"As Old As The Industry, As Modern As The Hour."
John Lomas of Blue Diamond gives us an exclusive tour of his Riley workshop.
Being an enthusiast can mean lots of things. It can mean spending hours online, or hours under a car with clumps of grease in your hair. But does it extend as far as truly investing in the future and community of the hobby? That’s exactly what John Lomas has done with Blue Diamond.
Blue Diamond is a fully fledged Riley specialist. Teaming Riley’s old recipe for exquisite motor cars with the beauty and space of the Bicester Heritage site has turned John’s workshop into a snapshot of what it would have been like back then: “We wanted it to look like the original Riley and MG workshops”.
Both us Toms agreed it was unusual - we felt a kind of nostalgia for an era that we weren’t ever alive in. Maybe it’s “the Bicester effect”. Maybe it’s just the lack of modern machinery; after all, these are old cars that still need old technologies to get them going.
At Bicester Heritage, it’s John’s place you see first - Rileys parked out on the grass. Walk through a very modest side door and you’re in. A rare V8 sits on display in the corridor, authentic signwriting tells you where to go. Turn right and you’re in the parts shop. Specialty components and trinkety bits fill every corner. A large works-style clock hangs over the counter. Turn left and you’re into the restoration area, the space and light despite the age of the building is staggering. “We’ve a parts showroom that sells MG and Riley parts so people can come in for visits, for tours, whilst having their car on the ramp.”
Building a business on vintage cars
Let’s get to the point. The vintage car scene is a proper down to earth ‘fire and brimstone’ way to get your petroleum fix. We’re all familiar with a line of squeaky clean MGs on a manicured lawn. It’s easy to clump together all those googly-eyed vintage motors as one sort of category - but they’re not. Building a business on vintage cars is a tough and noble mission that takes guts to inspire the next generation in the way it happened for John:
Where does your passion for Rileys come from?
“I grew up with the funny little 2-seat car that was in the garage. Every time we went to events people would point and look - it was just a fantastic experience as a small boy.”
What makes vintage cars so great to drive?
“It is a totally different kind of driving experience to anything. There isn’t a lot of power unless you spend a lot of money, but the fun you can have at 25 mph is far in excess of anything you can do in a modern car.”
What makes them so different?
“Specifically it’s the feel. It’s being close to the car. I mean you’re driving a car with cable breaks and low horsepower so you’ve got to anticipate, you’ve got to get the gear changes right. It’s that connectivity with the car.”
“I drove to the Le Mans Classic in 2014 with my Dad. After two hours of driving, I’d got Puma Speed Cat shoes on and I needed to flex my toes because I was getting cramp. As I did, the car was going backwards and forwards with acceleration. You can’t get that feeling by driving a modern car because there’s so much in it. In the Riley, you’ve about two inches of throttle mechanism and then you’re connected to the carburettor!”
Believing In a Brand
Brand loyalty is a bit misplaced these days - everyone’s borrowing everything from everywhere so you might say that nothing’s truly ‘unique’. Riley were unique, and that’s what makes John’s ability to take you back in time so special.
John explained how in the market back then, Riley were a bit like BMW today in terms of their quality and approach. With raised but not quite overhead camshafts, engines were efficient and very tuneable (many are still used in competition). Riley were really at the top of their game with oodles of podium finishes worth shouting about. But they didn’t. Top engineering minds were their bread and butter, but unfortunately the lack of business foresight saw the company dwindle, eventually being swallowed up by the Nuffield Organisation: Morris, Wolseley and MG.
Blue Diamond is John’s effort to rekindle the magic that the Riley chaps had back in the day - a way to bring back the principles of those glory days. “If you’re gonna do something you’ve gotta do it right. We wanted to create somewhere that’s not only doing fantastic workmanship but also is a great place for us and our customers to visit.”
So what about the future, what responsibility do we have as vintage enthusiasts beyond those Sunday mornings twiddling under the car? “The phrase I use is, we are custodians of these vehicles for a short period of time. They will all be here after you and I are gone.”