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Complete this cafe society Riley RMA


In my wanderings around the west side of Los Angeles and the self-contained municipality of Beverly Hills, where I have kept an office since 1967, an occasional fellow driver will look not just with admiration at my gleaming 1951 Riley drophead convertible but with joyful recognition.

“Is that a Riley?” is the unenviable question to which the asker obviously already knows the affirmative answer. The second sentence is never a sentence but a proud declaration.

“My father had a Riley!”

In the case of Derek Wadman, who left his suburban home south of London in Surrey 34 years ago to move to the U.S., his father in the 50s had an Austin Somerset, a car which would reach a top speed of just 67 miles an hour. It was his uncle who had a beautiful and faster black Riley RMA. He remembers motoring weekends alternating between both cars. It was then that the seed of potential Riley ownership was planted.

Much later, nine years before he was to retire from a position with a New York bank, where he was employed establishing and maintaining branches in the Middle East, he saw an ad in Hemmings for an RMA within his own 516 telephone area code on New York’s Long Island, and when he paid a call to see the car and the garage door was lifted he saw to his pleasure that it was black and right hand drive like his uncle’s.

Its owner had bought it a few years previously from a chauffeur on an estate in Oyster Bay, New York. That owner had remembered the chauffeur driving his employer, an heiress to the Woolworth fortune, from the estate into the village He had asked the chauffeur if the car was still on the estate. The chauffer said it was in an outbuilding and had not run in years. That intermediate owner proved not up to the full task of restoration before selling it to Derek. He did not identify the heiress as Barbara Hutton, but we are led to assume she was the owner. As is often the case with provenances of Riley ownership, there is no available paper trail. We are only reporting the anecdotal history of the car, not making any guarantees.

In fourteen years Derek has completed 85% of what has become an older bare metal restoration. The exterior was sand-blasted or chemically cleaned. It was rewired with an Autosparks fabric loom. He installed flashing side and tail lamps to augment its trafficators. He installed a vinyl top and stainless steel exhaust system. Its doors need to be rehung and its resealed gas tank installed.

The car currently resides in Stamford, Connecticut, in the care of an upholsterer who would require $1000 to complete the upholstery for a perfect match. A new buyer could of course elect to bring the interior elsewhere for completion, if that is his or her choice.

This is a 1947 Riley, reportedly imported from the U.K. by John Sims “Shipwreck” Kelly, the University of Kentucky football star who played early NFL football for the Brooklyn Dodgers football franchise the same year, 1933, that my father, Jack Riley, played for the Boston Redskins. Unlike my father, Shipwreck and a teammate bought the NFL franchise themselves. Shipwreck married Brenda Frazier, the New York debutante of the year for 1938 and was married to her when the car crossed the pond. Brenda graced the cover of Life that year. It is not known whether the car passed onto the Woolworth estate before or after Kelley divorced Frazier in 1956. A famous later portrait of Frazier by Diane Arbus shows the wear and tear of latter life on denizens of café society. Like Barbara Hutton, Frazier died a recluse. Were Barbara Hutton, Shipwreck Kelly and Brenda Frazier riders in the 1947 Riley RMA that Derek Wadman has for sale? We can’t say for sure. We do know that it is for sale for $11,000 and that its next buyer might further pursue its provenance. That has never been a matter of importance to its present owner.

If you are interested in the car, whether or not your father or uncle had a Riley, contact Derek Wadman at derekwad02@aol.com.

I drove a similar but slightly later black Riley RMA last year with a contingent from the Riley RM Club of the UK around Ireland and also to the club’s national meeting in a damp field in Wales. It was an exquisite driving experience. As one who is used to the heavier chassis of a “twonarf” liter car, I was impressed by how delightfully light were its controls. My car was “Lola,” the longtime proud possession of Jim and Nancy Fletcher. Nancy drove the Fletcher daughters to school in Lola. One could not ask for a more beautiful car.

Unless, of course, you have your sights set on a drophead. Derek Wadman also has an interrupted Riley drophead restoration for sale. It’s nowhere as far along as the RMA, and has a Ford straight six engine grafted into it. Its price is exactly the same, $11,000.

2008 Postscript: In mid-August, Michael P. (Mickey) Shemin travelled from New Jersey to Connecticut to view this car. He was impressed enough to purchase it from Derek Wadman. That doubled Mr. Shemin’s collection of postwar 1&1/2 liter Riley RM saloons and left Mr. Wadman focused on selling his drophead, shown above. Mr. Shemin is editor and publisher of the weekly Bayonne Evening Star Telegram. Much later he added a third car to his fleet of Rileys, Barclay Redman’s drophead convertible.

2015 Postscript: Mr. Shemin suffered a financial reversal and this fine automobile was resold by a New Jersey bank which had received it as collateral. It passed via eBay to our member in Island Lake, Illinois, the Dutch theologian A.F. Den Exter Blokland, who completed its restoration and has it running well; it often appears at car shows in his area. Mr. Shemin also sold the drophead once owned by Barclay Redman to Don Milligan, whose son s set to restore it. The club hopes Mr. Shemin will accumulate another collection of Riley automobiles when his fortunes rise again.

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