Speedwell’s Executive Riley Elf had Mini Cooper-eclipsing performance, a luxury interior and F1-driver kudos. We try out a rare example to see if it deserves better recognition. Words Sam Dawson. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
Speedwell Elf – fab or folly?
Executive Decision The Speedwell Executive could have bettered the Mini Cooper and created a new Riley range-topper. Why didn’t it? Plus Speedwell co-founder John Sprinzel on tuning Minis in the Swinging Sixties and working with Graham Hill.
The turfed edges of narrow rural lanes of the sort that used to host the RAC Rally hurtle past, inches from the side windows. A perky BMC A-series gurgles away ahead of my shins. Hunched over the upright steering wheel, I quickly jab the sharply effective brakes and knock the snickety gearchange down a ratio before the car scrabbles its way through muddy-apexed right-angled bends. I’m laughing with joy as I jump straight back on the power for a quick, responsive getaway. Tiny car, huge fun.
The driving experience is pure classic Mini Cooper – but this is an Elf. The sportier twin of its fellow three-box booted variant of the Mini, the Wolseley Hornet, both were hastily designed by BMC’s long-serving ex-Lancia chief stylist Ricardo Burzi. Sir Alec Issigonis was furious at this assault on the purity of his creation; but BMC boss Leonard Lord’s rationale was that the car would be better received in Tudorbethan Metroland if it could be marketed as a compact luxury saloon complete with wooden dashboard, leather seats and an old-money badge on the nose.
Neither Elf nor Hornet made much of an impact in sales – 30,912 and 28,455 amid two million Minis by the time they were retired in 1969. Ironically, what they did manage to do was annoy Riley purists. After all, theirs had historically been a marque of exquisite aluminium-bodied sports cars with compact twin-cam engines. To their fans, a posh Mini with an odd-looking boot and a detuned single-carburettor version of the 998cc Cooper engine was an insult to the marque’s heritage.
This car sought to address that. Marketed as the Riley Executive, it was the brainchild of Speedwell Performance Conversions, the tuning company set up by John Sprinzel, Len Adams and George Hulbert primarily to prepare racing Austins and ’Healey Sprites, and supplier to London Mini dealerships. By the time the Executive was devised, Sprinzel had left, his chairmanship taken by then-BRM Formula One driver and former Speedwell factory foreman Graham Hill. The confident Speedwell now had an international racing superstar, known for his hands-on mechanical knowledge as well as his track success, as its figurehead.
Unrestricted by the displacement-based race and rally homologation requirements that governed the engineering of the Mini Cooper, Hulbert’s transformation of the Elf was even more comprehensive. The 998cc BMC A-series is expanded to 1150cc and uses a Speedwell aluminium cylinder head with an 11:1 compression ratio. He also added a balanced crankshaft, highlift camshaft and twin SU HS2 carburettors. Turn the ignition key and the engine thunders and booms behind the bulkhead, rather than giving off a traditional tweaked-A-series snarl. It doesn’t take much time or many gearchanges to realise how much more torque it has. With 78lb ft instead of 52 as standard in the Elf, and a punchy 93bhp instead of a frankly weedy 38, it draws away from low-rpm crawls with the urgency of a modern turbodiesel.
Motor Sport’s ‘M.L.T.’ was one of a tiny number of road-testers to drive a Speedwell Executive Riley in the pre-speed-limit era of December 1963; he christened it a ‘Q-car par excellence’. He noted annoyance on the part of Jaguar drivers soaring assertively along the new M1 at the sight of this tiny Riley blaring past at the twitch of his right foot. It would comfortably cruise at 90mph, and its top speed was a consistently-attainable 107mph.
This might not sound like much now, but to put it in context the figures for the standard Mini Cooper S at the time were 68bhp, 62lb ft, and a top speed of 95mph. The Cooper S was a fast car, but the Speedwell Riley – using the same raw materials – generated performance directly comparable to a Lotus Cortina. Its modern equivalent would be a luxury-interior Mini five-door tuned by a specialist like Hartge or AC Schnitzer to the point where it could bother a Ford Focus RS – with the conversion personally overseen and signed off by Lewis Hamilton.
Graham Hill’s involvement aside, that torque delivery is what truly makes the Speedwell Riley special. On A-road attack, you can enjoy its performance without having to thrash it in the foot-to-the-floor-at-all-times manner demanded of a Cooper. The deeper drone of the engine sounds more like a big single-cam straight-six than a heavily-tuned four when sitting around its 3500rpm midrange, and it gives me pause to enjoy the details of the Riley’s cabin as I waft at 50mph.
Sadly, a pair of period-accessory Microcell bucket seats have taken the place of the expensive Aston Martin-style Restalls that the Executive was supplied with when new, but they’re still comfortable. Although the driving position is typically Mini because of the upright steering column, it doesn’t feel spartan or harsh. Both the carpets and headlining are thicker than usual, and that dashboard – spanning the full width of the car – is reminiscent of a Jaguar MkI’s. But then I notice an odd quirk that seems microscopically insignificant on the surface of things, but actually points to the bigger issues that ultimately conspired to scupper the Speedwell Riley.
It’s a tiny wooden handle that doesn’t do anything. Ordinarily, it would allow you to unlatch the driver’s side glovebox – the standard Elf’s central instrument cluster meant both front occupants got somewhere to stash their oddments – but in the Speedwell the tachometer and ammeter were drilled straight into the driver’s-side lid, which was then locked in place.
I get onto a stretch of dual carriageway and boot the Elf up to motorway cruising speed to enjoy that torque in action. But there’s a problem. Peak torque is delivered not at the 2700rpm of a standard 998cc Elf, but at a howling 5500rpm. It means the car is capable of cruising at much higher speeds than pretty much any original Mini variant, but while it’s stable and not at all strained, it is very loud. The bulkhead shudders and that ex-glovebox lid with its redundant handle vibrates constantly.
It’s at this point that you realise just how superficial the Elf’s luxury is. The competence of the Speedwell tuning and Mini chassis to handle the huge leap in performance is beyond doubt, but in doing so it reveals the luxury fitments to be afterthought add-ons. At this speed a Jaguar or even a Ford Zephyr or Vauxhall Cresta would retain a refined, sound-deadened ambience. You can cruise at 90 in a Speedwell Elf, but overtaken Jaguar drivers won’t be the only ones who’ll be irritated after a while.
If you want to lunge for a full 93bhp overtake, you’ll be spinning that A-series up to a motorcycle-like 7400rpm. Impressive numbers, but uncomfortable for the average driver. Extracting the Speedwell’s truly exceptional performance required the mechanical understanding of Graham Hill. And yet then as now, a motorway-age ‘executive’ would want lazy torque and deeppile refinement for their money, not the impending fear of an engine rebuild every time they broke out into the overtaking lane.
Ominously, Motor Sport noted that the Speedwell was supplied with a replacement set of spark plugs in the driver’s door pocket. The money involved was a problem too. Although Speedwell could supply all its tuning parts in motor-factor kit form – increasingly marketed under the ‘Graham Hill’ brand once he’d taken full ownership of the firm in 1969 – a factory-prepared Speedwell Executive Riley cost £883 as a finished product. By contrast, the hottest Mini Cooper – the 1275S – cost just £778 and its Italian rival, the Fiat Abarth 695SS, was £743. Opting for the Speedwell Riley meant you paid more than you would for a ‘proper’ sports car – MG Midgets and Triumph Spitfires cost £640 each, even though the Speedwell would easily eclipse their performance. It looked expensive even among the ranks of entry-level sports saloons – the Ford Cortina GT and six-cylinder Triumph Vitesse both undercut the Speedwell by more than £100 and offered more interior space alongside comparable power and torque, even if their weight blunted performance to below the ton. Tellingly, the original owner of this car saved money by buying the Speedwell upgrades as a £200 kit and fitting it themselves.
Comparing the Speedwell to more overt Sixties tuner specials makes that £883 price tag seem slightly more favourable. The Lotus Cortina MkI and Renault R8 Gordini, both of which offered 108mph performance, were £990 apiece, and the Fiat 850-based Abarth 1000 Corsa was a whopping £1062. However, all had European Touring Car Championship kudos rather than luxury pretensions. Also, the Speedwell Executive had to contend with the Riley Elf’s greatest nemeses – the Mini itself, and the rapidly changing British society of the Sixties.
Far from being deterred by the Mini’s lack of classical-marque pedigree, the post-war baby-boomers loved the Mini’s stark-yet-shapely, strikingly unusual two-box modernism in the same way they opted for Eero Saarinen ‘Tulip’-style glassfibre dining tables instead of traditional square-rigged timber. Pop stars, actors and royalty embracing a more modern urban lifestyle bought Minis, making them trendy for a new generation influenced by mass-media like never before.
Also, rather than opting to spend £575 on a Riley Elf and engage in some old-fashioned suburban one-upmanship, wealthy people were spending a great deal more with the likes of Wood & Pickett, Oyler and Harold Radford who were creating luxury versions of ordinary Minis. The 1963 Radford Mini de Ville Grand Luxe, effectively a Cooper trimmed to Rolls-Royce standards, made the earlier Riley look second-rate, even costing an outrageous £1080. And yet it sold – all four Beatles, Britt Ekland, Peter Sellers, Marianne Faithfull and Princess Margaret were all early customers. Owning a customised Mini was cool, whereas owning a Riley Elf of any sort, with its oddly-proportioned stumpy tail, wasn’t.
And yet the Elf’s misfire hurt BMC, rather than Speedwell. The Riley marque was laid to rest in 1969, just a year after this car was made. BMC’s board of directors realised its model range, by then comprised entirely of Austin-derived cars, held just one percent of the British market and commanded negligible export sales.
But to Speedwell, this didn’t matter. The modifications that created the Executive Riley were a kit which could be applied to any Mini. With the advent of the 1275cc version of the Cooper, the Speedwell A-series tuning kit, combined with a plethora of ‘Graham Hill’ cabin upgrades, created the Mini 1300TC (‘Town Car’) which effectively succeeded Speedwell’s tweaked Riley while endowing it with the same torquey 107mph performance. A factory-prepared 1300TC cost £1080 just like a Radford, but its interior was festooned with race-inspired gauge packs and figure-hugging bucket seats, rather than micro-Rolls decadence.
So why do we not remember these Speedwell-tuned Mini variants better? After all, the firm’s initial prowess tuning Austin A35s for Sprinzel to race in the BSCC gave it a head start over Cooper. Oddly enough, for all his increasing star power, the issue may ultimately have been double world champion, Indy 500 winner and Speedwell chairman Graham Hill himself.
Hill’s name was all over Speedwell’s products in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but the firm repeatedly ran into financial trouble. Hill’s control of the company came about as a result of him buying Speedwell outright in 1969 after Adams and Hulbert disagreed with the direction it had progressed in and placed it in voluntary receivership.
Under Hill’s chairmanship Speedwell then lurched from one management accountant to another. Ex-Ian Walker Service MD Colin Hextall was brought in to steady the ship, but found Hill exasperating to work for.
‘I was eventually fired for telling Graham he made a better racing driver than he did a businessman,’ he recalled in a 2006 interview. ‘It’s something I regret now, but at the time I thought it needed to be said. The company developed several interesting products and did not rely on its previous products. The engine tuning continued as before, so there must have been many genuine tuning parts… up to 1975, when the company did eventually fold.’ Hill’s death in an aviation accident that November effectively ended the possibility of an immediate Speedwell revival, or change of direction. Times were changing yet again too. The core of Speedwell’s business still concentrated on BMC’s A- and B-series engines. But Speedwell parts were expensive and the Mini’s appeal as an affordable competition and fast-road car was being ceded to the Escort.
And yet, having driven what was once the most expensive Mini-based special money could buy, I can’t help but feel it was misunderstood. Its performance, especially the way it delivers its torque, demonstrates the Cooper’s shortcomings while retaining its peerless handling characteristics. The interior might not be up to Radford standards, but Radford’s relative success demonstrated that a luxury Mini was a good idea and Riley merely offered it to the mass market.
Price and misguided Riley identity killed the Executive itself, but not the essence of what it was. The sheer size of most small-car options lists nowadays are testament to how this forgotten failure actually got a lot of things right.
Thanks to Keith Riddington, classicmobilia.com, Mark Forster, mk1-performance-conversions.co.uk
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1968 Speedwell Executive Riley Elf
Engine 1150cc transverse four-cylinder, ohv, two SU HS2 carburettors
Max Power 93bhp @ 7400rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 78lb ft @ 5500rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, hydrolastic spheres, telescopic dampers. Rear: trailing arms, hydrolastic spheres, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear, servo-assisted
Steering Rack and pinion
Weight 638kg (1407lb)
Performance Top speed: 107mph; 0-60mph: 10.4sec
Fuel consumption 35mpg
Price new (UK 1968 ) £883
Classic Cars Price Guide (2019 UK) £8000-£35,000
‘It demonstrates the Cooper’s shortcomings while retaining its peerless handling characteristics’
The driver’s glovebox lid was repurposed as a plynth for additional instruments, yet its handle was curiously left in place. The Speedwell version of Riley’s Elf – or ‘Shelf’ as it was colloquially known – had the pace to bother Jaguars. But not the high-speed refinement. The 1150cc A-Series has a healthy 31bhp more than the standard Cooper S, but peak power is made at a heady 7400rpm.
‘This Elf generated performance comparable to a Lotus Cortina’