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Bill Lewis, a tiny giant of the Riley world, dies March 15 in California

William J. Lewis, who with the late Varlie Gordon ran Riley Motor Club USA, through the seventies, eighties and into the nineties, died March 15 after a long battle with prostate cancer and the loneliness that settled over him after he lost his wife Jean to cancer. At one time Bill claimed to have founded the club in 1971, but he told me several times in his last years that there was an administration of the club that had preceded his.

No one could meet Bill without noticing what a remarkable person he was.

To help us in the task of learning about Bill after his death, I asked David Trunfull, a prominent Riley owner in Australia whom I met on the Riley RM Club tour of Ireland in 2007, for his memories of Bill and Jean, beginning in 1974. (David also sent us the photo above, taken by Ken Hodge, of Bill at a 1988 Riley Rally in Canberra, Australia. The inked on inscription identifies Bill as the not so tall bow-tied fellow in the white cap. For a better view of the picture, click on it; it will enlarge.)

David Trunfull writes:

I first met Bill, Jean and family on a tour of the U.S. in 1974 which was organized by one of our members, the late Les Mills.

Bill and Jean had driven in their new Volvo wagon from their home in Anaheim, California to meet us at Harrah’s Auto museum in Reno Nevada.

As an auto historian and auto modeller recognized by Harrah’s, he was able to get us privileged access to this and other fabulous car museums. Bill founded the International Association of Automotive Modellers in 1951. For those who were interested he was able to also get access to Harrah’s extensive library. Although as a 22 year old I was already an old car fanatic, my interest in car history was yet to fully develop, so unfortunately I did not avail myself of this special opportunity. Below is an extract of an article I wrote about the trip for our Club’s magazine “the Blue Diamond” in August 1974.

On our arrival at Reno we were met by Jean and Bill Lewis. Bill is the President of the Riley
Motor Club of the U.S.A. From the airport we went straight to Harrah’s for the first of our
two days there.

What can be said about Harrah’s that has not been said before? I will start by saying
they have approximately 1800 cars, 1000 of which are on display. There are 136 Fords, which
include one from every year from 1903 to 1953. The oldest is a Model A 2 cylinder and the
newest is a 1966 Custom 500 ‘Tudor’ Sedan. Why he has this I don’t know, but maybe one
day it will be a classic. There are 90 Packards, right up to one of the very last a 1958
Packard Hawk which shares the same body as the Studebaker of that year.

We were greatly indebted to Bill Lewis while at Harrah’s as he had doors opened for us that
would not usually be opened to the tourist. He also acted as our official guide and was able
to tell us a lot about the cars. We were shown completely over the restoration shop. Their
facilities are incredible. I’m convinced that if by chance Harrah’s Casino folded (really who
ever heard of a Casino that went broke?) they could start manufacturing cars tomorrow.

After seeing the restoration shops we were in for another treat. They had taken six of the
cars outside for us to photograph. The most impressive were the two 1931 Type 41 Bugatti
Royales, one of which was Bugatti’s personal car. There were only seven Royales built and
six of them still exist. We were lucky enough to see four of them. The remaining two are in
the Schlumpf Collection in France and it is doubtful whether we will ever see those. The
Royale has a 13 litre straight eight engine which develops 300 B.H.P. and has a top speed of 125
m.p.h. and at 72 m.p.h. the engine turns over at 1000 R.P.M. The other cars taken out for
us were a 1934 12 cylinder Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow, a 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged
Beverly Sedan, a 1934 12 cylinder Packard dual cowl Phaeton by Le Baron, and an air cooled
Franklin Roadster.

After viewing the museum we were introduced to their Chief Buyer and he informed us that
they were after a Riley Brooklands, so Ean you better watch out. He then showed us their parts
store and as far as we could see were crates of engines stacked 20 feet high. There was also
an L29 Cord parked in this shed.

We were to meet up with Bill and Jean again at their home in Anaheim, California after we had visited the East Coast.

Once again he had opened special doors for us, this time at the Briggs Cunningham car museum, where local Riley members also met us. I have photos of two Riley Dropheads that were there (one pale Yellow with louvered bonnet sides and an almond green one) These were of considerable interest to my good friend Grahame Glanville, who had just started the restoration of his 1950 Drophead, which he still owns today. As well as a couple of other RM’s there were a couple of BMC One Point Fives present. These were of interest to me as they were not sold in Australia.

Later that day Bill and Jean hosted a barbecue for all of us at their home. Looking at the slides I took (slides-remember them!) reminded me that they lived in a contemporary styled house at the end of a court in well maintained tree lined suburb. The house had an unusual roof (for us) of tarred foil/paper with pebbles on top. I was told houses were built light because of the threatening San Andreas Fault. Bill had his very smart red and black RMB parked out front and there were the remains of a Riley in the back yard, which I think he said he was restoring for Jean. He also had a silver grey Sunbeam Talbot 90 which was another car he was interested in, but to a lesser degree to Riley. His study was an Aladdin’s cave of car books, models, stamps and automobilia, and if you had a question about any make of car he was an excellent person to ask. One conversation I distinctly remember having with him was about the pros and cons of the front wheel drive Cord, a car that he had owned 30 years earlier. I think Bill said he had also owned one of these while serving in I think the Air Force in the U.K. after WW11.

He and Jean visited Australia in 1982 to attend our National Rally which was held in Toowoomba, Queensland, that year. Although I didn’t go the rally that year I did meet them at a club picnic in a Melbourne park. I remember Bill feverishly checking all the Rileys that were present for their chassis numbers (remind you of someone we know from Wales?) Toowoomba is about 1000 miles from Melbourne and they travelled with Dorothy Mills (Les had died by then) in her almond green 2½, and in convoy with Geoff and Ailsa Haworth in their two toned Brown RMD and Ken and Maureen Hodge in their 1950 RMB. From the article Geoff wrote about the trip in the Blue Diamond it is apparent that they visited much of the east coast of Australia, traveling over 2500 miles while they were here, visiting Riley friends in Sydney, Canberra and Cooma, before returning to Melbourne. Geoff finished the article by stating that Dorothy and Bill drove the 2½ at speeds he found difficult to match and therefore he was not entirely surprised when they “ran” a bearing. Nevertheless they nursed the car home in one piece. In a letter to Ken Hodge, Bill remarked that attending the Rally was the longest continuous drive he had ever undertaken in a Riley. Bill and Jean also accompanied Dorothy in 1988 in her green Riley 2½ to our National Rally in the nation’s capital, Canberra.

Sadly several people mentioned above, like Bill are no longer with us. In researching this article I have been reminded of what a profound effect the Riley Clan has had on many of our lives, due in no small measure to the foresight, enthusiasm and efforts of people like Bill Lewis.

Regards, David Trunfull
Rye, Victoria.
Rye, Victoria.
Owner of RMB 60S7440
and member of the Riley Motor Club (inc in Vic) since 1973

(David’s paranthetical comparison of Bill to a Welsh collector of Riley serial number data refers to Gwyn Morris of Gwernymynydd, Clwyd, Wales, who was kind enough to reconnect me with David to commission this article. Thanks, Gwyn and David.)

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