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In ’50s Britain, the arrival of glassfibre technology fuelled the craze for building Specials.
It seemed that almost anybody who could wield a spanner might wake up one morning and decide to make a sports car.
Many did, with varying levels of ambition and degrees of success.
Gilbern, still the only commercially produced all-Welsh marque, built approximately 1000 vehicles over 15 years, so has to be counted as a qualified success. Yet ambitions were not sky-high, at least at first.
Bernard Frieze, the German former prisoner of war who founded Gilbern Sports Cars with Welsh butcher Giles Smith in 1959, was not a driven character in the mould of Colin Chapman or Jem Marsh.
In the beginning, he only wanted to create a versatile, one-off car for his own use, something he could drive on the road all week then sprint, hillclimb or race at the weekend.
Though superior in conception and quality to many of its homespun ilk, his little coupé – the first of 200 BMC-engined Gilbern GTs – was never intended as an uncompromising work of Lotus-style lightweight engineering genius, much less a futuristic ‘racing car for the road’ design in the Marcos tradition.
Others, principally his business partner Smith and racing driver Peter Cottrell (who bought the second example) recognised the commercial potential in the 1959 GT.
It established the concept of a handsome, unstressed, high-quality glassfibre bodyshell riveted to a square-section, steel-tube chassis and moulded mainly in one piece to achieve the best-possible panel gaps.
With a well-located live rear axle and using a variety of BMC components for the engine and drivetrain, the Gilbern found its niche quickly, while self-assembly naturally avoided the prevailing government’s Purchase Tax.
But the cars that really defined most people’s idea – if they have one at all – of what a Gilbern is, were the Genie and Invader of 1966-’74.
The move upmarket with these six-pot, 120mph Gilberns was driven by several factors, not least BMC’s reluctance to supply the tiny Welsh factory in the Rhondda Valley with parts at wholesale prices.
But it was also the introduction of the Ford ‘Essex’ V6 engine in 1966 that consolidated Gilbern’s thinking for the future.
Here was a compact (if not especially light), mass-produced 136bhp engine that would begin to free Gilbern of its ties to the unhelpful BMC and give the cars, built at a former colliery site in Llantwit Fardre, real GT performance.
As newly accepted members of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and thus no longer banished to the darker recesses of the Olympia Racing Car Show, the Genie marked Gilbern’s first Earls Court appearance in 1966.
The unpretentiously styled new car was slightly longer and heavier than the GT and, unlike most of its ‘specialist’ rivals, had genuine rear seats.
You could choose 2.5- or 3-litre Ford engines, although the smaller one was soon phased out due to a lack of interest.
Freer-flowing exhaust manifolds released an extra 5bhp and, along with a remote oil filter, made the Weber 40DFA-fed V6 an easier fit.
For £1425 in kit form, Gilbern claimed breezily that the Genie was a weekend’s work to assemble.
Having arrived at your garage door as a painted and glazed shell, DiY buyers were expected to bolt in the engine, gearbox, rear axle, steering rack and most of the vinyl-trimmed interior, while saving a hefty £460.
Many did, and were invited to bring their cars back to the factory for a safety check and free first service.
Whether factory- or home-built, you got a muscular, carefully thought out and well-equipped 120mph car with rarities such as hazard lights, reclining seats, an electric engine fan, a fire extinguisher, adjustable rear dampers and twin fuel tanks (from the Triumph Herald) with a reserve tap.
Options included Vauxhall Viscount-sourced electric windows and a ZF limited-slip diff to reduce the wheelspin that was an inevitable result of putting 181lb ft of torque through the rear axle of a 2000lb car.
Overdrive was popular, giving a loping 27mph/1000rpm in top and easy 100mph cruising.
Under the skin, the formula was much the same as the GT, with MGB front suspension and disc/drum brakes (with no servo, but dual circuits).
The first 40 examples all had wire wheels, mainly because the early Genies kept an Austin-Healey rear axle.
When production moved to an MGC rear end – still with Gilbern’s Watt linkage and trailing arms – the factory started using its very own design of alloy wheel, allegedly a motor-industry first.
The short-lived option of a Tecalemit-Jackson constant-flow injection system boosted power to 165bhp, but it proved unreliable and was quickly dropped.
Well reviewed by the press – and surprisingly slickly marketed for a manufacturer with only four dealers – Genie production ran to just under 200 cars and went through to the end of the ’60s at a rate of between 20 and 50 a year, built by a 20-man workforce of mainly ex-coal miners.
Behind the scenes, Frieze and Smith sold out to Ace Capital Holdings Ltd in 1968, although the former stayed on for a time as an advisor.
Ace, a slot-machine manufacturer looking to expand its interests, injected £100,000 into the company, brought in additional staff and had ambitions of upping production to a heady one-Genie-per-day, still made to order.
The 1969 Invader’s arrival hardly warranted the change of name, although the chassis had been beefed up and the front end featured kingpins and brakes from the MGC.
The main external differences associated with the change of name – flush-fitting doorhandles and smaller, less bulbous tail-lights (also used on certain milkfloats) – were not fitted at first.
Alloy wheels had become a universal fitment, although wires were still theoretically available.
The key changes came inside with a restyled, padded and wood-veneered dashboard, ‘safety’ steering wheel, two-speed wipers and a map light.
Although by then facing the challenge of the Ford Capri 3000GT (which was £500 cheaper than even the kit-supplied Invader), new boss Michael Leather claimed that Gilbern could not keep up with demand, boasting of a 10-month waiting list for cars.
When the MkII Invader was launched in 1971, sales remained buoyant – at six cars a week – if somewhat hobbled by the fact that the factory only had one body mould.
You can spot a MkII by its Triumph Stag doorhandles and reversed bonnet vent.
Inside, electric windows were standardised, while the engine was moved back in a further stiffened chassis to improve the handling.
Of the 300 or so MkII Invaders built, 100 were estates, Gilbern’s riposte to the wildly successful Reliant Scimitar GTE.
For an additional £150 you got folding rear seats and a large, lift-up tailgate.
In many ways the 1972 MkIII, with its wide grille, smaller wheels and flared wheelarches, was the biggest departure from the original V6 Gilbern concept, having far less in common with its predecessor than the Genie had with the early Invaders.
The main thought behind the changes was to move to Ford-sourced components almost entirely, so as to streamline the production process and try to build a more competitively priced car in the face of the new flat-rate 10% VAT legislation, which replaced the old Purchase Tax and meant there was no longer a tax break on self-assembly.
So the MkIII was factory-built only and there would be no estate cars.
At the rear, a Cortina 2000E estate rear axle replaced the MGC type. Because it was four inches wider than before, this meant flaring the arches to accommodate the wheels – 13in steels from the contemporary Cortina with smaller brakes, but now boosted by a servo.
The rear lights were Mk1 Escort-sourced, the steering rack was from the latest Cortina and the MkIII pandered to current fashions by offering a vinyl roof, while the aged lever-arm dampers disappeared.
By then with a network of 27 dealers, the MkIII generated 220 sales – quite respectable numbers given that it was in production for not much more than a year.
Thirsty specialist cars were struggling in 1973 – especially when you could buy a Jaguar XJ6 for the same money – yet Gilbern had such a hardcore of loyal buyers that it might have weathered the oil crisis years had the company itself been on a sounder footing.
There were schemes to market the cars in Europe, America and even the Middle East, but plans for new models – a long-wheelbase Invader and the Maxi-based, mid-engined T11 – were just pipe dreams in the face of rising debts and looming receivership.
There were still full order books for the MkIII but, when new investment failed to materialise, the banks could be held off no longer; production ended in March 1974.
Gilberns have always been club-friendly, enthusiast machines (the club was set up in 1969), lending themselves to the sort of tweaks and modifications that suit the whims of keen owners; those who want to use their cars on the road and in competition rather than obsess over originality.
So while the overall survival rate is impressive, original-looking V6 Gilberns – more or less representative of what was bought in period – are few and far between.
With that in mind, club chairman Brian Gent helped us assemble – in their native South Wales – the group pictured here.
Along with Gent’s white MkI Invader are Wynne Jones’ bright-red Genie, Gareth Francombe’s MkII Invader Estate and the silver MkIII of Mark Jones, proprietor of Gilbern and glassfibre specialist Sporting Classic Marques, based in Carmarthenshire.
Looking at the Genie and the MkI, it suddenly struck me that, as well as having something of the Alfa Romeo 105-series Bertone coupé about it, this four-square, unassuming shape’s true inspiration was probably Vignale’s Maserati Sebring.
The estate looks good from the back, but less happy from the side due to the clumsy, drooping line of the side windows.
There is at least one privately converted Genie estate that uses a more regularly fashioned straight-through sheet of glass that is much more happily resolved.
Even so, as a high-speed GT wagon, the Invader Estate definitely has an appeal, and pairs well with Francombe’s Elan +2, which he thinks is prettier but not so nice to drive as the Invader.
The MkIII was not Gilbern’s finest hour visually, having something of the feel of an ageing uncle dressing too young in brown flares after the simple, trim 1960s elegance of the ‘big wheel’ Genie/Invader models.
The detailing of the Genie, with its wire wheels and simple leather/cloth dash layout, makes it marginally the more appealing of the early cars.
Owner Jones, who first caught the Gilbern bug as a youngster in the late ’60s when he helped a friend assemble a Genie kit, agrees, pointing out the neatly trimmed door bins, the original, leather-trimmed, alloy-spoked sports wheel and the handsome array of chrome-ringed Smiths instruments that continue the Maserati-inspired theme.
The wood-veneered MkI and MkII Invaders are much of a muchness inside (all versions have Jensen-like, deeply sculpted individual rear seats), but the MkIII of Mark Jones moves the luxury game on with a padded centre console, matt-black instrument bezels and safety-inspired rocker switches rather than pointy toggles.
As far as driving them goes, the Genie, the early 15in-wheel Invaders and the MkIII all leave you with an impression of compact, lazy muscle that makes fussy gear play and high revving unnecessary, accompanied by an offbeat, throaty V6 burble, lusty pick-up and urgent throttle response.
Good vision past skinny roof pillars is common to all, as is decent wind- and road-noise suppression.
The MkIII, with its lower driving position in high-backed ‘sports’ seats and chunky steering wheel, adds to these virtues with a subtly more refined drivetrain and ride, although none of the Gilberns, despite limited suspension travel, were the expected filling-rattlers along the smooth sections of Welsh A40 on which I tried them.
The flared-arch MkIII has a conventional gearlever rather than the trademark cranked-forward appendage in the earlier models – these instil visions of a hefty, delivery-van shift.
In fact, it has a neater, slicker action than you would expect and – after some minor negotiations over your first third-to-second downchange – you really don’t think about it again.
Most of the time you can simply miss gears out, with hardly any effect on the rate of progress, or just play tunes with the overdrive that works on third and top.
This, combined with the flexibility of the V6, tends to disguise the curiously spaced, Zodiac-inspired ratios, with first and second too close and then a big gap between second and third.
You don’t quite expect such compact cars to have such heavy steering – the MkIII’s is a touch lighter – but it’s a fair pay-off for the high-geared directness that allows the Gilberns to carry speed through curves neatly against modest understeer and strong castor return.
Smooth torque, nifty throttle response and faithfully accurate helms combine with a hard-to-define, seat-of-the pants feel that promises forgiving on-the-limit characteristics and all-round happy endings.
We tend to group all the Ford V6-engined glassfibre specialist sports cars of the late ’60s onwards together, but they are not quite such a homogenous group as you might think.
In some ways, Gilberns resist attempts at labelling.
With four seats and a three-box, saloon-like profile, can a Genie or an Invader really be considered a sports car? Probably not.
But neither does its appeal chime with the image of suave sophistication – Euro or otherwise – that the letters ‘GT’ tend to conjure, although it goes better than many of that ilk: you can spend quite a lot of money to get a four-seater ’70s coupé with better acceleration than a V6 Gilbern.
There is some merit in invoking the memory of Allard when speaking of these small, big-engined, competition-inclined mongrels.
Their air of rugged individualism almost tempts me to think of them as a kind of Welsh species of Bristol, even if the disparity in detail refinement, and use of materials, is too large to allow that
to stick for long.
The truth is that the Gilbern Genie and Invader, perhaps more fun and easier to own than all of the above, just are what they are.
That should be good enough.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: the owners and Brian Gent, the Gilbern Owners’ Club Ltd
Gilbern Genie & Invader
- Sold/number built 1966-’74/803
- Construction glassfibre body, steel chassis
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2994cc V6, Weber carburettor or fuel injection
- Max power 141bhp @ 4750rpm (injection 165bhp)
- Max torque 181Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual overdrive, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms, Panhard rod; coils, lever-arm/telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 13ft 3¼in (4039mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
- Height 4ft 3½-4in (1308-1321mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 8½in (2356mm)
- Weight 1990-2380Ib (903-1080kg)
- 0-60mph 8.6 secs
- Top speed 120mph
- Mpg 18-22
- Price new £2046 (1966), £2657 (1974)
- Price now £15-20,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication