Gilbern was one of my favourite cars when I was younger – mainly because I was born and raised in Wales and this company was for a time, a local success.
Gilbern was one of a handful of cars manufactured at a time when many low volume manufacturers used glass fibre for the body shells. In the 1960s and 1970s there were many kit car builders in the UK and many moved to volume production. Gilbern was founded by Giles Smith and Bernard Friese, the Gil and Bern of Gilbern. They were based near Pontypridd in South Wales and Friese, a German engineer, had built a one-off special. Smith, the local butcher, wanted to build his own one-off and so the two got together to design and build one. The end result was so pretty that they decided to go into low volume production.
So in 1959, they built their first car in kit form – the GT, a 2+2 with either a 950cc Austin motor with a Shorrocks supercharger or a 1-litre Coventry Climax unit. The car was shipped mostly completed with the mechanical components to be added by the buyer. How would I describe a GT? They have a classic 1950s feel about them with a Bristol or Ferrari coupe look but the front has influences of the Austin 1300 saloon. The cars had a tubular chassis with a one piece body and most of the components came from the BMC family with later models in the eight year life of the car using 1.5, 1.6 and 1.8 litre MG sourced motors. In fact the larger engined version was renamed the GT1800 and about 280 were built during its life.
In 1966, Gilbern released a larger version called the Genie (see the featured image) with a 2.5 or 3-litre Ford motor with the steering and suspension from the MG range. The Genie was in production for just three years and 197 were built. Whilst looking for cash to continue production, Gilbern was bought by Ace Capital Holdings in 1968. Strangely, Ace made slot machines for casinos, so they were clearly looking to diversify into other manufacturing!
Ace was owned by the Collins family and after the take over, Smith left to be replaced by Mike Leather who had been recruited by Roger Collins. Roger’s father, Maurice was also involved with the company. Friese stayed on a little longer to get the replacement to the Genie out of the door (or should that be bottle). With the end of the run for the GT, GT1800 and the Genie, Gilbern launched their final model, the Invader in 1969. This model was another 2+2 coupe but was aimed further up the market with luxuries like electric windows. The Invader also used the 3-litre Ford V6 but with a higher tune and used components from the MGC. This was because the MGC had a heavier 6-cylinder motor than the MGB, which had a 1.8 litre 4 pot and the suspension was better suited to the Invader.
The Invader was updated to the Mk2 in 1970 and replaced the MGC components with Ford sourced items. Gilbern also developed an estate (wagon) version of the Invader that they launched at the same time as the coupe, similar in concept to the Reliant Scimitar. Production and sales continued however the company was being run at a loss, possibly due to the development of some prototypes that never made it to market. One was the T11, a mid-engined coupe with an Austin Maxi motor, very similar to the AC ME3000, that started its lengthy gestation around the same time.
In 1972, the price advantage of buying a component car was lost when the Government added a Value Added Tax (a form of GST) to the kits. Clearly it was a money grab by the Government but it damaged many businesses including Gilbern. Now buyers were wanting a complete car with a higher quality of build because there was no advantage in assembling it at home. The same year, the Collins family sold the company to Leather who was faced with a difficult situation. The cars were relatively expensive, which reduced their market and the 1973 Oil Crisis was looming that was going to have an impact on all higher value products.
The one way to continue a business when there are lots of external influences slowing the economy is to look inside and improve quality, processes and reduce the overheads and this is what Leather started to do. If you cannot afford to create a new product, then you need to improve the current one to keep sales happening. He struggled to find new investors and the company ceased operating in 1974. Sadly the company’s debt had accumulated over several years and they couldn’t get production numbers up to make a profit. It is possible that the Collins family knew that the business was failing when they sold it to Leather.
Several attempts have been made to resurrect the name with new designs but none have made it to market. Have a look at www.gilbernoc.co.ukfor the owners club.
Images sourced from Brightwells and Classic Car Intelligence.