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.
11 thoughts on “Welsh Invader”
I’ve met several down the years, but wouldn’t have known which of the three phases they were.
The Estate is also pleasing, and I once considered buying one.
They don’t resemble anything else so it’s pointless trying to find design ancestors. Michelotti if you must, as they’re angular, not rounded.
The wheels looked expensive Italian (Campagnolo?), but were sometimes replaced by Wolfraces.
Both cost and the slapdash amateur-assembled disasters killed them off. A pity.
Given the miniscule resources available to the company, the Invader is a remarkably accomplished and professionally executed design. Even the front and rear screens, (which must surely be from another mass-production car?) look perfectly integrated. It’s in areas such as this that bespoke cars often betray their “pick and mix” origins.
The Mk3 version looked especially pretty to my eyes, with its raised front bumper and shallower grille:
Today’s trivia question: can anyone identify the vehicle from which the front sidelight and indicator units in the photo above were sourced? The earlier models used MG 1300 units, but this one has me stumped.
I made a similar point to the owner of the car Daniel, and he stated that the screens were unique to the cars, meaning they are extremely difficult to find replacements for.
Personally, I prefer the earlier car’s more restrained styling. I feel the Mark 3 lost the delicacy of the original by the addition of the wheelarch extensions (a consequence of an increase in track width) and smaller diameter wheels. But matters of style are of course subjective.
The sidelights you mention are, I believe, sourced from the FWD Triumph 1300 model, by the way…
Hi Eóin. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity as to the provenance of the sidelamps. I knew I’d seen them before, but just couldn’t place them. The Triumph 1300 in its original form is a rare thing compared to the facelifted 1500/Toledo/Dolomite models that followed. Here it is,with those sidelamps:
Regarding the Invader, actually I agree about the wheelarches and, particularly, the smaller wheels. The earlier treatment of these elements is better. It’s just the front end of the later car I prefer.
Definitely agree on the mk3 version, it is unfortunate production never continued and featured more potent engines.
Just thinking further about the bespoke windscreen and rear glass. If a replacement windscreen is really impossible to find, a simple stone chip in the wrong place could write the car off, if it caused the car to fail its (Irish equivalent of) MOT test. Yikes!
Daniel: This is where being involved in the relevant one-make owners club becomes vital. They are after all an invaluable source of spares and expertise. However, this does not alter the fact that yes, a broken or cracked screen could be very difficult to replace. Of course there are firms who will make one from a pattern, but I expect these would be rather expensive as well. Isn’t this the sort of thing 3-D printing was supposed to revolutionise?
The spirit contained within all of those homebrew/tiny staff cars in Britain after WW2 is to be praised. I could be wrong, but it seems to me nowhere else were there so many small independent minded newly-minted manufacturers. Bristol, Allard, Lotus, Gordon-Keeble, Turner, Peerless, Lea Francis, Berkeley, Diva, Fairthorpe, Ginetta, Ogle, Elva, Lola (sort of), Marcos, TVR, Gilbern, Clan, Ariel, Panther. And Cosworth revolutionized engines.
Arnott and Lister always seemed more like offshoots than originals rather like Caterham and Westbrook. Healey and Cooper latched onto bigger manufacturers in various ways.
Jensen was just prewar and the old dog AC would likely have perished except for Shelby. Old timer Morgan personified the cap, tweed jacket and pipe brigade who put on raingear for pleasure and proper motoring from Edwardian times, but existing Alvis and Armstrong Siddeley issued ever less relevant bolides till nobody cared – they could have stood a pinch of forward thinking, but didn’t really even try.
I am also reminded of all those Austin Seven-based trials machines whose activities Motor Sport and Motoring News faithfully reported for years. That was peculiarly British stuff that the Americans who think only Jeeps can perform at climbing boulders know nothing of. Those trials machines climbed boulders hidden in deep mud to boot, at angles of attack beyond comprehension, the intrepid passenger leaning all over the place to help traction.
It’s a solid record. The way Britain became the home of Formula One chassis design is surely part of the history as well. Originality breaking through the everyday humdrum.
Alvis and Armstrongs both produced modern bodies, the TD 21 being a success, the 234 and 236 not at all.
The AC Ace was beautiful.
Bristol 400 was a copy of BMW’s 1930s/40s BMW 326 etc.
Leafs were also pre-war.
Coincidentally, Chater-Lea, maker of stainless steel cycle pedals in the 1950s, emailed me to say they’d remade them to extraordinarily high standards — at £250 a pair! The Lea, is, I believe, the same as in the Lea Francis.
The Gordon Keeble was as good-looking as the Gilbern — and much more expensive.
Most of the makers you list used the new glass-reinforced fibre body fabrication. Did no other countries have this possibility?
For trials an HRG is best. You will, of course, get very muddy yourself (and yr co-driver).
And Cosworth revolutionised mainly Ford engines.
Cooper did that for BMC, and Coventry Climax was the true revolution, with links into Formula Junior, F3, F2 and whatever.
And anyone with a friend on one of the big production lines could knock up an oxy-acetyline welded space frame to your own design (more or less), and it was up to you to finaigle a GRF body for it.
Those were the days… we thought they’d never end…
But the big boys learned a lot from our playground: Lotus Cortina, Mini-Cooper 1275S, Astra GTE etc.
Front and rear screens for all models are available – brand new from manufacturers – via the owners club