Motoring: Marques of the Century - No.6: Gilbern

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Gosh, I don't think I've ever heard of Gilbern

Well, you should have done because this company made history by becoming the only manufacturer to design and build complete vehicles in Wales. They were located at Llantwit Fardre.

I suppose there was a Red Dragon badge on the bonnet...

Actually, there was, and I'm sure you'd also like to know that Gilbern is an amalgam of the founders' Christian names, Giles Smith and Bernard Friese. Smith was a Welsh car enthusiast and glass fibre specialist, Friese a German engineer.

What were the cars actually like?

Obviously they had glass fibre bodies and the first model in 1959, the GT, was a stylish two-door, four- seater coupe. It used parts from contemporary models. The Austin A35 donated its engine as well as front and rear suspension. An optional supercharger boosted the performance. Customers could have either a fully built or kit version. The Genie, 1966-69, used MGB suspension and Ford V6 engines; the Invader, 1969-74, continued the theme but with Ford Cortina parts.

Were they any good?

The designs were neat, the engineering principles sound and the build quality excellent. Many criticised them for their lack of refinement and sometimes questionable handling. However, Gilberns, with their large engines and lightweight bodies, were always quick. Even though the company was small they endeavoured to think big and in the early-Seventies produced an estate version of the Invader. The majority of cars were sold as part- assembled kits. Customers who did the remainder of the work escaped the requirement to pay purchase tax. In many ways the company's history was more colourful than the cars themselves.

Why? What happened?

In 1968 a Welsh company called Ace Holdings, the UK's largest slot-machine- maker, acquired Gilbern. They in turn were taken over a year later by Mecca who not only ran Bingo halls, but also the Miss World competition. In reality, Gilbern had become just a small part of a large conglomerate that had to turn in a profit. And that became difficult.

What killed Gilbern?

VAT. Survival was always a struggle. Although, by the end, production figures stood at around 600 for the GT, 280 Genies and 600 Invaders, VAT was the death knell. So, in effect, the EU is responsible for the demise of Wales's only true car maker.