In 1957 the Morris Minor was nine years old and thoughts had turned to its replacement. Enter the Wolseley 1500 and Riley 1.5, which used the Minor floorpan married to the 1489cc B-series engine – a hefty upgrade on the Minor’s 948cc unit.
But the redoubtable Minor was not ready to be confined to the annals of automotive history – not by a long way – with Morris able to sell every one produced.
So the Wolseley and Riley became an up-market alternative instead. We take a look at a car that became a big success in its own right.
It was an unusual choice for a 21-year-old who, by that stage, had already owned an MGB, BMW 520i and Fiesta XR2.
But when I found an old Wolseley 1500 in a barn near my home, I fell in love with the idea of bringing this neglected classic back to its former glory.
The deep chrome grille, leather, wood and Wilton carpet gave the car an up-market feel – and I couldn’t afford a Jaguar Mk2…
A restoration including new carpets, replacement front wings, new bumpers, new brakes, a respray in the original two-tone green, and the car was ready for the road at a cost of about £3,000, admittedly a little more than it was worth.
Back in Edwardian times, Wolseley was the pre-eminent car maker in the UK, but when the Vickers brothers, who founded the company with Herbert Austin, died during and after the first world war, the company eventually went into receivership and was bought by William Morris in 1927 (much to the displeasure of Austin).
After the second world war, the name was subsumed into the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and thereafter Wolseley became a badge engineered brand attached to up-market models.
The 1500, and its Riley brother, were slightly different though – as they were meant to become the Morris 1200, the replacement for the Morris 1000 (Minor), they became cars in their own right rather than rebadged versions of existing BMC cars (the Hornet was a luxury Mini with a boot for example).
Introduced in April 1957, the 1500 was followed in November by the Riley, which featured twin SU carburettors, a sportier curved grille, different headlamp surrounds and chrome side trim, a dash featuring a full range of gauges, and upgraded brakes.
The quicker Riley was successfully raced and rallied at the time and still crops up in historical motor sport today.
The new car received favourable reviews, with Motor Sport magazine praising BMC for producing a car “combining above average performance and good handling qualities in a compact four-seater luxury saloon”.
Acceleration was described as “extremely impressive”, with the little car moving from 0-50mph in 16 seconds. Not particularly impressive compared to my previous XR2, but what did I expect using a 1950s car as my daily driver in the early 1990s?
Motor Sport’s conclusion would have pleased bosses at BMC, as it seemed they had achieved their main ambition: “Those who require a car which combines Morris Minor characteristics with considerably enhanced performance and additional luxury equipment will stop searching after trying the Wolseley 1500.”
For my own part, the little green Wolseley attracted attention everywhere it went – mostly from older gentlemen who either owned one in their middle age or remembered seeing them on the road.
The car was practical in some ways, not so in others – it had a decent sized boot, could seat four in comfort, cruised happily at 60mph (I did get to 70mph but was worried about pushing it to its reported 77mph top speed), and never broke down.
But the switch from the zippy and slightly jittery XR2 to its polar opposite did take some getting used to. As did the poor heater, lack of a radio (a battery-powered ghetto blaster on the passenger seat was not ideal), and pitying looks from my peers.
The mark 1 was replaced in 1960 by the mark 2, with the only real differences the hidden boot and bonnet hinges, a full-width parcel shelf and lowered suspension to reduce body roll.
It didn’t last long though, with the mark 3 coming along less than 18 months later, featuring a larger grille and surrounds stretching to include the indicators, larger rear light cluster, further lowered suspension and changes to the seats and dashboard.
This car survived until 1965, selling in healthy numbers with the Wolseley shifting 103,394 and more expensive Riley 39,568, before it was replaced by the badge-engineered Wolseley 1100, an upmarket version of the hugely successful Austin/Morris 1100/1300 first introduced in 1962.
By contrast the Minor, the car it was meant to replace, stayed in production until 1971 and sold a whopping 1,368,291.
These days, that makes the Wolseley and Riley pretty rare motors by comparison – but it also makes parts much harder to come by than its more famous cousin. Top condition cars now fetch up to £6,000, but a decent runner can be bought for about £2,000, which makes it a very affordable and unusual starter classic – there are less than 2,000 of these cars left in the UK, compared with more than 20,000 Moggies still going.
As for my 1500, the novelty wore off after a while and the need for modernity and speed saw me sell the car for about £1750 and move into the blissful comfort, warmth and zip of a Golf GTi…
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