Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg? Today’s rare treat is a Gilbern GT – rare in its homeland, and almost entirely unknown in North America. Gilbern was a Welsh manufacturer of small sports cars, based in the village of Llantwit Fardre outside of Cardiff.
Not too many cars have been made in Wales, but low-volume, fiberglass sports cars were all over the U.K. in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Gilbern GT was one of the nicest of them. The car came before the manufacturer, cooked up by Giles Smith and Bernard Friese in 1959.
Smith was a local butcher in Church Village (part of the community of Llantwit Fardre), and Friese, an ex-German POW who chose to stay in the U.K. after the war, an engineer and body man with fiberglass (“glass fibre” in the U.K.) skills.
Smith and Friese Build a Car
Smith wanted his own fiberglass special (Austin 7 and Ford Pop specials were extremely popular at the time), and the two built a car in a workshop behind (and above) the butchery.
They also designed their own spaceframe chassis; which set this car apart from the run-of-the-mill specials. The result looked good (a bit like a tiny Aston or Facel with a fastback) and drove well.
At the suggestion of local racer Peter Cottrell, they decided to put it into production – which meant a new building and a proper name – Gilbern is made from GILes Smith and BERNard Friese.
Originally powered by a (sometimes) supercharged BMC 948-cc A-series or a Coventry Climax 1098, the early Gilbern GT gave great performance even with these small powerplants, but eventually these gave way to MG B-series engines with more torque and power – this MKII GT is powered by an MGB 1800.
There was also a plan to build them with the Ford Corsair/Taunus V4, but that never happened. Always a low-volume car, only 280 GTs were made. Early Gilberns were “kit cars,” but GTs were supplied nearly finished and they were built to a very high standard.
As usual for such cars, Gilbern, like Marcos, Clan, Ginetta, and other makes in this vein, it was almost totally unknown outside the U.K., but a trio of GT’s were made for export to the U.S. in LHD form. A trio – as in three, of which this dark green example, restored in 2008, is one of two that’s roadworthy.
The GT was the first Gilbern but it wasn’t the last – the squared-off, Bertone-like Genie was introduced in 1966 and later evolved into the most famous Gilbern, the 1969-72 Invader (which rectified some early issues the Genie had displayed). Both Genie and Invader used Ford Essex V6 power.
Always short of cash, Smith and Friese sold the company to the ACE Group, led by Roger Collings, in 1968 but stayed on for awhile to run things – the fun gradually ebbed for both, and they’d both gone on to other jobs by the end of 1969.
Cars were built to order until 1968, when Smith and Friese sold the company. After their departure, the company changed hands several times but the Collings group ran dry of cash in the summer of 1973.
By then, tax changes had hurt kit cars and Gilbern had begun selling only fully-finished cars, which were not cheap to build in such low volumes – the Invader cost as much as an XJ6. A new investor got things started again that fall, but the company closed in March of 1974.
Jim H.’s excellent 1964 GT was featured here once before – but that was a long time ago, and it’s always a car worth revisiting. Since there aren’t any other Gilberns around in the U.S., Jim’s part of the local MG club.