Thursday 24th May 2001


GILBERN

A small slice of motoring history from Wales


Invader Mk III
(note estate in background)

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Ford V6

Think of British car companies and on the whole you'd be pretty accurate in thinking of English car companies. That's not the complete story though, as Gilbern demonstrate. The marque is truly Welsh with all the cars manufactured for the fifteen years or so that Gilbern survived.

Butcher Giles Smith was living in Pontypridd and took a fancy to having a unique glass fibre bodied sports car that were becoming fashionable at the time. After a chance encounter with German Bernard Friese, a plan was hatched to build such a car. Work began on the Gilbern (Giles/Bernard) GT in 1959 behind Smith's butchers shop. Rather than rebody an existing car, they took the bold step of designing it from the ground up.

Production

A local racing driver - Peter Cottrell - happened to inspect the car when it neared completion and was impressed. The one off sportscar soon became the basis for a production car and motor shows beckoned.

Initially the customer cars were supplied in ready-to-assemble component form, with the customers required to fit the engine, gearbox and a few bits of trim. The first cars were base around the Austin-Healey Sprite's 948cc, MGA 1600cc or Coventry Climax engines.

Growing

As production increased to a car a month, bigger premises were needed for the five employees. Gilbern moved to the site of a disused colliery not far from the original location. Production increased gradually and by the mid 60's they were up to a car a week with twenty staff. The market was predominantly the UK, with only three or four left hand drive cars making it to the USA.

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Invader

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1966 saw the introduction of the Genie. Ford had offered Gilbern their new V6 engine which proved more fruitful than some of Gilbern's previous experiments with Ford units. The Genie was a different design, with the company now moving into the territory of 2+2 sports cars.

Here we go again...

As with all British car companies, there came a time when money became tight and external investment was sought.  For Gilbern this came in 1968 when the company was sold to the ACE group. Giles Smith left soon after whilst Bernard Friese stayed on for a year to supervise the development of the new Mk I Invader which would replace the Genie.

Under ACE, staff numbers increased to around 60, but production remained at about 100 cars a year. Production varied in the following few years with the introduction of variants of the Invader including the Mk II and the Mark II Estate version in the early 70's.

Ambitous Coupe

The early 70's also saw Gilbern's most ambitious project hatched. An attempt to build a mid (rear) engined 2 seater never made it past the prototype stage. Despite swooping lines, a transverse Maxi engine would never have captured the enthusiasts' hearts!

In 1972 the Mk III was released. Changes in taxation no longer made it worthwhile providing the cars in component form so fully finished cars were being sold as the norm for the first time. Until then, 90% of production has still been in component form. The fully built cars were competing in the same price bracket as sports cars from Jaguar and BMW and prospects didn't look good. Expansion into Europe only produced a handful of left hand drive cars, not enough to avert the impending financial crisis.

Petering out

The company changed hands once again, this time for a solitary pound in 1972. By 1973 the new owner Michael Leather had failed to halt the slide and the receivers were called in. A new investor was found and the company was revived for a year before folding once again in 1974.

Many attempts were made to restart production over the next five years as the factory lay almost idle with all the pieces still in place if only the money was there. Despite numerous changes in ownership it never happened and Gilbern is now another name in the annals of British (Welsh) motoring history.