The Shield versus the Diamond. If you wanted a sports saloon in the ’50s, says Andrew Roberts, it was a tough job choosing between the Appia and One-Point-Five – even when the Lancia cost twice as much as the Riley. Photography Tony Baker. Lancia Appia & Riley 1.5 Top 1950s baby saloons. Sports saloons for suburbia: Lancia Appia versus Riley One-Point-Five.
If, 60 years ago, you were a dashing young person of a reasonable income and equal expectations of performance and comfort, an ideal new car might have been the latest Riley. The cost was well under £1000, there were none of the leaks and draughts experienced with an open-topped sports car and the radiator grille bestowed a sense of class not associated with the Ford 100E Prefect or Standard Pennant. Other British middle-class 1½-litre saloons such as the Sunbeam Rapier or the MG ZB Magnette appeared much bulkier than the One-Point- Five, and its main alternatives seemed to hail from Italy – such as the Lancia Appia.
In 1957, of course, many British motorists could only dream of driving a Lancia because the UK price elevated what was an already prestigious car into the Jaguar bracket. Furthermore, the One-Point-Five was very much a corporate product while the Lancia first appeared when the firm was still a family concern, but it would be wrong to infer that the Appia was hand-made by craftsmen who all resembled actor Vittorio Gassman. Nor was it the case that the Riley was a mass-produced vehicle built down to a price in a black-and-white, drizzle-strewn Midlands by Woodbine-smoking Albert Finney-quiffed workers. Both are lightweight four-door sports saloons bearing the badges of two of Europe’s most respected marques and both are distinctive products that will delight almost any motorist.
1950s baby saloons road test Lancia Appia Series III vs. Riley One-Point-Five
The Riley and its Wolseley counterpart evolved from a plan to replace the Morris Minor with a more powerful 1200cc model that would use the same floorpan. In the event, the arrival of the 1000 in 1956 revitalised sales and so it was decided that the new design would still enter production in 1957, but to augment rather than replace the Minor. The use of Wolseley and Riley badges and the 1.5-litre B-series engine would establish a separate upmarket identity for the new car. The Wolseley 1500 made its debut first in April ’57, and was followed seven months later by the Riley, which featured twin SU carbs, Girling brakes, a tachometer and a reversing lamp. The One-Point-Five’s launch was the cause of grumbling among tweed-jacket types because the ’50s was a transitional period for the marque. For many devotees, the last RMEs of ’55 marked the end of the ‘true Rileys’ while others argued that, even if the Pathfinder looked like a Wolseley 6/90, it was at least powered by the 2.5-litre ‘Big Four’. But 1957 brought the introduction of the Two-Point-Six and the One-Point-Five, both of which were entirely BMC products.
And, to convince chaps across the land that civilisation had not come to an end, the Riley had to prove itself worthy of the Blue Diamond badge. A highly positive press reception did much to allay mutterings about ‘badge engineering’.
The Autocar concluded that it was ‘A splendid little car, destined beyond doubt to a successful career’, while the advert’s claim that ‘you will like the winning ways of the new Riley’ was quite prescient. The One-Point-Five came first in its class in the British Saloon Car Championship of 1958, ’59 and ’61. When it was replaced by the Kestrel 1100 in 1965, its reputation as a small performance four-door of quality was assured.
‘Our’ car is an early ’58 example, as denoted by the external bonnet and boot hinges. Its wheelbase is the same as the Minor and, although the profile is reminiscent of the Morris, the One- Point-Five has a unique appeal. The exterior is as sober as a country solicitor, despite the jaunty note struck by the headlamp hoods, the removal of which could allegedly result in an extra 5mph.
Even in the late 1950s, the One-Point-Five’s coachwork with its high waistline was on the verge of becoming dated but the vagaries of fashion would never have bothered a true enthusiast. Inside, the cabin is magnificently flamboyant, with colourful leather trim plus a well-stocked dashboard that resembles an antique cocktail cabinet. Such detailing would have acted as a bulwark against any cad who dared to call your new One-Point-Five a ‘Minor Sports’. Of course, to an aspiring young professional affecting a Terry-Thomas accent, this was as much an insult as an accusation of being a part-time Teddy Boy, but comparisons with the Morris were a compliment to many. The One-Point-Five boasts all the Minor’s strong points, but with the bonus of more power, more comfort and even more fun. Both cars lack synchromesh on first gear but the Riley’s floor-mounted lever is a delight – crisp and precise, allowing the novice driver to gain the most from the free-revving engine. The B-series unit was never claimed to be sophisticated, but it was flexible and extremely smooth by the standards of the day. When in third, the Riley is as equally suited to low-speed ambling around town as to overtaking Ford Consuls on the A35. The low-key appearance also has the advantage of making the Riley a veritable Q-car. Although it looks quietly respectable, its road manners are the equal of a vehicle 10 years its junior.
Time spent with RJU 920 is also a reminder of how, in its early years at least, there was a comparative dearth of British alternatives, but by the 1960s there were several domestic competitors.
These ranged from the Triumph Vitesse Six in 1961, the Octagon-badged ADO16 1100 and FB-Series Vauxhall VX 4/90 in ’62 to the Ford Cortina GT in ’63. A Riley aficionado would be undeniably proud that their One-Point-Five was one of the most entertaining cars of its generation, while probably dismissing the Cortina as a spiv’s motor. They might also have been tempted by the Lancia, but that would have extended one’s overdraft to the absolute limit. Import duty meant that Charles Shelton’s ’61 Appia Series III would have been more expensive than a Jaguar Mk2 2.4 and, with the optional leather upholstery, the cost would have been boosted by a further £150 – or double the price of the Riley.
The Appia was devised as a replacement for the 1939 Ardea with a monocoque body reminiscent of the Aurelia and powered by a new Vittorio Jano-designed V4. Unfortunately, the Lancia made its debut in 1953, the same year as the similarly sized Fiat 1100-103, which was less prestigious but 50% cheaper, and in 1955 Alfa Romeo had launched the Giulietta Berlina. Sales improved with the 1958 Series II, which offered slightly more power and an enlarged boot, while the Series III – introduced a year later – featured larger wheels, uprated brakes and sported a radiator grille reminiscent of the Flaminia. By that time, the impact of the Italian economic miracle affected the car market and the third-generation Appia was the most popular of all the range before its replacement by the Fulvia.
Debate still rages as to which version of the Appia Berlina is the most handsome, so we will merely state that 621 UXY has an indefinable sense of presence, seamlessly combining vintage with post-war design tropes. On opening the bonnet, the V4 looks so advanced in contrast to the Riley’s unit that it is almost unbelievable that its origins date back to 1922. The coachwork is handsome in a self-effacing manner and the Series III was the final Lancia to feature pillarless construction. This not only makes it a more versatile saloon than the Riley, whose rear seat is incredibly cramped, but it lends the Appia a sense of ineffable elegance. The One-Point-Five appears well-suited to our location on a former RAF base – you can envisage it as off-duty transport for a Flight Lieutenant – but the Lancia would seem more at home as a town car for Roman socialites, moving discreetly but purposefully among the massed ranks of Fiat 600s.
After a short spell with the Appia, it reminds me, in the best possible way, of the Mercedes-Benz 190 ‘Fintail’. This may appear to be a quite surreal comparison but both cars excel at quiet, low-key, excellence – from slick, four-on-the-column gearchanges to fine attention to detail both inside and out. On the road, the Appia is no slouch, for its performance is quite remarkable given its engine capacity, but there is a sense of calm in place of the Riley’s distinctive exhaust note. The Lancia will purr around corners with the minimum of drama and there is never any need to be concerned about understeer or oversteer.
Its purpose is to convey four elegantly attired adults to an appointment on Via Veneto and it is a mark of just how forgiving a car the Appia is that this not-so-soigné duffle-coated writer feels so at home behind the wheel. Only the sight of pedestrians toting supermarket bags reminds me that I’m in Oxfordshire circa 2017 rather than driving to the Adriatic coast in 1961.
It is perhaps a phrase used in a US-market advert for the Appia that best encapsulates its appeal: ‘This is the kind of car that makes you an automotive enthusiast and authority with your friends.’ In the UK of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Lancia would have appealed to Citroën DS owners and indeed anyone who appreciated fine engineering while confounding those motorists who equated excess chrome and whitewall tyres with prestige. The cabin lacks any form of decoration, but the Appia driver would have accepted the rubber matting and acres of painted metal in the spirit of minimalist refinement. They owned a Lancia and therefore had nothing to prove.
And so, it is time to bid farewell to a brace of cars that made a major impact on me. The Riley is a wonderful demonstration that mass production need not infer homogeneity and that BMC’s use of its various badges was not always illogical. In fact, the One-Point-Five ranks alongside the Vanden Plas 1100 and Wolseley Six ‘Landcrab’ as cars where a traditional grille is appropriately applied. It was both heir to the pre-war Nine and a car that could have been the basis for a generation of 1960s Rileys that were ‘As Old as the Industry, As Modern as the Hour’. But instead of developing the marque as a rival to BMW or Alfa Romeo and Lancia, BMC’s misuse of the Blue Diamond badge until its eventual demise in 1969 remains one of the saddest chapters in its history.
As for the Appia, in many ways, it marked the end of an era in Lancia’s history – its last small rear-drive saloon and the final model to use its trademark sliding-pillar front suspension. One of the company’s major problems during the 1950s was that its production costs were too high, such was its standards and virtually every aspect of the Appia is concerned with quality as opposed to lira-saving. And the Series III still makes many a modern car feel distinctly tinny.
Above all, any motor vehicle is a set of ideas and social values of its era and this is what makes the Riley and the Lancia especially fascinating. If the former seems to perfectly suit Kenneth Moore types who perpetually uttered the word “gosh”, the Appia dates from a period of Italian history when ownership of any Lancia would convey a sense of distinction, allowing its driver to pass lesser cars with a sense of quiet amusement. If I opt for the Riley, it is because my heart lies with visions of a ’50s Rank comedy England, but catch me on another day and I would take an Appia to Rimini without hesitation.
Thanks to Lancia Motor Club (www.lanciamc.co. uk); Riley Motor Club (www.rileymotorclub.org); everyone at Harwell (www.harwellcampus.com)