Consumed by fire, battered by falling beams then marinated in water, this Riley was barely fit for scrap. But Roger Fountain somehow saw potential and heroically created this special out of the remains Words Russ Smith. Photography Stuart Collins.
Out on the road in the miracle-rebirth Riley Lynx after an epic ordeal
Rise of the Phoenix
Driving and uncovering the dramatic rebirth of a Riley Lynx
As the low winter sun glints off the polished aluminium panels of this small but perfectly proportioned pre-war sports car, it looks for all the world like a racer from the Brooklands era of leather caps and straw bales. Which makes its true story even more special. It was created from the vision of one man, retired graphic designer Roger Fountain, and grew from a most unprepossessing pile of remains that would most likely have been rejected for our Barn Finds pages. Luckily, some people are made of sterner stuff.
Roger Fountain is one of them. He is one of those people who likes – in fact who needs – to have a project on the go. He also has some history with Riley specials, having owned two in the past. Fresh from converting the derelict Georgian coach house and stable in his back garden into the home he shares with wife Penny, Roger set to looking for source material to create a third Riley special.
‘It feels like it’s going faster than it actually is – good in a road car’
These days, of course, Riley projects are scarce, and Roger was keen not to cut up anything nice. Then he got word via the Riley Register of a 1934 Lynx tourer that had been damaged in a barn fire when the haystack it was parked next to caught fire. The car had been declared beyond economical repair, but had to be worth a look. Roger takes up the tale.
‘The owner was somewhat incredulous that anyone would bother to make a 400-mile round trip to see this pile of rubbish. The heat had been so great that the aluminium- and wood-framed body was now just dust and solidified pools of metal. What was left had been buried under a distorted 12-foot steel beam, several sheets of corrugated iron and a shoal of asbestos shards from the roof sheets, which explode when exposed to tremendous heat. Just in case you’re wondering, aluminium melts at around 600°C… Finally, the remains had been left exposed to the elements for nearly a year.
‘My first reaction was that it was a lost cause, but after carefully sifting through the debris I could see the basis of a future for this car.’ Roger returned with a trailer in May 2014 and the remains were extracted using a hay-bale forklift. All the bits and pieces no longer attached to the car were loaded into boxes in the back of the towing van. Roger’s friends were less than impressed, however. ‘The common theme running through their responses was, “You’re mad!” Regardless, I knew that one day I would finish up with a car.’
‘Roger battled on until he was allowed to use the original numberplate’
Even before finding this wreck, Roger had a clear vision of what he wanted to build and had even produced a couple of illustrations – which is where being a graphic designer is something of a help. His ideas were very much rooted in reality, as Roger explains. ‘It was modelled on the gorgeous little Riley Imp, but with a few modifications. They are acknowledged to be the most beautiful of the pre-war Rileys but also have the reputation of being a most difficult car to get into, and even harder to get out of. They seem to have been designed for affluent but undernourished individuals. I wanted a longer cockpit to give easier access, and also a reasonable boot capacity. The longer chassis of the Lynx gave me room to do that, but if you just change one thing the rest can look wrong.
‘It’s all in the detail – getting the correct relationship between scuttle and grille, the perfect slope for the bonnet, and the right balance between the wings, lamps and grille shell.’ To my mind Roger has – unlike many ‘special’ builders – managed to get the design and proportions spot-on. It really does work from all angles, which is a hard trick to pull off. Perhaps he missed a vocation in life as a car designer?
After those original sketches it was all carried out by eye, the body being slowly mocked up around the refurbished chassis and a rebuilt 1.5-litre engine and gearbox that had once lived in a Riley RMA. This is a post-war engine but was a development of the Thirties Riley 12/4 unit, so was close enough for Roger – who is totally aware but totally not bothered that it will exclude the car from any competitive VSCC events. ‘I had more than 30 years competing in rallies and races at international level but retired from all that in 2005. This is for Penny and I to go touring in.’
The mocking up was done with almost anything Roger had to hand: plywood, lengths of timber, cardboard and even a milk crate. He then called in a local wood craftsman, David Bassham, to translate his ideas into an ash frame for the body. The frame was then taken to Alan Woodward in that hotspot for old car artisans, Bourne in Lincolnshire. Alan’s father had built aluminium bodies for BRM racing cars, and Alan is renowned for his motorbike petrol tanks. He only revealed after it was done that this was the first complete car body he had built.
So we’ve established that it has ‘the look’, but I’m very keen to see if it is as successful from behind the wheel. My first impression up close is how tiny it looks, so those Riley Imps (I’ve not had the pleasure) must be minuscule. The door’s a good size, though, so slipping into the cockpit – you couldn’t call it anything else, it feels like getting into a period biplane – is easy enough. Once settled, it feels very cosy in here, wrapping snugly around my lower regions.
As for the rest, from the chest up you’re in the breeze – more so in warmer weather with the option of just using the aero screens – and it feels most natural to drive the car with your right elbow well outside the door. That’s partly because of the lovely stringbound steering wheel, ideal for gripping with gloves and the one thing on this car that isn’t tiny. Though the original didn’t survive the meltdown, this is a correct period item from another Riley and its diameter is the same as the distance between my elbow and fingertips – about 17 inches. That does at least make the steering nice and light, and there’s not too much play in the rebuilt system either, just the Thirties-typical couple of inches of slack.
A turn of the key mounted in the centre of the dash between the speedo and tachometer, then a dab at the separate chrome starter button and the engine bursts into life, its twin SU carburettors sucking quite noisily through their racy period pancake air filters.
Click the surprisingly short-travel gearlever into first and we’re away. The engine seems to growl with pleasure through its single MGB silencer and it’s immediately evident that the light weight of Roger’s aptly named ‘Phoenix’ has transformed the Riley unit’s abilities. I’ve driven Riley RMAs in the past and, though most of the experience was joyful, the 1.5-litre engine always felt underwhelming and unenthusiastic, and left me wanting more power. With a much lighter workload here it’s quite the opposite, eager to get you down the road and with torque to spare. It’s assisted in that by the short and sharp gearshift, and having all the remote linkage for that running inside the cockpit means you hear every bit of its action too – a precisely mechanical two-stage ticktick with every ratio change. It really appeals to my inner engineer.
Of course this special is still no rocket, feeling happiest when you keep it at 55-65mph, though Roger tells me he has topped 70mph on a few occasions and the gearing would theoretically allow it to reach around 80mph. The treat is that like a lot of diminutive and sporty cars from this era – I’m thinking of early MGs particularly – the Phoenix always feels like it’s going faster than it actually is. For a road car, that has to be a good thing because you can enjoy it to the full without upsetting too many people or cameras.
It stops too, thanks to a cleverly reworked braking system. Having pieced together replacement parts for all that was damaged by the fire, Roger chose to convert from the Lynx’s original cable operation to a hydraulic system – as unobtrusively as possible bearing in mind how much of the front axle is on show. He achieved this by using an Austin-Healey master cylinder on the bulkhead and machining the backplates and Lynx shoes to accept rear brake cylinders from a Peugeot 205 – the smallest he could find. At the rear he used the rod-operated (by hydraulics) set-up from the same Riley Merlin that provided the replacement back axle. A brake proportioning valve was added between the axles so it could be adjusted once the results were seen from a run on MoT brake-testing rollers.
It all works very well. Obviously the brakes are not overstretched by the car’s light weight compared to what they were intended for, and they stop it perfectly well once you get used to the peculiar action of moving your heel back and pressing the pedal with your toe to avoid catching your shoe on a bulkhead lip and not getting the full pedal travel. I soon adapt to that and find that there’s enough grip from those skinny tyres in most conditions, although on today’s damp and occasionally icy surfaces it pays not to push too hard too soon or you experience the odd burst of front-wheel lock-up.
Cornering grip is likewise limited by those proportionally perfect 4.00/4.50 x 18 tyres – but there’s enough of it, and driving this car is immense fun, feeling the wheel writhe in your hands at every slight irregularity in the road surface, as is usually the way with front beam-axle set-ups. Step straight from anything modern and it can feel disconcerting at first, but you soon get to appreciate the very direct connection with the world that it provides.
The ride is a little bouncy on the less well-kept Lincolnshire fen roads that make up much of our test route, but you can hardly blame the car for these. On better roads it’s a lovely ride, sportily firm without being too jarring, and you can use the sidelights perched on those polished aluminium motorcycle mudguards to place it inch-perfectly for corners.
Now properly in tune with the Phoenix and relaxing to its natural pace, it dawns on me how well-assembled it feels, with a bare minimum of the rattles and squeaks that are so often the trademark of home-builds. This is a well-screwed-together machine that to the credit of Roger and everyone else involved feels more like a manufacturer’s limited-run sports car – one of those Riley Imps, maybe – than a one-off. Dressed appropriately, it would be a pleasure to drive it anywhere.
That’s what Roger intends to do, not least to celebrate the success of his ten-month battle with officialdom to get the car reclassified from a Category A write-off, which by law means no part of it can ever be used on a motor vehicle again, to a Cat C.
That would allow it back on the road, but with a Q-plate. However, Roger didn’t stop there but battled on with many forms and engineer’s inspections until he was eventually allowed to use the car’s original CZ 5005 registration number. ‘It was mental torture, but the champagne flowed that night!’ Roger remembers with a grin.
To get from burnt and rusted pile of bits to well-sorted road car has taken five years of Roger’s life. He’s even found time to publish a book about the experience: Phoenix, which can be tracked down online. Having studied and driven the car I think it’s a remarkable achievement, not only because of how it started, but that the finished article has such a wide appeal. It looks more than right enough to fascinate classic car nuts, but is also on another level a kind of British hot-rod.
So how does Roger feel about the experience? ‘It’s been a busy five years, full of crises of one form or another. Aside from the trials and tribulations of the project itself, I’ve been through a complete knees replacement, a major operation using expensive titanium hardware to repair a broken back, and another to successfully eliminate prostate cancer. But to have built a car from the sad remains we found lying in that burned-out barn has given me an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. No one can put a price on that. I’ve also has the opportunity to work with some very talented people on the project.
‘Looking back, I made some mistakes, but overall I have a car with which I am very happy. If I were to do another like it, MkII would be done a little quicker and be a little better. But then that’s the essence of a MkII, isn’t it?
‘Would I do it again? At one time I might have said yes. I still see projects that stir my adrenaline. But Penny and I are both past the three-quarter-century mark now, and this Riley is the 84th car I’ve owned. I think now might be the time to relax and enjoy it.’
Lightweight body ensures the Riley has sprightly performance. The RMA engine is mounted as far back as the bulkhead would allow. Roger explains the best way to get in and out of the tiny cockpit Polished alloy mudguards were intended for a classic motorbike Relationship between lights and grille was agonised over Front axle was straightened out with the aid of a ten-tonne press. Elemental pre-war motoring, though you need to dress for the occasion. Period-correct bonnet catches came from a club member’s hoard. A lovely detail – the handbrake cable adjuster survived the fire. Original seat shells were saved and narrowed slightly to fit new body.
1934 Riley Lynx ‘Phoenix’ special
Engine 1496cc inline four-cylinder, overhead valve, twin SU HD2 carburettors
Max Power 54bhp @ 4500rpm
Max Torque 76lb ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Worm-type box Suspension
Front: beam axle, parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs, Andre Hartford friction dampers; Rear: live axle, parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs, Andre Hartford friction dampers
Brakes Drums front and rear
Top speed: 80mph;
Fuel consumption 28mpg
Cost new £298
WHAT IS A RILEY LYNX?
The name ‘Lynx’ can be confusing. It actually refers to the style of body – a low-slung open tourer with two or four doors and four seats – and could be fitted to all Riley’s chassis, which in turn were named by a number that referred to their engine.
So when it replaced the Alpine Tourer in late 1932, yours could be a Riley Nine Lynx with a 1087cc 42bhp four-cylinder, or a 1458cc six-cylinder, up to a Riley 14/6 Lynx with a 1633cc six-cylinder and 50bhp, all two door at first. From 1934-on all Lynxes became four-doors and a 12/4 was added, with 1496cc and 55bhp when fitted with twin carburettors.
The 14/6 was replaced by the 15/6, with 1726cc and 51bhp, though few were sold. Indeed sales of all Lynxes declined as the fashion for full-bodied saloons took over in the mid-Thirties. The Nine was phased out in 1935 along with the 12/6, leaving just the 12/4. There was also just one 16/4 built, in 1938, using the new 2443cc ‘big-four’ 82bhp engine. It was sold to a Riley dealer and survives to this day.
The Lynx was itself phased out in 1938 in favour of the saloon-based Drophead.
OUT OF THE ASHES
From an incinerated wreck to a star that burns brightly
It took real vision to see a viable project in this sorry pile
Loose debris was shaken off by the 200-mile journey home
How Roger perfected the lines and proportions of the new body
Alan Woodward didn’t tell Roger he’d not built a whole body before
‘Roger battled on until he was allowed to use the original numberplate’