The life story of a Gilbern GT
Home-built from components by its first owner, this GT soon began a competition life that continues to this day – gaining a number of crude but characterful modifications along the way
Paul Scott buys the GT new in 1965 for £948
Late in the GT’S production run, in 1965, Cambridge University research physicist Dr Paul Scott bought AMJ 630C from Ace Motor Company in Kensington, Gilbern’s London dealer. As with all cars produced by the Welsh manufacturer, it was supplied in component form – the glassfibre shell was painted and trimmed at the factory, ready for Scott to fit the engine, transmission and Austin A35-based suspension to the steel tube chassis. Engines ranged from the 948cc BMC A-series to race-bred Coventry Climaxes, later joined by powerplants borrowed from the MGA and MGB.
Scott’s car was fitted with the latter, making it a Gilbern GT1800. It was originally painted grey and used as a road car before fate abruptly intervened.
‘The change to BMC Blaze Orange happened after an accident that demolished the nearside front suspension and chassis members,’ Scott remembers. ‘A child on a tricycle pedalled out in front of me on a dual carriageway and I had no alternative but to swerve, hitting a lamp post and causing a fair bit of damage.
‘I took it Arch Motors in Huntingdon, which made a good attempt at re-fabricating the relevant chassis tubes without removing any bodywork, but subsequently the wheelbase on the nearside was always an inch shorter than the offside.’
In 1968 Scott started to compete with AMJ 630C in sprints, hill climbs and circuit racing. Most notably he won the Gilbern Owners’ Club cup at the Wiscombe hill climb in 1972, setting a precedent for the car.
At one Wiscombe event Scott found himself and AMJ queueing for the start line behind a GT built by Bernard Grey of GS Cars, the Bristol Gilbern dealer.
‘The GS car had wheelarch flares copied from an idea introduced on a unique V8-engined GT that was built by the Gilbern factory for racer Ken Wilson,’ says Scott. ‘I was inspired to make a similar modification to AMJ, so I acquired a set of glassfibre bubble arches intended for a Group 4 Ford Escort MKI rally car and grafted them on to the Gilbern’s body. I then filled the wider arches with 7in-wide competition-spec wire wheels that were wrapped in 205-section tyres and retained by three-eared spinners.
‘I also reworked the geometry of the rear trailing arms, and wrote an article for the Gilbern club magazine detailing the modification. Further suspension improvements included stiffer springs and a larger ⅝in front anti-roll bar from an MGB, while I upgraded the engine from the original twin 1½in SU carburettors to twin 1¾in units and added a ZF limited-slip differential to the rear axle.
‘I think the Wiscombe outing that gave me most satisfaction was the wet one in 1975,’ Scott says. ‘I remember a rather lurid slide through the esses. The Gilbern had a very strong self-centring action on its steering, especially with wider rims and tyres, and the best way to return from opposite lock was to let go of the steering wheel and catch it again as it reached the appropriate angle.’
It was a technique that netted Scott another Wiscombe cup win that year. In 1976, with AMJ now wearing Dunlop CR82 racing tyres, he recorded his best-ever Wiscombe time of 53.88 seconds. ‘I invariably used lower pressures at the rear, partly reflecting the weight balance of the car but also to make it possible for me to partially unstick the back, if necessary,’ he says. ‘Although I used the CR82S for a number of circuit events, they gave a very hard ride and were not best suited to tracks like Wiscombe.’
Scott competed with the GT right up to 1990 and then switched his attention to a Lotus Elan.
Bev Fawkes buys it for a song in 1994
Bev Fawkes competed in a Gilbern Genie and Invader in the Eighties, and was involved with the Gilbern Owners’ Club. He went on to build Blue Thunder, a bright blue Reliant Scimitar GTE sprint/hill climb car powered by a 450bhp Cosworth GAA V6 engine. He also had a 3.0-litre Ford Capri race car and a Vauxhall Chevette HSR. In 1994 Fawkes bought AMJ from Scott.
‘I can’t remember what Paul wanted for it but it wasn’t much,’ he says. ‘It was my intention to remove the wheelarches and refinish the paintwork in a more acceptable colour but I was talked out of it by club members. I used the car for a limited number of sprints and hill climbs and it was fun to drive because it was relatively underpowered and required a smooth driving style to extract a good time.’
Clearly the chassis could handle more power, so not long into Fawkes’ ownership he removed the tired engine and transmission and fitted a straight-cut closeratio gearbox and a full-race B-series engine built by Cambridge Motorsport. A late MGB ‘18V’ engine was used as the basis because these engines have thicker webs around the main bearings for extra strength, and more metal around the cylinder head ports allowing greater scope for modification. With bigger valves, a scatter-pattern camshaft, roller rockers, a tubular exhaust manifold and a single Weber 48DCOE twinchoke carburettor the 1950cc four-cylinder motor developed around 145bhp.
‘I toyed with the idea of a crossflow cylinder head and twin Webers but the huge extra cost wasn’t justified for a small performance gain,’ he says. In 1994 he became the second owner to win the Wiscombe Gilbern cup in AMJ.
Fawkes often took the car to sprint and hillclimb events alongside the Blue Thunder Scimitar, sharing the driving with friends. ‘At one memorable Curborough event I entered three cars – AMJ, Blue Thunder and a full-race Reliant SE4 coupé I had acquired,’ says Fawkes. ‘I remember sitting on the start line and having to remind myself which car I was in!’
By the late Nineties the GT had seen 30 years of almost continuous competition in Scott’s and Fawkes’ hands and it was starting to show its age, but Fawkes had other projects keeping him busy. ‘By then the garage contained Blue Thunder and two Scimitar SE4 coupés – one was a full-race V6 and the other was going to be built up as a classic rally car,’ he remembers. ‘When I found that one of the coupés needed a new chassis I diverted the funds from AMJ to it. By now I was no longer involved with the Gilbern club and decided it was time to move the car on.’
Passed between enthusiasts 2000-2009
In 2000 Fawkes sold the car to university professor and Gilbern enthusiast Dr Terry Parker, who did some chassis repairs to ready it for more sprinting. But neither Parker nor the next owner from 2002, John Reeve, hung on to it for long. AMJ was taken on by Bruce Casey in 2004, a popular Gilbern club member, who had intended to restore it.
Brian Gent becomes the latest owner in 2009
Brian Gent bought the GT in 2009 after it had been standing for some time. ‘The window windows had dropped in and their rubbers had perished; it was full of water, the back was full of mustard and cress and the chassis was rotten,’ he remembers. The bonnet had acquired a couple of DIY ventilation louvres – pop-riveted on – and a coat of matt-black paint.
‘I knew it was bad but I didn’t quite realise how bad,’ says Gent. ‘It was then a long, slow process of restoring it. We rebuilt the chassis in situ, cutting out all the floors and bolting it to Club member Phil Ivimey’s jig so we could rebuild it from the inside.’ Gent discarded the sodden back seat, rotten carpets and ripped headlining and painted the interior black, making it not only lighter but much more practical too.
‘It’s easier to keep clean,’ Gent says. ‘When you go to Wiscombe on a rainy day everything gets covered in mud, so I can literally take the seats out and pressurewash it inside and out.’
‘I acquired a set of glassfibre bubble arches for a Group 4 rally Escort MKI and grafted them on to the Gilbern’s body’
Gent repaired the period vinyl bucket seats and fitted new competition harnesses. He used a standard three-bearing B-series engine while the race-spec engine was being rebuilt, ultimately achieving the same power output that it had years earlier with Bev Fawkes. ‘I replaced all the suspension and every bearing,’ Gent remembers. ‘I say to people that all the money I spent on it you can’t see.’
All the effort quickly proved worthwhile. ‘I got it back on the road in 2014 and did Wiscombe in it, and won first time out,’ Gent smiles. He won again the following year, and missed out on a hat-trick in 2016 by less than half a second. ‘Not that I take it seriously,’ he adds, unconvincingly. Still, AMJ now has an enviable record of five Wiscombe Cup wins in the hands of three different drivers; and a piece of Dymo tape with Paul Scott’s all-time Wiscombe Gilbern GT record of 53.88 seconds is stuck to the rev counter. Gent wonders if that record will ever be beaten. ‘Wiscombe then didn’t have all the trees hanging over the circuit. There are certain parts that are slippery even on a dry day because of the moss that grows in the shadows. Or maybe Paul Scott was just a better driver.’
The Gilbern has also seen competition action in Brighton and Jersey, and at Chateau Impney and Goodwood. ‘Because it’s so odd as a make, and it’s got so much history, if I put in an entry anywhere I’m 99% sure I’m going to get it,’ Gent says. ‘People want to see something different at these events.’
He switches axle ratios depending on the event. ‘I’ve got a 4.7:1 hill climb axle in it at the moment. You’re flat-out at about 70mph, but you get there quickly. For sprints I put in a 3.9. I seem to be forever laying under the back axle; I’ve got it down to a fine art now.’
Gent also owns the one-off V8 GT and a Genie that was built by the factory with a Weslake V6; both cars are in the midst of full restoration. AMJ, meanwhile, has been returned to full operation mechanically but Gent has no plans to improve its lived-in looks, which graphically illustrate the story of its half-century of almost constant competition use. ‘People always say it’s fantastic to see a racing car looking old,’ he says. ‘Anyway, there are plenty of shiny ones.’
‘Because it’s so odd as a make, if I put in an entry anywhere I’m 99% sure I’m going to get it’
Scott confidently slides AMJ through Silverstone’s high-speed Copse corner in 1968
AMJ 630C narrowly escaped a full cosmetic restoration in the Nineties
The interior has been repaired and prepared for cleaning with a jetwash
Gent plans to carry on adding to the GT’S hardearned competition patina