Knowledge.
Another UK TV series in the 1990s, was The Chief; another crime procedural concerning the life of a chief constable in a fictional region. His chauffeured ride being a naturally black-bodied Twonarf. At the time, my interests in police shows demanded action as opposed to stuffy, office based politics. And I had no idea of what a Riley Pathfinder was back then. Head hung in shame…
This link to British Pathe News, shows three BMC creations, including a Pathfinder being wellied around France, but this time for speed trials at the Monthelrey track in appalling conditions. Expect full, plum in the mouth commentary.
To conclude, I can only humbly thank the Pathfinder protagonists that have helped me on my own RMH journey: Dave Rowlands, whom without, my knowledge, passion and understanding would be non-existent, Terry and Pam Metson and Jezebel their 1955 variant, Gerald Palmer for creating the exceptional design and Danny Hopkins, editor of Practical Classics for rescuing and restoring one suffering soul, Katie – source of a future Pathfinder episode.