Little Red Rileyhood

(© 2003 Quentin Bristow)

When we first arrived in Ottawa from La Belle Province in 1960, we had only our bicycles and used them to commute from Sunnyside Avenue in Ottawa South, to our work place at the old Printing Bureau, where the National Gallery now stands. In those days Ottawa was definitely ‘Bicycle-Averse' and bus drivers in particular took no prisoners, so this daily activity produced gasps of astonishment from passers-by and co-workers alike. "You'll both be killed - don't you have a car?" was the reaction of many. Two years later, we acquired (second hand) a small but rather spiffy British car, a 1960 Riley one-point-five, finished in a defiant tomato red colour, practically guaranteeing the sobriquet which is the title of this piece. Although it allowed us to put ‘CAR IN GARAGE' signs on our bikes, This only served to compound the puzzlement: "You mean you now have a car and you are still risking life and limb?

The Riley came from the same stable as Austin, and Morris, among others, built by what was then the British Motor Corporation. The four-cylinder Riley was the sort of deluxe version and the ‘one-point-five' was for the engine capacity 1.5 litre. It had among other things twin SU carburettors, and an electric fuel pump which operated as soon as the ignition was turned on, thereby avoiding any need to crank the engine, simply to get fuel from the tank to the business end.

The Driver's handbook would be called a workshop manual today
The car came with a hardcover ‘Driver's Handbook', which showed in mind-boggling detail the periodic maintenance which the owner was committed to do, illustrated with graphic diagrams of the vehicle's most private parts. A sample of just two of the many chores required at each 1000 miles is shown. Today almost no one would (a) be capable of doing them and (b) even dream of trying. In those days, taking the car to a service shop involved serious money as the 1965 bill from English Motors on Bell Street shows (they are still there after all those years).

All went well until the winter weather came. British cars were designed for slightly sub-zero Celsius temperatures, but definitely not for anything sub-zero Fahrenheit (-18 C) and those fancy carburettors were barely functional in such frigid conditions. Blowing snow turned out to be a problem as we discovered on the trip down to visit my in-laws for Christmas. There was a vicious wind whipping up the falling snow and the temperature was about -25 C. Our route was through Alfred on the old single lane highway 17. We were about five miles away from that village on a lonely strip of the road with no visible human habitation when the engine started to lose power, I changed down to third and finally to second gear. No good, the engine died. I managed to coast over onto the soft shoulder and there we were stranded, in the middle of nowhere in the biting cold and with a two-year-old infant. We were indeed lucky that an OPP cruiser happened by and got us sorted out.

Getting service involved serious money in 1965

On another occasion my wife drove down the same route to visit her parents when I was away on business. She too had problems with the engine dying, but being pretty observant she had noticed that when she had turned on the ignition at the beginning of the trip, the usual loud ‘tick-a-tick-a-tick' of the electric fuel pump as it filled up the carburettor was barely audible. By stopping, turning off the engine, and then turning it on again, she was able to keep enough fuel moving to make it to the nearest garage.

She explained to the mechanic that she thought the fuel pump was the problem and that it was electric and located in the back near the fuel tank, and it normally went "tick-a-tick-a-tick" when the ignition was turned on. The man looked at her sadly and said "that's alright Madame, you go off now and have some coffee we'll take care of everything." Presumably he thought that there would be no point in explaining to this poor confused lady the first law of auto mechanics - that all fuel pumps on all cars are mechanical and are mounted on the engine up front, because (a) she wouldn't of course understand anything remotely mechanical and (b) even if she did, he didn't want to make her feel bad.

Some time later he came back scratching his head, "Where did you say you thought the fuel pump would be?" After he had come to terms with the discovery that every law has an exception, he was able to find the problem - a corroded contact, which was quickly dealt with, and he was able to hear for himself the ‘tick-a-tick-a-tick' from the fully functional electric fuel pump.

I was in the electronics design business, and saw articles on how one of the new solid state devices could be used to build electronic ignition systems for cars, which improved both performance and fuel consumption dramatically. Basically the spark was triggered by the sudden discharge of a capacitor through the standard ignition coil. The advantages were that the capacitor could be charged up very rapidly between sparks and the contacts in the distributor would never again be corroded by the arcing which occurred when they had to break the current in the coil to generate the spark in the normal system. All they were required to do now was to send a tiny signal to a solid state device to initiate the discharge at the right time.

It all sounded pretty straight forward, but it turned out to be anything but. I was truly astonished to realise after some research with the existing system, that as the speed went beyond about fifty miles an hour in top gear, there was really not enough time between sparks for the necessary current to build up in the coil, and it was only getting about 30% of what it should be getting for a decent spark. Things got progressively worse as the speed increased. Although that problem would be solved with the new system, solid state devices (especially the ones available thirty five years ago), were really pretty fragile and susceptible to temperature extremes and interference from any nearby sparking and arcing machinery, like a car generator for example. In fact they were almost totally unsuitable for use in the truly brutal environment under the hood of an automobile, which I am sure is why the first commercial electronic ignition systems didn't appear until the late seventies.

Finally all was ready for the first road test. The results were amazing, when I put the pedal to the metal , we hurtled down the highway as if jet propelled, passing astonished V-8 owners at some horrifyingly illegal speed. I got a little too clever by adding a refinement for cold weather starting which allowed extra sparks to occur at each plug while the starter was engaged and cranking the engine. The result was that something got out of sync and almost demolished the engine - amazing what a few little transistors can do with malice aforethought.

By 1966 the car had developed acute rustosis and was showing the first signs of the dreaded arthro-steerosis which affects the steering linkages. The symptoms are a stiffening of the steering- rod ball joints, which manifests itself in a reluctance to change direction in response to guidance from the driver. The condition can be dangerous (even fatal) to the health of not only the car, but also of those travelling in it. If it is detected early enough it can be arrested and in some cases cured, by timely injections of steeroid grease, (the use of this substance is of course strictly forbidden if the car is entered in official competitive events). Since we were not competing with anything except the ravages of time, we managed to hang on long enough to find another car.