Thursday, February 7, 2013

Prototype re-building the Gilbern T11: Interview

Gordon Johnston got in touch via the Facebook page asking if I would like to feature his car, after seeing his profile picture and a quick Google the answer was a resounding "YES".

First off a little history about the car. Gordon gave me a full rundown of the cars production/history through and beyond Gilbern-

"In 1969 Gilbern started to get drawings and plans prepared at the factory for a new car, they got designer Trevor Fiore (who designs include the Trident Venturer and Clipper, Monteverdi 450 SS, Citroen Karin, and still designs car for Citro├źn) to come up with the design for the body, he even made the clay model himself.
Work started in 1970 and got as far as a motorised chassis that they actually drove on the lanes around the factory. I've actually spoken to the guy who was an engineer at the factory at the time who drove round with his toolbox in the passenger seat and made adjustment on the road.

 A hack chassis was first produced with a modified Genie body G clamped to it was tested around Castle Combe, Gilbern employed well known race car driver at the time Terry Sanger to evaluate the car. He had past form as an evaluation driver for police cars. He came back with a list of necessary adjustment such as the mounting points of the wishbone needed changing, the steering racks position also needed changing etc Gilbern made the requested changes and Terry took the car out again and found it handled far better, in fact with the tuned 1500cc Maxi engine he got it to over 100mph.

Once the modifications had been made a further 3 production chassis’s, 01, 02 and 03 were built. The actually chassis I’ve got it 02. I believe the other 2 and the hack chassis were cut up.

Unfortunately at the time Gilbern were trying to develop the Mk1 Invader as well as running out the Genie and with development money running short, after an estimated £65-75000, they decided that enough was enough and put the T11 in the corner of the workshop and left it there!!!!

After all it was still in development so still needed more money spending on it solving problems that weren’t apparent at this stage. Who knows if it would have sold, it was such a departure from the traditional styling which may have pushed away existing customers who may have found it too radical.

The Managing Director got to find out that it had just been left there and he took it home to his farm along with all the spares and left it there for 3 years or so. In the late 70’s/early 80’s he gave it to the owners club along with £200 to help them develop something. They did a bit of work on it and got it running after rebuilding the engine over the next 2-3 years. But then they’d had enough of it in the end as the 2 guys who were doing it were despondent as no one else was helping. It was then sold to a guy who lived at the time somewhere on Salisbury Plain, he did some more work on it and cobbled together the remains of the original bodyshell which was in a terrible state, patched it up with filler and fibreglass and made a mould from that which he still owns to this day. Then the blue bodyshell you see on the Gilbern Owners Club website, is the body taken from the mould he made."

So how did you find out about this car?

"I'd previously bought a Gilbern Mk2 Invader, through the Gilbern Owners Club of which I’m a member. The guy who I bought it off up in York had a load of old club magazines which he included in the sale. Amongst all the old copies was a picture of this very low, rear engined car and I tried to find out more about, but not many people knew anyting. I finally tracked it down after a year or two of searching, the guy who had it at that point was down in Dorset and he’d had it for a few years and had done relatively nothing to it and I said to him do you want to sell it? He umm’d and arr’d and eventually agreed on a price and he brought it up from Dorset to Kent here for me. "

What condition was the car in when you got it?

"It was just a chassis and engine plonked in it not connected up, it wasn’t even the right engine for the vehicle, the body was just placed on and that body was probably something like 30 years old it was badly delaminated so not only was it a fire risk but structurally is couldn’t be used. It was still the original replacement body mentioned earlier"

It must have been a daunting task when it arrived at yours, what was needed to get this back on the road over the 9 year restoration?

“The blue one was what I ended up with, having said that after 30 years it wasn’t very good. The guy who made the replacement body in its past actually still had the original mould he made in a lock up near Swansea. That took some investigating, eventually I persuaded him to get a body shell made from his moulds. He wouldn’t let me borrow the, because he said I may take another body shell from it and there might be 2 of them. I thought to me self you had them all these years and done nothing with them what would it matter. By that time there was only one chassis anyway!!!

When i got the body back all I had was a body shell it had no doors cut in it, but it did have the apertures for the windows, 2 side windows and the rear engine compartment cover. But there was no bonnet section cut or door sections cut.

It was just a slab sided body and that’s all there was, but you could actually see the lines on the body shell, it was almost an negative print form inside the mould from where the doors were originally going to be cut. So we followed those lines, after the body was fitted and bonded to the chassis. We then cut the door apertures out, but when we did that we noticed because there was so much strength in the side of the vehicle once the panels were cut, the rear body shell actually dropped by nearly 4" so we had to make a separate framework to support the rear body, I think out of 1/2" square tube, attached to the base of the chassis at the back and under the rear lip of what would effectively be the boot area. Once that was done it made it rigid and we proceeded to make doors, everything had to be made by hand.”

So are the doors are they steel?

“Their fibreglass, I did have some plexiglass templates for the side windows which i sent to a company up in the north that actually modified them to have sliding windows in like the La Mans racing cars with little slider, they were then bonded into the frame. The windscreen is bonded in as well. I had some of the body work modified so it could be used on the road as well by Raw Stryker who makes the Stryker kit cars down in Hereford. When I got that back it needed a wiring loom made, full set of instruments and a dash, all hand made.

The chassis was stripped down to bear metal and given a good coating of red lead to preserve it while I sorted all the other bits and source parts. I had to make all the suspension parts and wishbones because the original ones were so rusty and rotten"

You were virtually building something more involved that say a kit car at the time as so many part had to be manufactured specifically and bespoke for car?

“Everything was made and thought about, from the position of the pedal box, to creating brackets for everything that needed mounting such as the brake master cylinders and hydraulic clutch system. Even the steering column, as the chassis was one of the production ones it had never been mounted!!!!

The suspension is antidive/squat geometry so when you fly into a corner it won’t upset the handling what so ever, it won’t dive at the front or lift at the back, it sort of glides like it on rails. It’s like a racing car for the road.

I did get the original engine along with some bits and pieces and I did rebuild it and put it back in but the gear change was absolutely atrocious. being an engine and gearbox in the back that was designed for a front engined car, it had a bespoke gear linkage, that sort of worked, if you can imagine a H section box with another leg on the side for 5th and reverse, 1st and 2nd were in the middle as averse to the left-hand side, and instead of having 1st forward I had it backwards.

It really was a nightmare, I managed to change it over eventually and get 1st and 2nd over to the left but i still couldn’t get round the problem the linkage was pivoted at the front so still ended up with 1st backward and 2nd forward. But it worked and i drove it for about a year and a half like that.

The fitting up took 4 months of the of the 9 year build. Work involved in the car though meant I was putting in a couple of hours every evening and virtually all weekend, Christmas Day Boxing Day, New Year’s Day everything, a real labour of love. I’ve tried to keep it as authentic as I possibly could everything was period up to a point. Over the 9 year build I logged 15,000hrs on it”

The number plate on it seems to be period correct for car, was it registered?

“No it wasn’t i registered it.”

Did it go through an SVA then i take it?

“No it didn’t go through an SVA i managed to get and authenticity letter from the Managing Director of Gilbern himself, who wrote to the DVLA confirming that that was in deed the car built by Gilbern in 1970 and another letter from the Archivist from the Gilbern Owners club and they accepted that and gave me the registration.

I don’t think it would have gone through an SVA, it wasn’t built like that.”

Was there a final deadline that gave you the final push, i know you made it to the Gilbern 50th Anniversary/Gilbern Owners Club 40th Anniversary event in 2010, was that effectively its first outing?

“Yeah the Shuttleworth Collection up in Bedfordshire, that was its first public appearance.”

I bet it created quite a stir when it turned up, particularly with the colour you chose?

“It did in deed; we had to take it up on a transporter as it literally only been finished the day before. I had a chance to give it a quick run up the road from where I work before puttng it back in the garage and then straight onto the trailer first thing in the morning and we drove it up there.”

I bet it was a welcome addition to the event?

“It was in deed I got awarded a trophy for turning up with it. Only a few of the committee member actually knew it was going to turn up.”

I was doing some background reading and I read that it had a bit of a bump a couple of years ago?

“Yeah that was 2011 it got hit by a TIR on the M20 and pushed into the barrier. The body was undamaged but the impact was enough to push the wheels and drive shafts and enough to snap the differential of the back of gear box.

Also the engine was an original cable change maxi gearboxes the only one I could find was brand new one still in its packing crate and owned by the Spares Secretary of the Maxi Owners Club, and he wasn’t going to part with it as it fitted his own vehicle.”

You can blame him for that really?

“No not at all, there was nothing else about and if cant keep going there was no point in having it. I'd already thought about the Toyota MR2 a long time before because it’s such an easy unit to fit. The orientation is right, you’re sitting in the seat with the gears tick next to you and the cables are already going backward onto the gearbox which it exactly what I wanted. There wasn’t any changes to the chassis needed at all, it was just a case of taking the old engine mountings off and welding new ones on. Then having said that it did take 18months to do!!!! I needed to make new driveshaft’s and mountings etc before trial fitting the engine before I rebuilt it so it was in and out of there 3 times.

When it was put on the rolling road to get it tuned up and it was just shy of 200bhp at the fly wheel, so just about 175bhp at the wheels.”

Is it a turbo then or just a straight engine?

“No normally aspirated the 2.0ltr out of a Mk2 but it’s got a bespoke exhaust manifold and exhaust system that I made myself, a set of throttle bodies on a custom manifold that I also made, and it’s also running a MegaSquirt system. That was a kit from America and I built it up and programmed it, there actually brilliant you can do so much with them, I thoroughly recommend it. I then took to a specialist guy in Shropshire on a trailer who did the final tune up for me.

I've probably done 100 miles in it since i got it MOT'd and back on the road in mid November last year.”

Was this first car you’ve built from scratch?

“No I’ve done others, you'll laugh, I did a Skoda Estelle, but it was 4 wheel drive and turbo charged. Do you remember a guy called Brian Hart, he used to build turbo charged engines for the Tolman and Haas Lola Formula 1 teams, well he's up in Harlow in Essex and I actually know the guy and he built a twin turbo Alfa engine for me, that was running 500bhp out of a 1700 flat 4 with a 16v head, and that flew. Outwardly it would not know what was under the bonnet”

A proper stealth car then?

“Yeah absolutely, I mean the Skoda Estelle had its engine at the back, this one had its engine up front, so I changed it all round put a transmission tunnel in it, put a subframe in the aback to take the rear differential and drive shafts and suspension and you would just not know looking at it, you could not see anything.”

If you would like to see the T11 in the flesh it will be at Crystal Palace Spring Meeting on Sunday 26th May, as well as a few local shows in the Kent area, it may also get up to the Gilbern Owners Club National Day in North Wales end of June beginning of July, the date is still to be announced. I hope to be seeing it there and thanks to Gordon for getting in touch with his awesome build and car.

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