Wales, the land of dragons, coal mining, the language with the least vowels and home to a rugby team that occasionally has every Springbok rugby fan biting their nails (in a 32 match playing history there has been one draw, Wales has won 3 and SA 28). But there’s more to this country. It’s where the mythical King Arthur hails from, where mathematician Robert Recorde invented the equal sign, where lawn tennis started and where German immigrants set up Britain’s first brewery. And then there’s the Welsh motor manufacturer Gilbern. Never heard of it? Stuart Grant tracks down one of only two known Gilberns to have made it to the tip of Africa – an Invader Mk3.
This Dragon’s tale begins in the mid-1950s when Giles Smith, a Welsh butcher, got together with German engineer Bernard Friese. Smith had wanted his own fibreglass sportscar and by chance met Friese, a POW who’d stayed on in Kent after the war. While working as a coachbuilder, Friese developed skills with the new fibreglass technology.
He had his own fibreglass special at the time and the pair used this as a base to build Smith a car. With the project nearing completion local race driver Peter Cottrell was asked for his opinion on the car, with the conclusion being that it was too good to just be a one-off and held potential in the sales department. The pair joined not only forces but also the first few letters of their names to form Gilbern Sports Cars, and set in motion building and marketing what would become the Gilbern GT.
Home base for the project was initially behind the butchery and the bodywork had to be winched down from the first floor to complete the build. A pear tree was then sacrificed to get the finished car out the yard and onto the road. <<<Autocar>>> tested the first unit in May 1960 and reports were positive. Cottrell ordered the second car, which like the third and fourth units, was built behind the butcher shop.
With these cars making use of mostly Austin A35 mechanicals, it was originally planned that Gilbern GTs would be sold as basic body and chassis kits with buyers then sourcing their own running gear. With this opening the doors up to some below-par workmanship and part selection, the decision was quickly changed to see the cars supplied with all-new parts in component form. With the body painted, wired and trimmed all an owner had to do was fit the engine, gearbox, back axle, wheels, exhaust system and minor trim bits. A job that was said to be possible in a weekend and even better, it meant that the owner could avoid the purchase tax of between 45% and 49% levelled at complete cars.
With space fast becoming an issue, in 1961 Smith borrowed money from his father, bought what was the old Red Ash Colliery and dumped a bunch of second-hand prefabricated buildings on the site. A few of these units became the Gilbern factory, while the majority were rented out to other businesses to help the cashflow. With half a dozen employees working, including the hands-on Smith and Friese, the production rate measured in at a single unit per month. Powertrains evolved with the times, moving from the popular A-series and Coventry-Climax options to MGA 1600cc (<<<The Motor magazine>>> tested one in 1961, recording a top speed of 94.3mph (151.8km/h) and 0-60mph (97 km/h) in 13.8 seconds) and then to MGB 1800cc – in this guise the vehicle became the Gilbern GT1800.
Staff complement increased to 20 and production ramped up to a car a week. The American market was considered, with a trio of left-hand drive examples going stateside, but real focus was on local consumption.
Not wanting to stagnate, Smith and Friese worked on a new model in 1966. Badged as Genie, this was on a totally different tack to that of the GT. The Gilbern was no longer a small GT, but rather a larger 2+2 Gran Tourer. Ford offered the use of its V4 and V6 engines but the V4 Gilbern felt underpowered so units built to this spec reverted back to MGB lumps and ran alongside the top model Ford V6 versions (initially in either 2.5- or 3-litre format but the smaller version fell away in 1968). The chassis was an in-house design but mechanicals were for the most part MGB – some did however replace the MG rear axle with an Austin Healey 3000 item.
Money was tight though and Gilbern, fearing the need for large loans, couldn’t afford to expand, so production became one of cars being built as select dealerships took in orders.
In 1968 the ACE Group, best known for its one-arm bandit slot machine business, took control of Gilbern. Initially both Smith and Friese stayed on as directors but Smith left shortly after the changeup. Friese stayed on another year to help further develop the Genie and its upcoming replacement, the Invader MkI.
The Invader MkI that replaced the Genie in July 1969 saw a revised chassis and numerous body styling changes. Although based on the Genie’s space frame design the Invader MkI chassis changes resulted in too much flexibility and led to stress cracks up front. Suspension came from the MGC, but the front lever dampers were replaced with double wishbones, coil springs and shocks. The rear made use of a fixed beam axle and rear trailing arms. Again Ford’s 3-litre V6 engine was chosen, good for 141bhp at 4750rpm, powering the back wheels via a 4-speed manual or 3-speed auto gearbox on to a top speed of 115mph (185km/h). Servo-assisted brakes (discs at the front and drums at the rear) as well as rack-and-pinion steering were also added.
In the styling department the fibreglass body, which was bonded to the chassis, had much in common with the Genie but saw the fitment of a new bonnet and grille, a redesigned boot and the addition of rear roof pillar vents. Triumph Stag door handles were added and Ford Escort taillights were fitted to keep it contemporary, but Gilbern opted to stick with its own alloy wheels.
In a clear move to hit the luxury market high back seats, walnut veneer dash insert, electric windows and high-end radio (complete with automatically-retracting aerial) were fitted.
Six months after launching the Invader Gilbern unveiled the Mk2 version. In response to the negative feedback it saw an improved chassis design with modified suspension location, and a Watts linkage replaced the previous Panhard rod setup. And with extra cash from the investors and a larger workforce, Gilbern also released a station wagon version known as the Invader Estate.
These same investors can largely be credited with bringing about the Invader Mk3 in September 1972. A brief to rationalise production and simplify supply chain complexity meant that Ford would supply the majority of components. The Gilbern alloys were dropped in favour of 13-inch Ford ones, the Essex V6 provided the go, a Ford Zodiac 4-speed manual (with optional overdrive) was employed and both suspension and rear axle came from the Mk3 Cortina. This new axle meant a wider track and resulted in spats being added to the Gilbern’s wheel arches. The front windscreen was carried over from the Mk2 but a new bonnet, grille and fog lights incorporated into the front valance were added.
The chassis saw some more work, being significantly stiffened by the addition of diagonal braces in the ladder section, and to help export sales a symmetrical gearbox tunnel was added to allow for easy conversion to left-hand drive. Nine left-hand Mk3s were sold. Unlike the Mk1 and Mk2 no Mk3 Invaders were ever sold as complete cars and therefore didn’t benefit from being a ‘kit’ in the eyes of the taxman.
The Mk3 Invader performed admirably with a top speed of 120mph (193km/h), a zero to 60mph (96km/h) sprint of 8.8 seconds making it a viable alternative to the other British cottage industry Gran Tourers of the day like the Marcos GT, Reliant Scimitar GTE, TVR Tuscan and Lotus Europa.
With ACE Group’s other businesses funding Gilbern the owners decided to pull out in 1972 and sold Gilbern to Michael Leather for £1. Under Michael Leather’s control, outside consultants were brought in to improve quality control, time management and running costs and Roger Salway was also brought in as a partner. Hard as they tried, though, the business wasn’t viable and the company’s debts had reached £90 000 in July 1973. Salway left and the business went into receivership, halting production. That September new investor Anthony M. Peters joined in with Michael Leather and proposed an investment of £750 000 over the following five years, and production resumed. The last ditch effort failed and by March of 1974 Gilbern stopped trading. There could well have been another sting in the Dragon’s tale, with numerous plans to fire up production surfacing over the years, but nothing has ever come of any of them.
During its lifetime Gilbern churned out 606 Invaders. Of these, 78 were Mk1 versions, 316 were Mk2 (104 Estates) and 212 were Mk3s. Owning any one of these Welsh rare bits of motoring history is an honour.
GILBERN INVADER MK3 SPECIFICATION
Engine: Ford Essex V6 OHV
Fuel system: 38 Weber
Max Power: 141bhp @ 4750rpm
Max Torque: 160Nm @ 3000rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual with optional overdrive
Brakes: Servo assisted. Front disc/Rear drum
Kerb mass: 903kg
Max speed: 193km/h
0-60mph 8.8 seconds