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10th August 2015
The Real Welsh Dragon

It’s either a reflection of my age, or my association with a number of component (I dislike the term “kit”) cars during my early driving years, that I immediately recognised “Gilbern” when mentioned. I was slighted disappointed a number of the “younger” chaps in the ITG office hadn’t heard of them. The youth of today…

Chris Williams, owner of a rather splendid, late, Invader MkIII (pictured), approached ITG for an alternative to the Gilbern factory air filter arrangement. The narrow space available wouldn’t accommodate an off the shelf item, so Paul, our ITG development engineer custom made a filter specifically for Chris’ car.

We asked Chris: why a Gilbern?
“Well, having retired, wanting to buy a classic car, being Welsh and having seen Gilbern’s being driven around near to where I lived as a teenager (a few miles down the road from original factory), I could never consider anything else”.
“They original cost in 1973 was about £2500 (a similar price as a Jaguar XJ6) so it was really expensive and way out of my league. It’s only taken me 40 years to actually own one”…
And very nice it is too!

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Gilbern was one of the few truly Welsh car manufacturers, operating from a factory in Llantwit Fardre, in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales – the manufacturers name related to the unlikely partnership of “Gil” and “Bern” – Giles Smith (a master butcher living in Church Village) and a German engineer Bernard Friese – Gil Bern…

In 1959 Giles wanted a one-off special and Bern decided they should build a car from scratch. As the car was approaching completion, respected local racing driver Peter Cotrell came to inspect the car. It was decided it was too good to simply be a one–off and there was opportunity for production. It was named the Gilbern GT, with the initial work completed in an out building behind the butchers shop.

Autosport reported the car favourably after road-testing in May 1960.

The car was painted, wired and trimmed, but supplied in component form with only the engine, drivetrain, wheels, exhaust and a few trim items for the owner to fit.

In ’61 the business expanded to the site of the former Red Ash colliery, only a mile from Church Village. Giles and Bernard erected second hand pre-fabricated buildings on the site they had bought with a loan from Giles’ father. Gilbern used a part of the site, with the remainder let to tenants. Over the next few years production and staffing increased, modifications were made utilising first the MGA engine then the MGB (Gilbern 1800). They were accepted by the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) in 1965 and were subsequently allowed a stand at the London Motor Show. They were building one car per week with 20 staff.
The Gilbern Genie appeared in 1966 (noticeably different to the GT). A 2+2 Grand Tourer which was originally based around MGB mechanicals with a Healey 3000 rear axle, but powered by the new Ford Essex V6 engine.

Bernard and Giles were constantly short of money and unable to expand the business further to increase production. ACE Group took over in April 1968 (Ace Group are now best known for Mecca Bingo, but at the time were operators of one-arm bandits).
Ace Group elevated the work force to 60, expanded into the previously let nearby units but barely increased production. Since the ACE takeover losses continued annually.

The Genie was replaced by the Invader in 1969 using a re-designed chassis with bodywork and interior detail alterations; however issues occurred with bodywork stress cracks caused by the chassis alterations.

1970 saw the Invader II, featuring an improved front chassis design; appear alongside the MkII Invader estate, followed by the Invader MkIII in 1971. To attempt to simplify production the MkIII used mainly Ford mechanicals.
The tax benefit of supplying in kit form was lost with the introduction of VAT, applicable to component cars, which pushed the price of the turn-key car to that of the Jaguar XJ6…

In July ’72, the Collings family (owners of the Ace Group), were not prepared to continue supporting the losses and sold the business for £1 to Michael Leather. Debts increased and in July ’73 the receiver was called in. Other investors subsequently attempted to resume production but by March of ’74 Gilbern ceased trading.

A sad end to a well received Welsh car which remains loved today – the Gilbern Owners Club has 450 enthusiastic members who ensure the memorable Gilbern remains so.

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