Monday November 6, 2017
56 years ago, you just know that the young Hyacinth Bucket would have craved a new Wolseley Hornet or, better still, a Riley Elf. They may have been based on those new-fangled Morris Mini Minor and Austin Seven with their peculiar sideways mounted engine driving the front wheels, but these latest models were aimed at people of true refinement.
After all, did the advertisements not state that the Riley was a ‘perfect dream of a car’? And that the Wolseley ‘brings luxury and distinction’?
The Hornet and the Elf (the original plan was for the latter to be called the Imp but that name was destined for a new Hillman) made their debuts in October 1961, both sporting an extended boot (which increased luggage space by some 2.5 cu ft.), vestigial tail fins and a ‘traditional’ radiator grille. Inside there were leather seat facings, a heater and a walnut veneered instrument surround.
The Wolseley cost £672 1s 5d and the Elf was £693 18s 11d. the Riley’s higher price reflecting its more elaborate full-width fascia with twin lidded glove compartments.
The new BMC compacts were apparently not favoured by Alec Issigonis – ‘styling gimmick’ - and their extra weight mean that they were probably slower than their Morris and Austin stablemates.
Nor were the Hornet or Elf especially cheap by the standards of the day. A Riley was £125 more expensive than a Mini De Luxe (and £14 more than a Cooper) but although this was a considerable sum of money at that time, quite a few motorists thought its money well spent in the name of social prestige.
‘To many, the higher price asked for this “executive Mini” (or, perhaps, executive's wife’s Mini) will be fully justified’, thought Autocar in 1962 and indeed the Elf/Hornet duo had few competitors in the early 1960s.
The Triumph Herald was a size larger while the Citroen Bijou was also FWD and rather chic in its idiosyncratic way but it lacked that hide and timber appeal. It would not be until the arrival of the Singer Chamois in 1964 that the Wolseley and Riley had a close rival.
By November 1962, the Mk. II versions had a 998cc de-tuned Cooper engine with a single carburettor, and two years later they gained Hydrolastic suspension.
An automatic option in 1965 was a vert logical development for a model that was at least partially aimed at the retired Major/headmistress customer base. An Elf also gained a certain amount of film fame in the truly terrible Hammer production The Witches, in which the ladies of a small village engage in witchcraft (of course) between bouts of jam making. A cinematic classic it was not.
The final Mk. III incarnation was launched in 1966, with winding windows (three years before UK market standard Minis were so-equipped) and fresh air vents.
Most owners also welcomed the new Cooper style gearchange that replaced the earlier ‘magic wand’ style lever and reclining front seats were also available.
For the last year of production, there was an all-synchromesh gearbox before the Hornet and Elf were succeeded by the Clubman in late 1969. If the Riley and Wolseley deliberately harked back to a mythical world of Brylcreem and gin and limes at the local tennis club, the square-nosed Mini anticipated a decade of horrendous fashions and worse hairstyles. And, besides, for keeping up appearances, only a duotone Elf would really suffice.
Lancaster Insurance have been arranging classic car insurance for over 30 years, so we really are the experts!