Gilbern GT1800 Traveled Three Continents & Settled in Australia
Written and photographed by Neil Rote
Owner: Neil Rote
Location: Pyramid Hill, Victoria, Australia
Year, Make, & Model: 1965 Gilbern GT1800
I’ve been a classic car nut from birth (or so it seems) and have owned many classic cars and motorcycles. I’m now 55, and still have some nice “choices” in the shed. One of my all-time favourites, however, is this 1965 Gilbern GT1800. It reminds me a lot of a Porsche 356B Super90 I owned a decade or so back, but I prefer this car.
Gilbern Sports Cars was a venture founded by Giles Smith and Bernard Friese (Gil…Bern) in Wales. The GT was their first model, and only 227 were produced between 1959 and 1967. This 1965 example, a GT1800, is chassis number 221. Gilberns all had a tubular steel spaceframe chassis, over which a full fibreglass body was stretched. The GT1800 (one of the last iterations of the GT) used MGB mechanicals (1800 engine, 4-speed 3-synchro gearbox, rear axle unit and front suspension and steering), but used coil springs and twin trailing arms and panhard rod to locate the rear axle.
This low-mileage and extremely original example has a fully-documented and interesting past. The original UK owner shipped the near-new car to Canada and drove it across that country before shipping to New Zealand (where he repeated the cross-country travel) before shipping to Australia aboard the Orcades, landing in Melbourne January, 31 1968. The car was then driven 3400km (2100 miles) across Australia to Perth (Western Australia), where the owner settled. The trip across the infamous Nullarbor Plain in the little Gilbern must have been quite an adventure in itself in 1968, as the road was not finally sealed until 1976.
This car was laid up in 1972 due to irritating fuel problems caused by rust from the mild steel petrol tank causing repeated carburettor flooding, and it lay, covered, in a garage for the next 30 years! It had only travelled about 70,000 fully documented miles.
A Perth R.A.C. mobile mechanic noticed the car in the garage in 2002, and after negotiating its purchase he gradually restored the car over the next decade, removing the fibreglass body from the spaceframe chassis and doing a full rebuild (with strengthening) of the original tube spaceframe, repainting the body in a shade very close to its original dark metallic grey, and refitting the original interior which was still in great condition. Needless to say the mild steel petrol tank was replaced with a brand new stainless steel tank. The original MGB 1800 engine was fully worked over, including porting and polishing the head, the installation of oversize valves and a 3/4 race profile camshaft, and a 45DCOE Weber carburetor.
The car was then advertised on eBay in the middle of 2012. I was looking specifically for a car that would give me the raw driving satisfaction of the Porsche 356, but with a much lower price tag, with mechanicals that were reliable and unlikely to break the bank, was rust-free, and which had some style and individuality. As a lifelong classic car tragic I had already known of Gilbern as a marque, and the Gilbern GT fit the bill perfectly!
I negotiated a purchase, despite having neither seen nor test-driven the car (which was 3400km away), and very nervously waited while it was trucked across Australia back to Melbourne (retracing a journey the car had done 45 years previously!)
Since its arrival I have further tweaked the tuning and many other detailed aspects, including sourcing, restoring and fitting an original heater which the original order and purchase documents show was optioned and fitted.
I am lucky to live in a quiet rural setting in northern Victoria (Australia), with plenty of wide open spaces and good—but quiet—roads, so get to drive the car every week or so, enjoying it as it should be driven, not stymied by city traffic. The car drives superbly, and is deceptively fast. I liken it to my motorcycles (classic BMW, Moto Guzzi and Norton) in the way every corner, every overtaking manoeuvre, every gear change, every mile is pure joy. The car feels great, with lovely feedback through the original wood-rimmed steering wheel, it sounds great with its highly-tuned MGB 1800 engine feeding a pair of original Lukey mufflers, and I think it looks great.
The total mileage today stands at about 77,000 miles.
Special mention must be made of the Gilbern Owners Club (based in England), which is a very dedicated and helpful band of hugely knowledgeable and passionate Gilbern owners and enthusiasts. They have been extremely helpful to me, even though I can only read of their regular runs and activities from the other side of the globe.