What are the small firms doing? (Part 3)

Concluding our survey into the activities of Britain's smaller motor manufacturers. This month we deal with Rochdale and Gilbern.


The Rochdale Olympic shares, with the Lotus Elite, the distinction l)f being the only car to have a unit construction chassis moulded completely in glass-fibre and when we road-tested the prototype car in 1961 (June, 1961 issue) we were surprised to find an extremely stiff chassis/body unit with a good finish which handled well and gave impressive performance with the Riley 1.5 engine. Since then the Company has moved to new premises and has been turning out some five cars a week, which has kept the small firm pretty busy. However, development work has not stopped and although the basic formula is being retained a number of modifications have been incorporated into the Phase II model which was shown for the first time at the Racing Car Show.

Perhaps the most important change is in the use of the 1 1/2-litre five main bearing Ford Classic engine and all-synchromesh gearbox which brings the Rochdale into line with many other kit car builders who are abandoning the B.M.C. "A" and "B" series engines in favour of the rugged 105E and 116E units from Fords, whose Engine and Special Equipment Dept. is helpful to the smaller manufacturers who wish to use their products. The Riley 1.5 or M.G. engine is still available but as the Ford unit is some 90 lb. lighter and is available with many tuning modifications this is the engine chosen by most buyers. The engine supplied with the kit is standard except for cylinder head modifications which bring the power output up to 75 b.h.p. Rochdale have recently received three of the Cortina G.T. engines which deliver 83.5 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m. and are in the process of installing one in a car for test purposes.

Another modification on the Phase II model is the use of the Triumph Spitfire front suspension in place of the Riley torsion bar suspension. This layout utilises wishbones and coil springs with telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar supplied by Rochdale. With this suspension come 9 in. dia. front disc brakes which are now standard equipment. Mounting points for the new suspension are bonded into the chassis.

The rear axle remains a B.M.C. unit, located by twin radius arms and a panhard rod, suspended on coil springs with telescopic shock-absorbers. Experiments are being made with a simple swing axle type of rear suspension made by cutting the normal B.M.C. axle and mounting the differential unit on the chassis but Rochdale are loath to change a good rigid axle for an indifferent independent layout and there is no intention to change for the time being.

The remainder of the changes of the Phase II model are in the nature of improvements found desirable after three years of production with the Phase I. Perhaps the most important is a rear top-hinged door a la E-type which gives much easier access to the luggage space. By mounting the spare wheel underneath the floor of the car and fitting twin five-gallon petrol tanks more space has been found for luggage and in fact two small seats can be fitted in the rear compartment if desired.

Interior trimming has been greatly improved with a veneered facia panel and a central console for switches, while the facia edges are padded and covered with leathercloth. An interior light is now fitted and windscreen washers are standard. The bonnet of the Olympic is now slightly wider and the engine compartment layout has been improved for better accessibility. An electric cooling fan is also fitted in front of the radiator.

Homologation has just been applied for with the F.I.A., the engine being the 116E, which, of course, places it in a very hotly contested category but as several customers wish to race the Olympic, Rochdale directors F. Butterworth and H. Smith decided to have the car homologated. A good deal of interest has been shown from America in the Rochdale and arrangements are being made for exporting to the U.S.A. The bulk of sales, however, come from England where the car is available in kit form at £735 although it can be obtained for £930 completely assembled, and quite a number are to be seen on the roads.

The factory is laid out on two floors in its new premises (the first was destroyed by fire) the glass-fibre moulding being done on the ground floor and the mechanical work on the upper floor. The moulding of the Olympic is a patented process as it is the only glass-fibre car body which is moulded in one piece in the mould complete with the undershield. All minor glass-fibre parts like wheel arches and bulkheads are then bonded in while the shell is still in the mould. A steel tube passing over the windscreen is also bonded in during this process, for added safety in a roll-over accident. The Lotus Elite, the only other all glass-fibre car, is moulded in a number of separate pieces which are then bonded together.

The car is then passed to the trim shop where the car is fully upholstered and all electrical parts, lamps wiring loom, brake and petrol pipes are fitted and the rear axle is also fitted as this makes transportation for the owner an easier proposition. Assembly is then merely a matter of fitting the front suspension, engine and gearbox, wheels and various minor components. Rochdale claim that 50 man-hours will suffice to complete the car in every detail.

Rochdale have certainly proved that a monocoque car in glass-fibre is a workable proposition and we shall be road-testing a car fitted with the 1,500 c.c. Cortina G.T. engine in a future issue. Details of the Olympic from Rochdale Motor Panels, Littledale Street, Rochdale, Lancs.


The Gilbern is rather unusual nowadays as it is a genuine 4-seater Grand Touring car sold at an economical price. Since the demise of the Peerless and the Warwick there has been no 4-seater of this type and judging by the demand for the Gilbern there is an obvious place for a car in this class. The Gilbern is also unique because it is built in Wales and is undoubtedly the only car being produced in quantity in this country. The small factory of Gilbern Sports Cars is situated in the town of Llantwit, near Pontypridd at the southern end of the Rhondda Valley, having originally started some three years ago behind a butcher's shop in Llantwit!

The idea was to provide a 4-seater G.T. car of good finish with the majority of components from a production car so that servicing would be no great problem. There was no intention to cater for the competition motorist and so greater attention was paid to strength and interior trimming rather than building down to a price. The components eventually settled on were from B.M.C., the first cars having the Austin A40 front suspension with the "A" series back axle and the choice of either the "A" series or the M.G.-A engine.

However, the aim was for greater standardisation than this and eventually the M.G.-A front suspension, rear axle and engine were standardised for the kit. Last year, of course, the M.G.-B replaced the M.G.-A and this has resulted in a few minor modifications. The 1,798 c.c. engine is mounted 11 1/2 in. further back in the frame to improve weight distribution and to give better accessibility round the front of the engine. Slight modifications were called for at the rear end as the M.G.-B differential casing is slightly larger than that of the M.G.-A.

The chassis of the Gilbern is of the multi-tubular type with large square section tubes. The chassis side rails are kept low to avoid obstructing entry and exit. The beefy chassis has plenty of excess strength despite not being fully triangulated as the purists insist. This chassis strength is important as the body is not required to carry any stress. The body is moulded in one piece in glass-fibre and is sprayed in nitro-synthetic enamel to a very high finish.

One failing often found on glass-fibre bodies is the poor fit of doors due to dropping. This has been alleviated on the Gilbern by hingeing the doors, bonnet lid and boot lid on the chassis frame giving the mounting points great strength and alleviating unwelcome local stresses on the glass-fibre body. It is possible to swing the weight of a man on the doors of a Gilbem without impairing the fit in any way. In any case if the doors do settle the hinges are easily adjustable for height. The doors, boot lid and bonnet lid are all double-skinned as Gilbern place great importance on the appearance of the car when these lids are lifted.

Glass-fibre is also used as an undertray-cum-floor, great attention being paid to water sealing. The front bulkhead is of glass-fibre and the rear seat pan and bulkhead are also of this material.

Mechanically the car is M.G.-B all the way through; the front suspension is standard M.G.-B with wishbones and coil springs, 10 3/4 in. disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering. The M.G.-B. rear axle is located by twin radius arms on each side and by a panhard rod, with inclined Woodhead Monroe coil spring/shock-absorber units providing the springing. By using the M.G. units the hubs come with splines so wire wheels are used as standard equipment with Borrani wheels as optional extras.

The engine is supplied in standard trim, giving 95 b.h.p. at 5,400 r.p.m. although an aluminium cross-flow head with twin Webers is a listed option. The gearbox is supplied in standard form with a 3.9:1 final drive ratio but Gilbern prefer to supply the car with the optional overdrive as they feel this improves the high speed cruising ability of the car to a great extent.

The interior is lavishly trimmed by any standard, all this work being done at the factory before the kit is despatched. The front seats are glass-fibre mouldings with well-shaped back rests, which are hinged to provide access to the rear seat. Extensive sound proofing is used and pile carpeting is standard, while instrumentation is most comprehensive.

Gilbern have found that the car sells best to professional people such as doctors, lawyers, etc., who have owned most of the popular cars and require something different which their friends won't recognise. They have even been approached by the Sultan of Perak for a car. There were no complete cars for us to try at the factory but a nearby owner, well-known rally driver Lyndon Sims, who lives in Brynmawr, agreed to let us try his car.

Taking us out to the new stretch of the Heads of the Valley road he challenged us to an impromptu "drag race" on the wide new road, with the Austin Healey 3000 Mk. Il which we were road-testing at the time. As his car is fitted with the old 1,600 c.c. M.G. engine we anticipated no trouble in losing the Gilbern but the Gilbern went into an immediate lead and it was not until the Healey was showing 5,000 r.p.m. in overdrive top, and 120 m.p.h. on the speedometer that it showed any sign of catching the Gilbern. Certainly the Gilbern is a genuine 100 m.p.h. car and has acceleration which can see off a Healy 3000 so even if it is designed with luxurious touring in mind it is no sluggard. A brief drive in the car showed it to be notably well finished and commendably quiet except for a gear-lever vibration and a whistle caused by the radiator grille which is being modified to prevent this. We look forward to much longer acquaintance with the Gilbern.

The painstaking work which goes into the car means that at present each car takes some nine days to finish and with orders in hand this would mean that customers could wait over a year for their car. However, extra staff is being taken on to reduce this time to around five days per car. Negotiations are going on with the German M.G. distributor to handle the Gilbern over there and it is likely that they will require 100 cars a year. A London distributor is being appointed shortly so that demonstrations can be made in the London area. Details can be obtained from Gilbern Sports Car (Components) Ltd., Pentwyn Works, Llantwit, Nr. Pontypridd, Glamorgan.