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Lot 071: Riley Imp

Classic Car, Motorcycle & Automobilia, Brightwells Auctioneers and Valuers (24 June 2009)

Always scandalously casual in their approach to marketing, Riley launched the Imp to virtually no fanfare whatsoever in the Spring of 1934. Based on a shortened 7foot 6-inch version of the Brooklands Six racing chassis, it was clothed in a sensationally beautiful two-seater body that had more than a whiff of the Alfa Romeo 1750 and 8C 2300 in its styling. Power came from a high compression version of the classic Riley twin-cam 1,087cc four-cylinder engine with twin SU carburettors, producing about 45bhp and giving the car a top speed of 75mph.

Blessed with outstanding handling and brakes, the car invariably left a hugely favourable impression on anyone fortunate enough to get behind the wheel. However, the cockpit was very cramped and the car was by no means cheap, costing �298 for a manual transmission version and �325 for the far more popular pre-selector model, and fewer than 200 were sold before it was quietly dropped in the summer of 1935. Of these less than half are now thought to survive and all are keenly sought after today.

First registered on 22nd August 1935, little is known of the early history of BYY 909 until it was purchased by a Mr Calthorpe in about 1946, who had been a mechanic for well-known Riley racer Freddie Dixon before the war. He was to keep the car for about five years and had enormously fond memories of it  as he later recalled in two articles in Riley Register Bulletin issues 112 and 113 of 1984 (a copy of the full text being retained in the history file).

Declaring it to be the best car he had owned in some 50 years of motoring, Calthorpe described how, after a touring holiday of Scandinavia (which involved driving back to the UK with half a pig lashed to the bonnet!), he had BYY 909 shipped to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had just taken up a new job with the De Havilland aircraft company. Here he used the car on a daily basis, often travelling many hundreds of miles at a stretch visiting far flung Argentinian air force bases, often on terrible roads and in baking temperatures.

However, his most memorable journey was to come in about 1949 when he was posted to Santiago in Chile, over 1,000 miles away across the Andes mountain range. Despite being told that the journey was impossible by car because of the danger of avalanches and the great altitudes involved, he had every faith in his Imp and duly set out on the epic journey with his wife of just a few months in the passenger seat. Enduring terrible sun burn, dysentery and the odd mechanical mishap on the way, the journey was eventually successfully completed and the Imp continued to provide sterling service during another 6 months of South American motoring.

On his return to the UK in 1950, Calthorpe treated BYY 909 to a full overhaul before reluctantly selling it to another De Havilland engineer, Norman Vince, when the arrival of a baby daughter necessitated the purchase of a larger car. The Imp subsequently ended up at Mercury Motors of Wimbledon where George Birrell spotted it in the early 1950s  and instantly fell under its spell.

Already the owner of another Imp (CMV 91), Birrell was entranced by the sensational condition of BYY 909 which, as he describes in a letter in the history file, had just had what looked like a total rebuild  even the brake pulleys were still bright, untarnished brass. I paid �425 for it which was an enormous sum for an Imp in those days  I think I had paid �295 for CMV 91, which was a good average example. BYY 909 was to remain in the Birrell family for the next 35 years, including a stint of several years during the late 1950s when it commuted weekly between Ruislip and Oxford in the hands of George's sister, Miss HT Birrell. In 1961 the car was put into dry storage and remained unused until it was purchased by Ivor Halbert in January 1988.

Restored by Ivor to his usual high standards and meticulously maintained since, the car remains in excellent condition both bodily and mechanically. During the restoration it was fitted with a replacement engine (no. 57156) from a Merlin with a heavier crank, but the original engine (no. 56316) is included in the sale. The ENV Type 75 gearbox was also rebuilt by Bill Morris with more appropriate ratios fitted (George Birrell recalled blissful handling but a gearbox ridiculously ill suited to the distinctly cammy engine). Ivor also fitted an oil cooler and an electric fan.

Apart from the aforementioned history, it comes with 10 old MOTs back to 1995 (the last of which expired in June 2006), various photographs taken during Ivor's restoration, a buff log book from 1956, an old V5 and a modern V5C. There is also a copy of John Gathercole's definitive book on the Imp ('The Riley Imp: Histories and Profiles'), in which BYY 909 appears on pages 152  153. Altogether a beautiful old car with an impeccable provenance that would be the pride of any collection.

Lot Details
Auction Classic Car, Motorcycle & Automobilia
Brightwells Auctioneers and Valuers, Leominster
TypeCar
Lot Number071
Estimate£40000-£50000
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price£56000
Hammer Price (inc premium)-
Year1935
Condition rating0
Registration numberBYY 909
Mileage-
Chassis number6027633
Engine number57156
Engine capacity (cc)1087
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors