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South Wales was home to a sports car that rivalled MGs and to the pioneer founder of Rolls-Royce; In the latest of our Car Week series, Brendan Hughes examines why two of Britain's most iconic cars have their roots in Wales.

Byline: Brendan Hughes

THE development of the motorcar industry over the past century has its roots firmly set in Wales because of two men: Giles Smith and Charles Rolls.

Charles Rolls is one half of the duo which created the iconic Rolls-Royce brand, while Giles Smith manufactured the first and only Welsh-produced automobile.

Rolls, who lived in Monmouthshire, formed Rolls-Royce after meeting Frederick Royce in Manchester in 1904. Rolls was born in London to aristocracy, but his family had an estate near Monmouth. He began his love affair with cars at Cambridge University as a student, driving the first car ever seen in the city.

He broke records and won prizes for his motoring prowess, and was thought by some to be the best driver in the country.

The young racing enthusiast was also involved in campaigning to change the national speed limit at that time from 4mph to 12mph.

Andrew Helme, curator at the Nelson Museum and local history centre in Monmouthshire, which has an exhibition about Rolls, said: "At the time when he was interested in these things it was quite unusual, both in motoring and flying.

"He was a salesman par excellence, and he was very good at seeing opportunities."

The restless Rolls soon turned to aviation, becoming the first to fly an aeroplane across the Channel both ways non-stop.

But the pioneer of land and air died in Bournemouth in 1910 when his plane broke up in mid-air.

Mr Helme said: "He was dead by the time he was 33, so he had achieved quite a lot in that time."

Smith's motoring exploits came more than four decades later as cars became more widely available to consumers.

The Church Village butcher set about building a one-off Gilbern sports car in 1959 after meeting former German prisoner of war Bernard Friese. As the car neared completion, they realised their creation had business potential.

The Gilbern sports cars became the car of choice for the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins and the Prince of Wales.

Production continued into the mid-1970s, but a fuel crisis led to the closure of the Llantwit Fardre factory.

Eudine Hanagan, of Rhondda Cynon Taf council - who met her husband, Stephen, when she worked at the factory as a PA - said: "The Gilbern production truly is something we are all proud of.

"To think that Rhondda Cynon Taf was the home of a sports car that, in its day, rivalled the top makes such as Austin and MG."

BOOST FOR TOURISM THE motorcar boom in post-war Wales made drivers think of one thing: summer holidays.

Motor vehicles had an established presence on Welsh roads in the inter-war years. But the humble car finally became an obsession for the masses in the 1950s and 1960s, doing wonders for tourism.

The number of cars on Welsh roads almost trebled from 104,000 to 327,000 between 1950 and 1962.

One tourism survey in Wales showed that the amount of cars passing through Fishguard during August increased from 4,500 in 1954 to 15,183 in 1965.

And another study by the Welsh Tourism Board showed traffic crossing the Menai Bridge soared by 145%, and 222% in Dolgellau, over the same period.

Dr Mari Wiliam, of Bangor University's School of History, said: "Improved accessibility to parts of Wales boosted the tourism industry - for a while anyway, until the advent of cheap package holidays in the late '60s and '70s."

Dr Wiliam suggested the car surge helped bring about the closure of Wales' rural railways during 1960s government cuts.

pounds 78m was spent on Welsh roads between 1949 and 1959.


* Giles Smith, original designer and builder of Gilberns. The sports car started as a one-off before entering production
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Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 24, 2011
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