(first posted 3/18/2017) Welcome to the third and final installment of the ‘60s British Deadly Sins. The term “globalization” may be a more recent coinage, but half a century ago, luxury cars were already there. After the refined Alvis and the blue-blooded Lagonda, let’s have a look at something more sybaritic and eminently ‘60s, the fiberglass-bodied, Italian-styled, American-powered Gordon-Keeble coupé.
Back in the ‘50s, the rise of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP, as the Brits usually called fiberglass) led to a bewildering array of low-production cars in both Europe and the US. Fiberglass seemed like a God-send: cheap to make, light and rust-proof, it could be shaped in any way designers wished. One such low-production car, the Peerless GT, is where the Gordon-Keeble story starts. John Gordon, who spent his weekdays selling second-hand Bentleys in Slough and his week-ends racing hillclimbs, became involved with the folks behind Peerless, making astute recommendations as to the car’s layout and chassis. The Peerless GT had a tubular spaceframe, GRP panels, a Triumph 2-litre engine and a de Dion rear axle. Gordon joined the Peerless board in 1957 and soon encountered Jim Keeble, an engineer who sold some of the cars at his dealership. Keeble had an American client who wanted to replace the Triumph plant with a 4.6 litre Corvette V8 – an enticing proposition.
Things quickly soured at Peerless; despite the car’s success, Gordon left the company in 1959. He was convinced that an Anglo-American bitza would be a terrific seller, provided it was styled with more panache and built with more care than Peerless were managing. (Peerless came to the same conclusion, launching the Warwick, a mildly restyled Peerless with a Buick V8, a couple of years later.) With Keeble’s help, Gordon developed a new spaceframe around a Corvette engine and went to Italy, the masters of automotive beauty, to make his prototype as easy on the eyes as possible. A young Giugiaro, then at Bertone, was tasked with designing the Gordon GT, as it became known, in late 1959. Bertone built the body (in aluminum) in a few weeks.
The car was shown on Bertone’s stand at the March 1960 Geneva Motor Show, where it was noticed for its interesting characteristics, but Gordon now needed to find backers and facilities to turn his vision into reality. This proved time-consuming and difficult, but things started coming together by 1963. After all, the stylish V8-powered coupé was becoming the in thing by then: AC, Bristol, Iso and a few others were following in Facel-Vega’s footsteps, using Detroit-made engines to provide an ample cavalry and reassuring reliability to an exclusive but expanding clientele. (Of course, the Brits had already done that back in the ‘30s with the likes of Jensen, Railton or Brough, and more recently with Allard.)
John Gordon and Jim Keeble were busy getting their operation online in 1963, contracting Williams & Pritchard to build the bodies and setting up a small production line in Eastleigh, near Southampton, to manufacture the chassis. GM were content with supplying the small-time British firm with as many small-block V8s and transmissions as they wished: the Gordon-Keeble was not a threat to the Corvette: being only produced in LHD, it was ill-suited to the British market in any case. One issue with the GK1, as the coupé became known, was a lack of a distinctive logo or badge. One day, as a pre-production car was out to be photographed, a tortoise crept into shot. Someone grabbed it and put it on the front of the car, where it proceeded to relieve itself, to the amusement of all present. With characteristic British irony, the slow-moving reptile standing in a puddle of urine became the fast and refined Gordon-Keeble’s logo.
The Gordon-Keeble GK1 was presented again – on its own stand this time – at the Geneva Motor Show in early 1964. The motoring press were enthusiastic: 300 bhp with massive torque (360 lb./ft @ 3200 rpm), 145 mph top speed, 0-60 in about 6 seconds, fade-free Girling discs all around (with twin servos), a rigid structure with a well-engineered de Dion rear axle, an all-synchromesh Warner 4-speed… The interior was luxurious enough, though more Italian in feel than British, save for the Wilton carpets.
On the minus side, the Marles-Adwest variomatic steering was criticized for its feel, fuel consumption was rather high for European standards and the floor gearshift was tilted the wrong way (being made for LHD vehicles).
Though five years old by then, the styling was still fresh, though the vertical taillights would have looked passé on a Continental car. When seeing the car in profile, it seems the proportions are a bit off. A slightly longer wheelbase and a shorter front overhang would have probably looked better. Still, the car had charisma and it was breathtakingly fast. Jim Keeble made sure of this himself: he would take every car out on a stretch of Roman road near the factory, pushing the speedometer needle to 140.
Eager to start selling as many cars as possible, Gordon-Keeble were obviously aware of the other animal in the room: the E-type. The tortoise feared the big cat’s incredible speed, styling and low price – under £2000. John Gordon determined that the GK1 should be kept at as low a price as possible to give it a fighting chance. The car’s £2798 launch price was very competitive, but also meant that the company’s profit margins were pretty thin.
The British sports / GT market was pretty crowded in the mid-‘60s. Other firms besides Gordon-Keeble were resorting to American power and fiberglass bodies allowed for big automakers to enter that market with relative ease. In the larger 6- and 8-cyl. class, the wealthy Brit was spoilt for choice: whether one wanted a “drop-head” or “fixed-head” coupé to experience fast motoring, be it “sporting” or “touring” in essence.
The breadth of the market was pretty incredible. Of course, the Bentley Continental buyer would probably not have cross-shopped a Sunbeam Tiger, but both cars were rare and exclusive in their own way – and completely out of reach for the overwhelming majority of British motorists, who would gingerly commit a year’s salary on a shiny new Morris Minor or a Vauxhall Viva.
Alas, the Gordon-Keeble’s low, low price (all things being relative) did not guarantee the car’s success. The company’s low cash-flow meant that it would have needed to expand sales to other markets to ensure its future, but this did not happen. After all, it was early days still, and UK exports were subject to tariffs on the Continent. John Gordon preferred to focus on the home market first and develop the marque’s reputation there. But in the winter of 1964-65, the whole strategy came undone.
One of the Gordon-Keeble’s least-liked features, its steering, became a stumbling block as a lengthy strike paralysed its manufacturer for months. In turn, this led to halting GK1 production and put the struggling firm in the red. By the spring of 1965, Gordon Automobiles Ltd. went into liquidation and John Gordon had to leave the company, which had produced and sold 80 cars in about 12 months.
But the car had its fans, and Jim Keeble soon managed to find new backers to restart production by late 1965. The model was soon re-christened “Gordon-Keeble I.T.” (International Touring) and the GK1’s cheap imitation leather was replaced by genuine hide, but otherwise, the coupé stayed the same. The price, however, did not. Keenly aware that the previous company’s financial health was always its Achille’s heel, Keeble Cars Ltd marketed its product near the £4000 mark, above Jensen and quite near Aston Martin’s territory.
A new steering box (made by the same manufacturer) was also installed. It was the same as the Rover 2000 unit, but critics were not impressed by the result. Upping the price by over £1200, the cost of a decent car in itself, did not win over the clientele.
Jim Keeble left the company in early 1966, as sales remained below expectations and cash-flow problems resurfaced. By the end of the year, only 18 cars had been sold and Gordon-Keeble stopped production yet again, though one final car was put together from spare parts in 1970.
Amazingly, the car was not dead yet. John de Bruyne, a businessman from Newmarket, bought Gordon-Keeble’s tooling, remaining engines and even its logo, and devised a facelifted version of the car, now called the “de Bruyne Grand Touring.” The front end’s slanted quad headlamps were straightened and the dated rear lights were replaced by horizontal units, this redesign being the work of de Bruyne’s brother-in-law, Peter Fluck. The one and only prototype, which was allegedly made from an early-model GK1, was presented at the 1968 New York Motor Show, as de Bruyne felt that the car’s only hope was to be sold in America.
Another model, also featuring a 327 Chevy engine but mounted just ahead of the rear wheels, was presented alongside the Keeble. The Grand Touring and its mid-engined cousin came to naught though. The price for the GT was set at £4250, which would have still been pretty low. In any case, after the New York Motor Show, de Bruyne realized there was no way to make the plan work and threw in the towel.
All told, if we count the Bertone-bodied 1960 prototype and the one made in 1970 from spares, 100 cars were assembled. It was perhaps naïve of John Gordon and Jim Keeble to pursue their GT dream. If production had gone ahead circa 1960, certainly the car would have stood a better chance, as the Anglo-American hybrids were not yet on the scene. Being beholden to the whims of parts suppliers was a foreseeable risk, too. The Deadly Sin element lay in the Gordon-Keeble’s pricing, which was far too low for the company’s good.
As a testament to the car’s appeal and fundamentally sound concept, about 80 of the 100 Gordon-Keebles made 50 years ago are still in running order and enjoyed by their owners. A very active owners’ club was founded back in 1970. The club invited John Gordon and Jim Keeble, who kept working together in non-automotive ventures, at one of their annual meetings, where the above photo was taken in 1989. It’s heartwarming to see that the two men behind one of the coolest British coupés ever made lived to see that their work was still cherished decades after production stopped.
That’s it for this edition of the British Deadly Sins. A third one is not unlikely, though before I get to that, another country should get its turn on the hot seat. Perhaps it’s time for me to brush up on my (very limited) German…