Riley Kestrel: Plight of the Kestrel
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Sifting the Riley Kestrel stories from the Morris Minor, Ford Cortina and Austin 7 yarns isn’t easy when you’re talking to Peter Slawson. He seems a bit of a raconteur, with a dry wit, a past liberally stippled with classics of one sort or another, and a present which includes a Nissan Leaf electric car — much easier to maintain, he says, as there’s no oil and water to check.
But we’re just outside Kerikeri to talk about Rupert, his bright red Riley Kestrel. Peter had spotted the Kestrel at the Paihia “breakfast with the cars” a few months ago.
The 1966 Riley was first registered here in October of that year, having been built in Abingdon, England, before shipping south.
It went through 14 owners before Peter bought it last year. He’d sold his 1954 Morris Minor in January, after eight years, but soon realised that as the secretary of the local branch of the Vintage Car Club he should begin seeking another classic. “When you start looking, there’s not much under $10,000,” he says.
“I wanted a small, economical, reliable old car, something you can drive. I was looking more on price, and if you go to MGBs, which would have been nice, or Sprites, they’re silly prices.”
He did find a MkI two-door Cortina, virtually derelict, “But the guy wanted 10K,” and a 1275 GT Mini nearby, on the original wheels, but bidding reached $5800, “I didn’t want to pay that much as I couldn’t get to see it.”
Then he saw Rupert was listed online, the car was at Paihia, and so he roped in a BMC expert to go with him.
“We looked at it, it drove alright but was smoking badly, it had a reconditioned motor and gearbox, he’d done the head, but not the piston rings. He accepted my offer. I can see why, now.
“We drove it home, it ran quite well, then the tacho went berserk and it was coughing black smoke.”
Fortunately Bay of Islands Auto Electrical is nearby, and, “they have a mechanic who was a Seabrook Fowlds apprentice, and he’s an absolute goldmine. I offered him the workshop manual, but it was all in his head, he found all sorts wrong with the car.”
Turns out spotting the smoke may have been lucky. “Whoever worked on it had butchered it. It ended up with a new clutch, new seals — $1600 worth of parts.”
Photo / Jacqui Madelin
Clearly it had been unloved. “Some of the instruments were loose, the door handles were loose, and a bonnet hinge had nearly come off.”
Peter says the engine is incredible — it’s compact, but when it went back together they found the exhaust pipe was oversized for the manifold, “so it has a Mini 1275 GT exhaust pipe on it now. They did it beautifully, notched the little curve under the back sill ... Rupert has new hoses, hose clips, tidied-up wiring.”
The car had a new radio, which didn’t work.
“Someone had wired the speakers up wrong. The heater didn’t work,” and on it went ... “The bill was huge, but I had a rebuilt engine, a new exhaust, new battery, and I thought ‘that should just about see me out’, I only had to run it in. Which wasn’t easy, as the speedo wasn’t working.”
And so the tale continued, until finally the car was parked in his garage, with all the work done, by the end of April.
Since then the Riley has been all over the Far North, “Rupert’s all right on gravel, but the dust gets everywhere.” He takes it on VCC monthly club runs, “One of the joys of belonging to the club is you get to see all sorts you’d never see if you didn’t belong.”
The Kestrel handbook claims a top speed of 93mph — that’s 150km/h, a pace I’d not be keen to travel at in this car — and it stops okay thanks to disc brakes all round. They’re not power-assisted, nor is the steering, hence the big steering wheel, which needs a bit of attention — “I’ll use Plastidip.”
Rupert is surprisingly roomy inside, and tidy.
“I scrubbed the seats with toilet soap and a scrubbing brush, that’s good for vinyl,” and the suspension is comfy, as it should be — there’s a club member with a machine to check the hydrolastic suspension,” says Peter.
He says the car is “very British Leyland” . There’s no power on hills. “You have to get a run-up, though this one will trundle up at 64km/h in third, and cruises happily at 80km/h.” He’s had it up to 107 indicated, which would be slightly faster than the reality.
I don’t think there’s much risk he’ll get a speeding ticket in Rupert, not least because he’s determined to look after the old boy. And that includes getting out and about together. If you’re up north this summer, keep an eye out for him!