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

Classic Cars (UK) - - Life Cycle - Words: AN­DREW NOAKES Pic­tures: LAURENS PAR­SONS

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

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