Bringing it back from extinction: after a marque specialist introduced them to the understated charm of a rare Riley Elf, Alistair and Ben decided it was the perfect car to launch their career in the classic car world.
Here, they tell Charlotte Vowden what it’s like to co-own their Riley Elf, a forgotten hero of British motoring, and reveal how they’re making the most of the its agile handling.
Riley is one of the many grand old British automotive brands that are no longer around, but this 1967 Elf, although meagre in size, is making a massive impression on its two twentysomething owners. Meet Alastair Hastings, 22, and Ben Maidment, 23…
A Riley, that’s a pretty niche choice of car…
Alistair: It’s one of those British brands that isn’t around any more and we’re bringing it back.
Ben: I had no idea who they were until going to a Scramble at Bicester Heritage and being shown round the Blue Diamond Riley Services (BDRS) workshop, a marque specialist that’s based on site. Going in there is like going on Pinterest for vintage stuff, it has such a vibe of a different era, they’re keeping a time alive.
A: I’d heard of Riley, but if you’d have said Riley Elf to me I wouldn’t have known what it was.
They’re similar to a Mini, right?
B: Yep, and when I found that out I was like why don’t we just get a Mini then? It’s more accepted within the classic car space, and I thought the Elf looked a bit odd, but John Lomas, the Managing Director, gave the Elf the thumbs up because it gives us that difference factor.
A: There are so many Minis out there in various flavours and colours, not that we don’t love them, but if you go to a car show in the Elf it sparks conversation because you don’t see them…
B: …we’d never seen one in real life before ours arrived on the trailer. It was an ‘I’m in love’ moment.
On a trailer, does that mean it wasn’t a runner?
B: Oh no, it ran, we filmed a video driving it on our first day of ownership and launched our YouTube channel Selecting Neutral.
A: The fundamentals were all great and we had three months to get it ready for a rally – we’d entered HERO-ERA’s A Novice Trial, which is a three day regularity event on open roads. It’s not about driving from A to B as fast as you can, it’s about managing speed and arriving at check points at the right time. You have to be a novice in your seat and can use a Brantz metre and stopwatch to help with your timings.
How did the Elf cope?
B: The stereotype of owning a classic car is that you never make it to wherever you want to go and the Riley Elf was fantastic up until the very end. Despite flushing the radiator twice it was running a bit hot on long stretches and we’d been warned to stop driving if the temperature gauge went into the red, which it did during the last time trial. If we didn’t take part, whatever result we’d achieved, which turned out to be first in our class, wouldn’t count.
A: We sat on the start line, turned the engine off and we waited until there were two seconds to go in the ten-second countdown, and vroom off we went.
B: Thankfully the car didn’t blow up!
Who was driving?
A: Ben drove, I was navigating. Shouting directions gave it a proper intense rally vibe.
B: You get your route book on Friday evening and go over the basics of how it all works and what your roles involve, then over the next two days you have classroom and practice sessions before the competitive rally on Sunday. There are a lot of stages called regulations, which are timed challenges, and your overall score is calculated by how much time you lost or gained when completing them. If we hadn’t missed a cone, which added a thirty second penalty, I think we would have been second overall…
A: …I’m never going to live this down, I’m expecting a cone outfit for Christmas, but despite that, we came fourth overall. It was a very special weekend because winning trophies for motorsport is a lifelong dream.
Any motivational tunes in the background?
A: It’s lovely to put a record on and drop the needle but you’d never hear music in the Elf, it’s too loud, and of course it doesn’t have a radio.
B: I don’t see the point of having one in a classic, I like to interact with and vibe the car, plus if a little whine started developing you wouldn’t hear it. It’s different in the more retro stuff where they’ve already got a cassette or CD player, it becomes part of the experience, but in the Elf the ideal would be if music was playing ambiently outside the car as we were going along so you could just listen out for it on the wind.
What song would you have playing next time you cross a finish line?
B: When I’m driving a car I love I want to savour that moment, therefore it’s got to be On Days Like These by Matt Monro.
A: This is a tricky one, although if we’re talking driving songs I think I’m going to have to go with Cosmic Girl by Jamiroquai, and if you don’t know why, just watch the music video!
Clearly you work well as a team, but how does co-owning a car work?
A: This has been a long time coming because we went to school together and so the minute we clocked that we both love cars we knew it was going to happen.
B: It massively helps that we live together and work together on our YouTube channel, which is where we document our journey with the Elf and first time drives in all sorts of classic cars.
So, let’s talk money. How do you divide the costs?
B: The Elf was seven grand, and we spent three getting it ready for the rally, which we split down the middle. We go halves on the insurance too.
A: We’re broke now, but it’s a BMC A-series engine so the parts are abundant.
B: Which means it’s not an arm and a leg to fix if bits go wrong. If a work bill comes through we split that too.
What about fuel?
A: I was hoping we were going to get through this without talking about fuel.
B: It’s another cost that’s creeping up and a car’s fuel usage is one of those things I’d advise people to think about before investing in a car, especially when you’re sharing because you have to work out a fair way to pay if one person uses it more than the other. Most of the time we use the Elf together so it’s easy to split, but money isn’t something we have lying under our beds and classic cars are expensive to run, especially now you can’t put E10 in most of them.
A: I’m coming round to the idea of electrifying old cars…
B: … I’m not. Climate change is undeniable but we want to be part of the way forward where there’s a more responsible way to enjoy them, we just don’t know what that looks like yet. If we could use our platform to promote that, it would be amazing, but it’s our love and our hobby.
A: We’d like to think we are standing for something.
Your Elf was born in ’67. Did it come with a juicy history file?
B: We don’t know anything about its history, but in my mind its history begins with us. It’s like an orphan, we have no idea where it came from, but we don’t need to because wherever the car goes, whatever it becomes, its life starts now, it’s ours and we’ve no intention on letting it go.
A: I think if I owned something a bit more upmarket I’d probably want the history file.
Describe the Elf in one word
A: Optimistic. It’s an endearing car, and reminds me of Dory from Finding Nemo with its kind of ‘everything is fine, just keep swimming’ attitude and ‘I’m here, pick me!’ personality.
Describe its looks…
B: It’s a mini Bulldog.
A: It’s got a funny, slightly angry little face, flared arches and a lovely camber on the front wheels.
Share a cute moment of ownership
B: When we found out the Elf had photobombed one of Jodie Kidd’s videos.
A: Finding a picture of us doing the rally in Octane magazine, that was pretty cool.
B: Victor Riley, the grandson of Riley himself, asked us to bring the car to a 60 years of the Riley Elf festival which was a real heartfelt moment but unfortunately we couldn’t go because our exhaust was hanging off. It was our fault because we left it too late to get it fixed.
It’s a petite car, do you ever feel vulnerable?
A: I am conscious of the fact that if we were to have an accident we probably wouldn’t come off as well as we’d hope.
B: I think you could probably knock the A pillars in with a hammer, but being small does mean parking is a dream.
A physical workshop inspired you to buy a classic. Do you hope your YouTube channel will have the same impact?
A: That would be amazing. We want to entertain people and help them learn a little bit too. We didn’t really do our homework at first and got a few facts wrong but we spend hours doing research now.
B: Yeah, and it’s that honesty that we hope people will connect with. If I had to do a YouTube channel about cheese…
A: He hates cheese…
B: I hate cheese, so I couldn’t convince people that I was enjoying it, whereas we love cars so it’s easy for us to be ourselves and have fun which hopefully translates to other people wanting to have a go themselves.
Tips for anyone else buying their first classic?
A: What I wouldn’t recommend is going on eBay and just buying something. Talk to someone like John from BDRS who knows whether a car is good or not, and what to avoid. It would be horrifying to fork out five figures then realise you’ve got to spend the same getting it right. Shows are good too, so much of classic car ownership is sensory, from the smell to the feel of a car, and that doesn’t translate through a screen.
B: For us, buying a Riley has made us feel part of something. They produced some really worthwhile cars, and have a heritage and provenance that I vibed towards, plus, that relationship you can have with the people who fix your car can be amazing. We sit and talk with the guys at BDRS and watch the process so that next time we can try and do it ourselves. It’s a great way to learn.
What does the Elf mean to you?
A: It represents a new chapter in our lives. We don’t know everything about the world we live in but it’s nice to experience what it was like when we weren’t living in it by driving an old car on a British B road. I’ve always loved things that require more effort, like notebooks and diaries, because I think that engagement you get with them is more of a reward, but I’m not one of those people that dresses up in a 1940s suit every Saturday.
B: We’ll keep the Elf forever and we like it the way it is.