Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

| 19 Jun 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

Jowett Javelin or Riley 1½-litre?

At first glance, the idea of a straight choice between two such contrasting vehicles might seem absurd.

But wind the clock back to when the cars were new, and these two were direct rivals.

Indeed, in 1951 they cost exactly the same: £1168, including Purchase Tax.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Jowett Javelin is softly sprung, which shows up in added roll through corners

Of course, Riley had a substantial competition heritage, while Jowett had relatively little.

But it wasn’t long before the Javelin began to be seriously regarded as a family car with a sporting edge, and thus as a potential alternative to the Coventry design.

The Yorkshire firm’s new status was underscored by a class win for the Javelin on the 1949 Monte and another in the same year’s Spa 24 Hours.

For Riley, the 1496cc RM series was a continuation of existing practice: a low-slung sports saloon powered by a 55bhp single-SU version of the company’s evergreen twin-cam four-cylinder engine.

A separate ladder-type chassis remained, as did a wood-framed coachbuilt body topped by a padded leathercloth roof (later grained plastic), sitting on a steel-mesh understructure.

But a very real dash of modernity had been added to the mix, with a torsion-bar independent front end, complete with rack-and-pinion steering.

This was modelled on the Traction Avant Citroën set-up – just as the styling made a nod towards the BMW 327, an example of which had found its way to the works during the war.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Riley RMA is torquey, but it’s held back by its weight

Less of-the-moment were hydro-mechanical brakes, full hydraulics only coming in for the 1953 model year.

The leaf-sprung live back axle, initially restrained by an anti-roll bar, was pretty much par for the course, and the retention of a torque tube remained in the Riley tradition.

The Javelin was an entirely different proposition, being a fresh design by former Nuffield engineer Gerald Palmer, who would return to the Morris group to create the MG Magnette and the Riley 2½-litre’s replacement, the Pathfinder, along with their Wolseley derivatives.

Powered by a 50bhp, 1486cc water-cooled flat-four – Palmer-designed, with alloy crankcase and iron heads, and unrelated to Jowett’s previous sidevalve flat-fours – it had suspension by torsion bars (longitudinal front, transverse rear) with a live back axle located by twin trailing links on either side and a Panhard rod.

As with the Riley, the brakes were initially hydro-mechanical but latterly all-hydraulic, the dampers telescopic all round.

The steering, meanwhile, was by an unusual quadrant-and-pinion box; a rack was only to be used on the Jupiter. The Jowett’s body was equally modern.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

In the Jowett Javelin there’s a column gearchange and an under-dash handbrake

Supplied fully trimmed and painted by Briggs Motor Bodies, it was a unitary structure at least loosely inspired by Lincoln Zephyr stylist John Tjaarda’s streamlined rear-engined prototype for US steel-body pioneer Budd.

Although not designed using a wind tunnel – what car was in those days? – it was aerodynamically more than sound: in a 1982 test, Autocar determined it to have a drag coefficient of 0.41Cd.

In theory the Javelin had a similar life to the 1½-litre, being first seen in 1946, entering production hesitantly in the second half of 1948, and having its final motor show in 1953. The reality was rather different.

It suffered from engine problems centred on the crank, bearings and head gaskets, followed by traumatic gearbox failures after Jowett switched in 1951 from a Meadows-sourced unit to one made in-house. Word got around, and sales fell off a cliff.

The Javelin became just about the only British car available from stock, and by 1952 the firm was awash with unsold examples and ready-to-go bodyshells.

Production ground to a near halt and the contract with Briggs was put on ice.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

This Jowett Javelin De Luxe has rear armrests and leather seats

The company tried to sort itself out but, with Briggs never recommencing body manufacture, the last Javelins were made in 1953, to be sold alongside discounted ’52 models.

Attempts to remain in the car business with a new twin-cylinder model came to nothing, and in early 1954 the main works in Idle was sold to International Harvester.

The 1½-litre of David Atkins is a 1948 car, and was built at the factory in Coventry: from the following year, RM production moved to MG in Abingdon.

The Riley looks lean and low relative to the Javelin, although in fact the Jowett is only 1½in taller.

There’s an elegant, easy grace to the lines, accentuated by a deep chrome strake and a lack of ornamentation or fiddly detailing.

The rear, though, is arguably a bit of a mess, with exposed bumper irons and two bumperettes rather than the admittedly rather clumsy twin-bar full-width items that came in for 1952.

Setting the tone for the interior is a simple plain-grain wood dashboard with a raised section on either side and three centrally placed, round brown-on-cream dials; Abingdon-built cars have a mix of round and rectangular instrumentation.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

With twin Zenith carburettors, the Jowett Javelin’s 52.5bhp flat-four picks up quickly

It’s all very pre-war, a feeling underlined by the windscreen winding open on the driver’s side.

The brown Rexine trim is subdued, but counterbalanced by lovely stylised door cappings incorporating door pulls.

Two-tone upholstery with Bedford Cord inserts is only to be found in some 1947 and ’48 cars, produced at a time of leather shortages, but the rather charming pouches in the seatbacks are a touch found on all Coventry-built RMs.

Somewhat less pleasing are the mean pressed-cardboard sunvisors, thankfully replaced by recessed, cloth-covered affairs in Abingdon cars.

Being built on a generous 9ft 4½in wheelbase – a full 10½in more than the Jowett – means that there is plenty of legroom in the rear, helped by one’s feet sinking into a deep footwell, and there’s an open view to the front, thanks to the two smallish bucket seats.

There is no central armrest, and no side rests either, and you do feel their lack; later cars feature both.

Sitting high behind that big wire-spoke wheel, with a fine vista down the bonnet, you don’t expect any great delicacy to the driving experience. Nor do you get it.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Riley RMA’s two-tone upholstery comes from a time of leather shortages in the UK

The gearchange – top marks for the nice round gearlever knob – is clunk-clunk precise, and can’t be rushed, but if you take it slow it’s sweet and foolproof.

There’s heft to the steering, too, but it is gratifyingly accurate. The brakes are equally firm, but stop the car effectively.

The clutch is not the lightest, but frankly you don’t notice after a while.

The Riley motors along, but you need to hang on to the revs for maximum performance.

It bogs down quite easily if you let the speed fall away – but the torque of the long-stroke engine will pull you up; it also allows you to trickle along in top, should you so wish.

Cruising at 60mph is fine on the motorway, with a bit more noise than at a lazy 50mph, but no unpleasant harshness.

It corners flat and with security, and you can hack along if you put your back into the wheel, something helped by the commanding driving position.

The ride is on the sharp side, but this is less of an issue than the way you feel the odd crash, shake, squeak and rattle through the structure.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Riley RMA’s stylish door cappings – MG-built cars have straight items

Relative to a Traction Avant, for example, there is a lack of structural rigidity, and on poor surfaces you can feel the body moving about.

Close your mind to this failing – hardly unique in coachbuilt British saloons – and you’ll find the Riley a car that demands a modest effort to drive, but provides ample rewards.

Turning to Ian Roxburgh’s 1953 Javelin De Luxe, the aesthetics send out a very different message, one of modernity and well-honed professionalism as opposed to the slightly amateurish if charming country-gentleman conservatism of the Riley.

You could argue that the Jowett is just a little bit too 1942 Detroit, and that it seems strangely narrow from the back, thanks to the way the tail tapers.

Yet from the front it doesn’t seem narrow-gutted, and in profile or viewed from above it is simply a lovely smooth shape, with the snub nose giving it a hunched-forward dynamism; it’s also the first British car with a curved windscreen.

As Palmer’s designs always were, the Javelin is nicely detailed, with flush doorhandles integrated into the waistline chrome strip, little plinths for the round tail-lamps and deep bumpers, at the front valanced and with solid-topped overriders.

Presentation of the interior varied over the years, but in this ultimate form the Jowett is furnished in quiet good taste.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Riley RMA corners flat, but the steering is heavy

The plain, flat dashboard, with its burr-walnut facing and straight-grain capping, houses a set of white-on-black dials, with a big clock but no rev-counter.

The doors have little lift-up poppered armrests at the front and carpeted bottoms (as on late RMs), and there is a centre armrest at the rear, along with well-placed side armrests.

There’s plenty of legroom in the back, which is pleasantly airy after the blind rear quarters of the Riley: the floor, in plywood, is flat, so you stick your feet under the front seat.

A neat picnic tray slots onto the front seatback, and when not in use is secured below the rear window.

Equally well thought-out is the boot, with a covered tray for tools and a wind-down spare wheel.

Benefiting from something in the order of 30 modifications and updates, including the fitment of an overdrive, a brake servo, electronic ignition and an alternator, the Roxburgh Javelin rolls along happily: taking it easy, it gives nothing away to the 1½-litre.

At 60-70mph the flat-four emits a thrummy, Alfasud-like rin-tin-tin – a more robust yet smoother tone than the Riley’s soundtrack.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Jowett Javelin’s flip-up grille gives access to the front of the flat-four engine

This lulls you into thinking that the Javelin is more pedestrian than is the case. Use the throttle pedal, get the two Zeniths working, and you dig into reserves of power.

The car really does accelerate – it picks up its skirts in a way that the Riley, more leaden in its responses, is unlikely to achieve.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. As well as having superior aerodynamics, the Javelin is the lighter by 20%.

Helping the Jowett’s progress is an easy and tight-gated gearchange – one of the best column shifts this side of the Channel – and a pleasantly smooth clutch.

You can snick third, but otherwise the synchromesh is effective enough. It is on the low-geared side, however, yet there’s still quite a gap between third and fourth.

Fortunately, that overdrive really does make a difference: cruising becomes so much more relaxed with it engaged. Its chassis comportment is equally rewarding.

The steering, made a touch more fluid by the ball-race Roxburgh has fitted at the top of the kingpins in place of a plain phosphor-bronze bearing, is taut and in no way demandingly heavy.

Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

The Riley RMA’s all-iron engine has twin high-set camshafts and short pushrods

The hydraulic brakes with that servo are efficient and short-travel, and the suspension comfortable.

The Jowett leans into bends, and feels underdamped, but corners undramatically and with accuracy, while poor surfaces don’t disturb the structure. The RM is a car of firm inputs; the Jowett can be driven more gently.

Viewed from the perspective of the time, the Riley has one foot in the present and one in the past. With its separate chassis, coachbuilt body and heavy, expensive-to-make engine, it represents a technical dead end.

The Javelin has one foot in the present and one in the future. With unitary construction, sophisticated suspension and a modern (if expensive) engine, it could have been rebodied in a more up-to-date idiom and been technologically contemporary through the ’60s.

Imagine it with a little more power, a floor gearchange, disc front brakes, and firmed-up suspension: it could have been a British Alfasud.

For just these reasons, both cars have real appeal.

But had I been a discriminating enthusiast in the early ’50s I might well have been tempted – fingers crossed about reliability – to go for that brave, tragic Jowett streamliner, the only genuinely advanced British saloon before BMC’s Mini and 1100.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to: Jowett Car Club; The Riley RM Club

This was first in our February 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Classic & Sports Car – Riley RMA vs Jowett Javelin: 1½-litre saloon showdown

Jowett Javelin

  • Sold/number built 1948-’53/23,307 (inc CKD kits)
  • Construction steel unitary
  • Engine alloy-crankcase, iron-heads, ohv 1486cc flat-four, twin Zenith carbs
  • Max power 52.5bhp @ 4100rpm
  • Max torque 76lb ft @ 2600rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by torsion bars rear live axle, trailing links, Panhard rod
  • Steering quadrant and pinion
  • Brakes hydro-mech drums (hydraulic from ’52)
  • Length 14ft (4267mm)
  • Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
  • Height 5ft 2½in (1588mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
  • Weight 2280lb (1034kg)
  • Mpg 32
  • 0-60mph 22.2 secs
  • Top speed 80mph
  • Price new £1168


Riley RMA

  • Sold/number built 1945-’52/10,504 (+3446 RMEs to ’55)
  • Construction steel chassis, timber frame, steel panels
  • Engine all-iron, double ‘high-cam’, ohv 1496cc ‘four’, single SU carburettor
  • Max power 55bhp @ 4500rpm
  • Max torque 76lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by torsion bars rear live axle, leaf springs, torque tube
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes hydro-mechanical drums
  • Length 14ft 11in (4547mm)
  • Width 5ft 3½in (1613mm)
  • Height 4ft 11in (1500mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 4½in (2858mm)
  • Weight 2716lb (1232kg)
  • Mpg 26
  • 0-60mph 25.1 secs
  • Top speed 74.3mph
  • Price new £1168

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