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Riley Sprite

Riley Sprite

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Riley Sprite
Lot number 134
Hammer value £155,000
Description Riley Sprite
Registration EMB 136
Year 1938
Colour Black
Engine size 1,497 cc
Chassis No. S2887723
Engine No. SS7723

The Riley company motto, “As old as the industry – as modern as the hour” summed up the product range very nicely, their cars following the latest fashion for low slung, elegant coachwork.

As with the now legendary Imp, the Sprite slipped almost unnoticed into the line-up in the autumn of 1935 with negligible help from the marketing department. “Indeed, this seems to have been another of those occasions where Riley went out of their way to make sure the public were not informed about a new sports car,” wrote marque historian Graham Robson in his definitive 1986 book Riley Sports Cars. “There were no pictures in the motoring press, no technical analyses, and no road tests until 1937 when The Autocar at last got its hands on a car, perhaps because its managing editor’s son had recently bought one of his own!”

Although closely linked to both the Imp and the MPH in general layout, the Sprite had an entirely different engine and was a direct spin-off from the 1935 TT Sprite racing car. Only marginally less powerful than the six-cylinder unit in the MPH, the Sprite’s new 1.5-litre 12/4 engine was hugely impressive for its day and could propel the little car to a top speed of almost 85mph. “The Sprite is not a racing car, but in part of its behavior it shows that it is a close relative,” wrote Autocar. “It is stable to the extent of being almost impossible to overturn, although cornered much faster than is general practice, and has the acceleration to take it through gaps in traffic.”

Sharing virtually the same chassis as the MPH but now even stiffer thanks to boxed-in side members, the Sprite also benefited from improved Girling rod-actuated brakes in place of the cable brakes on the Imp and the MPH. Luggage space was slightly increased by lengthening the tail and the cabin was made marginally roomier by moving the dashboard forward, but it was still very restricted by any standards. Both manual and pre-selector gearboxes were offered but, as usual, the latter was a far more popular option.

Rear end styling was almost identical to the MPH with a fully enclosed spare wheel on top of the 15-gallon fuel tank, but the front end was much more modern with a ‘bird cage’ type grille which so appalled some traditionalists that a more conventional slatted type was offered as an option! Priced at £425 it was, like the MPH, very expensive compared to its obvious UK rivals and sales were never going to be brisk, even given proper marketing support. It is not known exactly how many Sprites were made before production petered out in 1938, but best estimates suggest that it was between 50 and 55.

EMB 136 was purchased new through Blake and Co. of Chester in 1938 by Lady Mary Grosvenor. The youngest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Westminster (one of the richest families in the world), she was a keen racing and rally driver. Before the outbreak of war, she is known to have competed in several Riley Sprites, migrating to a Type 35 Bugatti in 1947 and subsequently an Alta and a Le Mans Rep Frazer-Nash. She finally retired from racing in 1953 to concentrate on running her large estates both in the UK and abroad.

When ordering the car, she asked the factory to fit Brooklands type cycle wings which the car retains to this day, a single piece backrest to the front seats and an external straight-through exhaust. It was then campaigned extensively, including:


Riley Motor Club Spring trial (1st class award)
R.A.C. Rally (Finishers plaque)
R.A.S.C. Scottish Rally (Finishers plaque)


Prescott Hill Climb Spring meeting (3rd in the all-comers handicap)
Crystal Palace (2nd in the Stanley Cup Meeting handicap)
R.A.C. Rally (Finishers plaque)
Donnington Park Cambridge University Auto Club’s relay race


Elstree Speed Trials (4th place 1,101 – 2,000cc)
Cambridge University Car Club race meeting (3rd place 1,500cc scratch race)
Midland Automobile Club Trial (Winner of the Wrekin Challenge Trophy)
Prescott Hill Climb (unplaced)
Bowness Hill Climb (unplaced)


Prescott Hill Climb (unplaced)

By 1952, Lady Mary had sold the Sprite back to Blake & Co Garage of Chester, the accompanying buff log books listing a string of six further owners before it was bought by Jack McEwen in 1965. By this time, the car was in a rather neglected state and he set about a thorough and comprehensive restoration.

Once completed, he used it extensively in VSCC events until the vendor acquired the car from him in 1986. A large box of accumulated silverware dating from the period of Jack McEwen’s ownership accompanies the car, with well over 25 trophies and tankards.

Since then it has led a more relaxed life, competing in various local sprints and events. Maintained regardless of expense, it has been rewired and re-upholstered in red leather. The wheels have been rebuilt and fitted with new tyres. It has been kept ‘on the button’ and given regular exercise and is MOTd until July 2015. There are some bills on file for recent work and 24 old MOTs show that it has covered just 7,600 miles since 1986. The vendor is also including a number of useful spares in the sale, including a spare centrifugal clutch, new head gasket, a rebuilt Scintilla magneto and a crownwheel and pinion.

This well known, continuous history car comes with an excellent pre-war competition history having been owned and driven by one of the period’s high profile lady competitors. Its subsequent successes in the hands of Jack McEwen in the 1970s add significantly to its history, its current owner having maintained it in lovely useable condition since he acquired it 28 years ago. This is indeed a rare opportunity to buy the very best. 

Prospective bidders are advised that this car completed the Mille Miglia event in 1972 in the hands of Jack McEwen.

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