Page last updated at 08:28 GMT, Saturday, 5 September 2009 09:28 UK

Gilberns' 50 years on the road

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales news

Gilbern owned by Gilbern Owner's Club organiser Gareth Morgan
The cars were initially built in a shed behind a butcher shop

Ever heard the one about the butcher, the German POW and the one-armed bandit?

Well for 14 years Gilbern cars, produced near Pontypridd, Rhondda Cynon Taf, were anything but a joke - as they put Wales on the automotive map for the first - and to date - only time.

This weekend the 350-strong Gilbern Owners Club is meeting back at the car's Church Village birthplace, to celebrate a uniquely Welsh birthday.

Over a pint 50 years ago this week, Giles Smith, a Church Village butcher, enlisted the help of Bernard Friese, an engineer and former German prisoner of war, to help him build a one-off sports car which would stand out from the MGs and Austins of the day.

The resultant 'Gilbern', incorporating both the founders' names, so impressed local racing driver Peter Cottrell that he urged Smith and Friese to put it into production.

"It was quick for the time, and 50 years later still takes me to the shops and work every day," said Steven Arnold, secretary of the Gilbern Owners Club, who inherited his father's 1960 Gilbern GT.

People who know about cars are jealous of you when you drive a Gilbern, and people who don't know what it is just stare at you at the lights
Steven Arnold, Gilbern Owners Club

He believes that the fact it is still running today is a testament to the dedication of the men who built it.

"It has a top speed of about 95, handles brilliantly, and does 0-60 in around 13 seconds," he said.

"Nowadays you'd expect that kind of performance from a Ford Fiesta, but it was quick at the time, and 50 years on it still takes me to the shops and work every day.

"People who know about cars are jealous of you when you drive a Gilbern, and people who don't know what it is just stare at you at the lights.

"I doubt there's many of today's cars that'll still be running in 50 years time, let alone one built by three or four blokes in a shed!"

And the Gilbern's first factory was indeed a shed, behind Giles Smith's butcher shop, where engines had to be lowered by pulley from a hay loft into the waiting fibreglass bodies below.

Archive footage of the Gilbern being made at its Welsh factory

A pear tree had to be cut down in the back garden to allow the finished cars to be wheeled out onto the street.

Such was the demand for the 950cc coupe that many of the early models were sold as unassembled kits, in an attempt to allow them to keep up with the growing waiting-list.

It soon became obvious that the butcher's shed was going to be insufficient, so Smith and Friese obtained a £700 loan to buy the site of the former Red Ash colliery, just a mile down the road in Llantwit Fardre.

Production rocketed from one car per week to as much as two or three.

'Bankers and celebrities'

It was here that Gareth Morgan, who owns a 1972 Invader model, first fell in love with the cars.

"As a boy, I could see them being driven through the town on the transporters, and they looked magnificent - so different to anything else around at the time," he said.

"Now and again, in the early days, you could sneak into the factory and watch the men working on them, though later on there were 50 or 60 people employed there, and it was a lot harder to watch them being built.

"It made the whole area proud to think that in Llantwit Fardre we were making something that all the doctors and solicitors and bankers and celebrities wanted to get their hands on!"

And the Gilbern certainly did have a celebrity following, with drivers including the Prince of Wales, Sir Antony Hopkins and Ms Marks, of Marks and Spencer fame.

Nowadays with the assembly there's no way that something as successful and prestigious for Wales as Gilbern was would ever be allowed to fold
Philip Ivimey, Gilbern Owners Club

At the height of the 60s Gilbern were turning out five or six cars a week, but still well short of the 20 per week needed to both satisfy demand and the bank managers.

Smith and Friese sold out to the Ace Group, now best known for Mecca Bingo, but at the time operators of one-arm bandits.

Whilst they provided the much-needed capital to develop new models, their lack of experience in the motor trade soon became an issue.

Even though the new Genie and Invader models of the late 60s and early 70s sold in even better numbers - boosted by their much more powerful three litre Ford engines - the Ace Group, and subsequent owners, could never produce cars in sufficient volumes to service the debts racked up in developing them.

'Fuel crisis'

In 1974, still with a full order book, the interest payments and impending fuel crisis prompted the banks to call in the receivers. Prematurely, according to Philip Ivimey, archivist of the Gilbern Owners Club.

"If you look at companies like Lotus and Morgan, you can see that the UK has a great tradition of cottage industry car manufacturing… Most of the Formula 1 and Indy Car vehicles are still engineered in this country," he said.

Giles Smith
At the height of the 60s Gilbern was turning out five or six cars a week

"Nowadays with the assembly there's no way that something as successful and prestigious for Wales as Gilbern was would ever be allowed to fold.

"But back then they just looked at a provincial engineering firm, with relatively few employees, and didn't see why they should help."

However, 50 years on since the first car rolled across the Church Village back garden, Gilbern may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten.

Around 15 cars are expected at this weekend's birthday party, where they will parade through the town to the site of the butcher's shop shed where it all began.

Worldwide it's estimated that over 700 of the 1,000 Gilberns produced are still in use or eminently repairable, a survival rate which can only be beaten by Aston Martin and Rolls Royce.

And if the credit crunch means that you have had to put the Aston or Roller on hold until next year, fear not - a reasonable condition Gilbern could still be yours for as little as £6,000.

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