Unicorns do exist. I ran into one yesterday. Unusually, it bore a dragon upon its nose.
Car manufacture is difficult, expensive and potentially ruinous, so if you’re going to embark upon it as a career, it’s probably best to carry out the exercise within proximity to others engaged in similar activity, for the purposes of logistics, not to mention access to the requisite know-how. But not everybody cleaves to the safety of numbers.
It’s tempting for the writer to stoop to cliché when one speaks of the harp-shaped hills and valleys of Wales, but moreso is the habitual expressions of surprise, tinged with latent snobbery uttered by auto journalists at the mere notion of a Welsh car manufacturer. The very idea. But why not there, as anywhere else?
Probably the only carmaker to emerge from Llantwit Fardre, in South Wales’ Rhondda Valley, Gilbern was founded in 1959 by Pontypridd master butcher, Giles Smith and German engineer, Bernard Friese, who was a former POW who remained in Britain after the war. Gilbern, (like Marcos for instance), being an amalgamation of both founder’s names.
What we’re looking at today is a genuine rarity – a mark one Gilbern Invader, built in 1969-70. Descended from the 1966 Genie model, it employed a tubular steel chassis of the carmaker’s own design, mated to suspension derived from the MGC – double wishbones, coaxial springs and telescopic, rather than lever arm dampers, while at the rear, a Panhard rod was added to the beam axle to aid lateral location.
While earlier Gilberns (GT and Genie) were variously powered by BMC’s A and B-Series units, the Invader was fitted exclusively with the Ford 3.0 litre Essex V6 with either four-speed manual (with overdrive) or three-speed automatic transmission.
Who was responsible for the Invader’s body styling seems to be unknown but the striking thing is how professional and well executed a piece of design it appears. Distinctly Italianate in character, it carries subtle inflections of Micholetti, perhaps shades of Pininfarina, but in particular, strong reflections of Giugiaro-era Bertone; especially Giorgetto’s 105-Series Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint. And yet, the Invader maintains a distinct character of its own.
It’s a handsome shape, well proportioned, with a distinct, airy glasshouse atop a compact, crisp and rather snug 2+2 GRP body. Gilberns were available during this period both as fully assembled or in semi-complete ‘component’ form, as a means of avoiding the swinging purchase tax at the time, a matter which tarred the carmaker with a less than savoury and rather unjustified ‘kit-car’ reputation.
The Invader was made in three distinct series’ before production ceased, with approximately 600 examples built in total. Life was tough for all small-scale carmakers by the early-’70s. By then Gilberns were only available fully assembled, with prices befitting those of a hand-built, specialist car. Overshadowed perhaps by the similarly powered, if more modish looking Reliant Scimitar GTE, and subject to poor management in its latter stages, the company faded out in 1974.
You’d live a long time without ever catching sight of any Gilbern (especially in this neck of the woods), but even by marque standards this one is a unicorn – there being only 78 Mark One Invaders built – heaven only knows how many remain. A tidy, unmolested example, one which wears its age with a distinct but honest patina, it left a strongly favourable impression upon this scribe, as did its enthusiast owner.
Which is probably just as well, given the likelihood of encountering another like it in the wild.