Gilbern built composite sports cars in Wales 25 miles from where reborn TVR plans to do exactly the same. Colin Goodwin visits old and new in a Gilbern Invader
A millionaire electronics gaming entrepreneur is going to build a composite-bodied sports car in South Wales. No more unusual than a butcher and a German ex-prisoner of war doing exactly the same thing 60 years ago. The former you will have recognised as Les Edgar, the man behind TVR. Edgar hopes to be building the new Griffith in a factory in Ebbw Vale by the end of next year. Our butcher and PoW might not be so familiar, but you might recall the car company they founded: dragon-badged Gilbern.
We’re with Gareth Morgan outside his house in Pencoed, admiring his pair of Gilberns. One is a very rare Invader Mk2 estate and the other is an Invader Mk2 coupé. We’re going to take the coupé on a little tour and visit significant places in Gilbern history, beginning with the small butcher’s shop in Church Village, now a Lloyds Bank, where the story started in 1959. Then we’ll go to the village of Llantwit Fardre, to which Gilbern moved when it outgrew its original home. And once we’ve taken in all the Gilbern sites of interest, we’re going to head to Ebbw Vale and the Rassau Industrial Estate, where TVR’s factory is located. We’ll do a bit of snooping and see what progress is being made.
Morgan remembers seeing finished Gilberns leaving the factory on trailers when he was a kid. Perhaps he saw one of his own cars being delivered. I’ve always liked the Invader. Very clean and simple lines but quite aggressive and muscular.
The Invader’s £2600 price put it in direct competition with the Jaguar XJ6
But what about the butcher? Giles Smith, Church Village butcher, fancied one of the fibreglass-bodied specials that were popular in the 1950s. Smith had a chance meeting with a bloke called Bernard Friese, who’d been a PoW in England and had decided to stay rather than return to his native East Germany, which was now controlled by the Russians. Friese had worked for a coachbuilder and was experienced in glassfibre. He put Smith off the idea of building any of the current specials and between them they decided to build their own one-off. It turned out to be so good that the pair thought it would be a wasted opportunity to build only one. The first part of each of their first names was used to create ‘Gilbern’. The initial three or four cars were built out the back of the butcher’s shop in an outbuilding that had been the abattoir.
That car was the Gilbern GT. It had a glassfibre body and spaceframe chassis constructed out of square-section steel tube. Coventry Climax engines were used at first before a move to MG A engines and from them to the MG B’s 1800cc unit, with which the car became the GT1800. The initial plan was to sell the car as a kit, with the buyer supplying second-hand mechanical parts. The first efforts were a disaster so Smith and Friese decided to sell the GT as a component car, supplying brand-new parts, including engine and gearbox, which the owner would fit to the ready painted, trimmed and wired body.
In 1961, Gilbern moved to Llantwit Fardre, to the old Red Ash colliery, and manufacture of a new 2+2 model called the Genie was started in 1967. This was powered by Ford’s then new Essex V6. In 1969, the Genie got a modified chassis and interior and became known as the Invader. The Mk2 arrived in 1969 (it had a redesigned front chassis section) and the Mk3 made its debut in early 1973 with its wider track and wheel arches and now predominantly Ford-supplied running gear such as a Mk3 Cortina rear axle. You can spot the Mk2 because it has Triumph Stag door handles. The Mk3 is easy to tell apart from its predecessor because it has flared wheel arches.
Morgan’s car is a 1972 model. By the time it was built, the tax advantage that component and kit cars had benefited from had been removed. Never cheap cars, Gilberns had become worryingly expensive. The Invader’s original price was a little over £2600, which put it into direct competition with Jaguar’s XJ6.
Unsurprisingly, Gilbern had to do the best it could to make the Invader look the part. Morgan’s Invader has a walnut dashboard, which contains period Smiths instruments and an impressive number of switches, knobs and levers. Electric windows were fitted and these work spectacularly well on Morgan’s car.
But the real standout feature is the comedy driving position. “Giles Smith wasn’t a tall man,” explains Morgan. Clearly not. I thought I’d never drive a car with a worse driving position than an Alfa Romeo 75 but the Gilbern has proved that wrong. My knees are practically touching the underside of the dashboard and are splayed outwards. But most complaints are gone as soon as the 3.0-litre V6 fires up. The Essex is not the greatest engine ever (it’s hard to tune) but the torque is lovely and, together with the Invader’s overdrive attached to its Ford gearbox, it makes for very relaxed cruising.
Gilbern history began in a small butcher’s shop, now a Lloyds Bank
The old Gilbern works at Llantwit Fardre was split up after Gilbern finally closed down in March 1974. Smith and Friese had sold the company in April 1968 to an outfit called the ACE Group, which among other things manufactured slot machines. The building in which the bodies were built has gone completely but the rest of the works is still in place and occupied by various businesses, including a tyre fitters and a motor engineers run by a bloke called Peter Lyons.
Treasures lie behind the doors of this establishment. Lyons has a splendid collection of Gilberns that includes an old GT in wonderful restored condition, another that’s a work in progress and a couple of Invaders, one of which is competition prepared and looks fantastic. It looks to have a better seating position, too, thanks to a racing bucket seat and the lack of rear seats.
Lyons is in the process of moving stuff to the next-door unit. This big space is where Gilbern’s paintshop lived. We park Morgan’s car inside a building that it hasn’t seen inside for 46 years. I love industrial archeology, especially if it involves car or aircraft factories. The old Gilbern works is still very much a part of the community here. If you google ‘Gilbern and Llantwit Fardre’ you’ll find a brilliant project on the car company done by Llanilltud Faerdref primary school. The kids have assembled all of the production numbers, year by year, for all of the Gilbern models. It’s extremely impressive.
But we’re off to Ebbw Vale. Morgan’s Invader is running like a dream. There was a bit of grief with the clutch but Morgan carries a mighty toolkit in the car and topped up the clutch master cylinder with fluid and all was well. The car is surprisingly brisk and the ride supple.
The building that TVR is going to take over used to be the home of Techboard, a building products company that was to bring many jobs to the area when it opened in 1993. (It employed 200 people at the height of production.) At the time, it was the largest green-field site start-up the UK had ever seen. Now it is just another deserted factory, sheeting falling off, windows broken. The gates are chained shut and there are security notices. What there is no sight of is any work being done on the factory.
Clearly, Edgar’s prediction at the Griffith’s launch at the 2017 Goodwood Revival that the first cars will be built and on their way to customers by the end of 2019 will not happen. The Gilbern story is thought provoking, not least because the problems that faced a small car company in the 1960s and early 1970s are not so different from those that face TVR today. When Gilbern started, Smith and Friese had to buy their power units and gearbox over the counter from local dealers because the numbers were so small. Later, they bought direct from Ford just as TVR will be doing with the (Mustang) Coyote V8.
TVR hopefully won’t have an oil crisis to deal with as Gilbern did in the early 1970s but, like the Llantwit Fardre company, it will have to take on sophisticated competition. The Griffith will be facing more formidable opposition than the Invader had. Back then, you were as likely to encounter a sticky electric window on an XJ6 as you were on an Invader.
Smith and Friese stepped away from Gilbern because they thought that the new owners’ sales targets were too ambitious. Edgar’s plans to sell 2000 new TVRs a year is equally ambitious. I hope that the next time I visit Rassau Industrial Estate in Ebbw Vale, it will be to collect a new TVR Griffith test car. I’m not holding my breath. A
PHOTOGRAPHY LUC LACEY
WHY IT HAS GONE ALL QUIET AT TVR – FOR NOW
What’s happening at TVR? It has all gone deadly quiet. Since the official launch of the new Griffith at the Goodwood Revival in September 2017, we’ve had a news story in December announcing that the Griffith would be built in a factory in Ebbw Vale, in a building that was the former home of a company called Techboard.
Then in January this year, the Welsh government took a 3% stake in TVR (worth £500,000) and lent the company £2 million. Then there were a few announcements about a TVR-sponsored car at Le Mans and a story online that TVR chairman Les Edgar had bought a country club near his home in Surrey. And that’s it, apart from a few appearances by the sole Griffith at a few events.
So we rang Edgar for a catch-up. There’s no obvious official route to contacting TVR – no PR department or office phone number – so it required a bit of old-fashioned hackery to find a mobile number. Edgar is very approachable and straight. The obvious starter for 10 is what’s the score with the factory? Currently, it’s a run-down dilapidated unit fenced off and clearly not being worked on at all.
“It’s frustrating, that’s for sure,” said Edgar. “Under EU rules, the Welsh government has had to follow a seven-month tender process for the work to bring the building up to standard. At last, that period has run, and in January next year, the contract will be given to the winning company. From then, it’s going to take six months to get the building ready for us. We’ve asked if we can be allowed to carry out some of our own preparations alongside these works to save time.
“Obviously, the Griffith won’t be built on a line as such. Cars will be moved on dollies so actually fitting out for production won’t take long at all. I’m talking more about infrastructure.”
The talk at the launch last year was of the first production car coming off the ‘line’ at the end of 2019. Presumably, there’s going to be some delay between the work being awarded and the winning company actually starting work at the site, unless the tender goes to a building contractor that actually turns up when it says it will. Unlikely. Let’s give it two months, which, added to the six, gives us a completion date of August. Clearly, production will be delayed.
“It’s virtually impossible to give a date for delivery of the first customer car,” said Edgar, “until we know where we are with the factory. We could possibly start building cars in the smaller unit that will be handed over to us in March, which at the moment is intended as a training, test and prototype centre.”
As for the car itself, how is development going? “Well, we’ve got about 75% of the components sourced; certainly all the main parts of the car,” said Edgar. “There has been a hold-up because Ford’s new Coyote engine has meant that we’ve had significant extra work that’s really duplicating what’s already been done.”
Those with deposits on the first Griffiths – and there are about 500 of them – appear to be very patient if the lack of whinging on social media is an accurate gauge. Perhaps many of them have been through this before with TVR in the old days and have learnt how to play the waiting game. Edgar seems to be good at keeping them posted with updates, the latest of which contains footage of tyre testing at Castle Combe in the one and only Griffith. We suspect that plenty more patience is going to be needed, especially from those at the back end of the list.