Jonathan Brooks-Jones looks back at a German fibre-glass pioneer whose sports car became a household name in Wales
In 1959 Welsh butcher Giles Smith, and German ex-prisoner of war, Bernard Friese who has recently died, fired up the engine of the only truly Welsh sports car. Gilbern, which took its name from combining the two first names of its creators, made glass-fibre bodied coupes until 1973, when the introduction of VAT made component cars much less attractive. Originally sold as component cars, they later made the transition to selling them fully assembled.
Friese had joined the German army as a teenager. In 1944 the Allies captured him in the Netherlands and took him to a PoW camp in Kent. Whilst there he regularly jumped the fence, which led to him meeting his future wife, Betty, with whom he would stay married until they divorced in 1980. After the war he remained in Kent, where he married Betty, and worked for a coach-builder. There he gained experience of working with fibre-glass, which at the time was viewed as the new wonder-material – it was relatively cheap to use and did not rust. Friese had made the fibre-glass bodies for busses, fire-engines and Ford 8s and 10s.
In 1956 Friese decided to move to the south Wales valleys. He and his wife settled in Church Village, near Pontypridd, and it was here that Friese met Giles Smith, his local butcher. Smith had no experience of building cars. He simply wanted to take part in the trend popular among young men in the 1950s, of creating their own ‘specials’, exotic-looking roadsters based on cheap pre-war Ford 10s and Austin Sevens. This was the birth of the DIY car, of which today’s most common example is the Caterham 7. When the two met they discussed the possibility of making a one-off car from scratch.
The initial work was completed in an out-building behind the butcher’s shop. It was hardly built for the purpose, and a pear tree had to be cut down in order to get the first car out of the workshop. As work on the first car neared completion, well-known local amateur racing driver Peter Cottrell was invited to assess the car, which would become the Gilbern GT. He realised the car’s potential and the makers decided it was too good to be a one off, leading to the formation of Gilbern Sports Cars Ltd in 1959. They built three more cars behind the butcher’s shop (the second car built for Cottrell), before moving to bigger premises in Llantwit Fardre in 1961.
Gilbern GTs continued to be made from 1959 until 1967. The GT Mk 1 was initially available with either 948 cc Austin-Healey Sprite with an optional Shorrocks supercharger or Coventry Climax 1098 cc engines. In 1967 a new car, the Gilbern Genie, was put on sale, though production of the GT was temporarily stopped. Larger, and with a considerably more powerful engine in the form of the latest three-litre Ford V6, the Genie was seen as a more up-market model. However, it’s price tag of £2,400 left it vulnerable to cheaper competition.
In 1968 Gilbern was acquired by Ace Holdings, a company that made slot machines, and which had more money to invest in developing the cars and increasing numbers of staff from 20 to almost 60. However, this did not lead to an increase in productivity. According to the Gilbern Owner’s club, Gilbern suffered a loss each year after the Ace Holdings takeover. Smith left soon after the takeover, though Friese stayed on for another year.
Friese then went on to set up Morgan Marine, a company with over 360 staff supplying glass-fibre to the building trade. After his second marriage he moved to Thailand for fourteen years, but spent his last year at a hospice in Wales, where he died of cancer at the end of September, aged 82.
While the original Gilberns had a resemblance to the classic cars of the era, the last Gilbern to have had work started on it was the T11 Concept car, which had more in common with the Corvette Stingray or Ford GT40. Intended to be shown at the Geneva motor show in 1971, it was designed by Trevor Fiore (whose surname was originally Frost, but he adopted his mother’s Italian maiden name). Fiore also designed the Trident Clipper (1967) and Monteverdi Hai 450SS (1970). Work on the T11 was halted, and the company never completed it. However, the current owner of the T11 prototype spent nine years working on it, including much development work to the interior paneling, trim and doors.
While they are largely unknown to many of today’s generation, Gilbern cars by no means sank without a trace. They had many famous owners including the Prince of Wales and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
A recent tribute to the Gilbern came in 2009 in the form of a song by Cardiff band, The Keys. National Museum Wales’ Respond project saw Welsh musicians and songwriters working with curators from the seven museums to produce a musical response to the nation’s collections. The Keys wrote and recorded a song about the Gilbern GT, having seen one at the Nantgarw Collections Centre. The song can be downloaded here.
Over a thousand Gilberns were made, of which over 500 are still on the road.