Curbside Classic: 197x Gazelle SSK – For Weddings And Good Taste’s Funeral

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here, on Monday for some reason, to witness the improbable product of the marriage of a cheap neo-retro convertible kit and an innocent mid-‘70s VW Beetle chassis. We shall seek forgiveness for regarding this bizarre animal as less of a gazelle and more of a platypus, or at the very least a bit of an odd duck.

We will have to have (a laugh at) and hold (in contempt) the Gazelle SSK from this CC post forward, for better kits do exist and for worse faux neo-retro detailing cannot be fathomed. We shall find it rather rich that it’s donning a three pointed star, yet poorer in terms of overall design than anything ever seen in Japan up to now. All in all, ladles and jellyspoons, this Gazelle is all about sickness and ill-health. Ramen.

Enough of this silly sermonizing, let’s revert to lay activities and solemnly examine our comedic Gazelle. The sight of any neo-retro kit car surely causes more mirth than pity. There’s just no way to take it seriously – the proportions, the interior, the detailing, the “SSK” lettering on the rear end – it’s all in the name of fun.

Of course, the Gazelle SSK is slightly more common than the car it purports to replicate. Google the name, and you’ll be able to find dozens of ads for them, located all over the world. But they did come from somewhere, and that somewhere is hard to pin down, because several companies made these. Well, actually, most were located in Florida, as far as I can tell, so chances are this car’s fiberglass kit (if not the whole thing) hails from that state. I don’t know if this kit is a Tiffany, a Classic Motors Carriages (CMC) or a Fiberfab product. It seems that the first company to make these was Tiffany Motor Cars, a brand of Bay Products based in Opa-locka, FL.

Tiffany started selling Gazelle kits in 1973 (or even a few years earlier, depending on the source), inspired not strictly by the legendary 1928-30 Mercedes-Benz SSK (W06), but by Brooks Stevens’ take on it, the Excalibur SS. The prototype Excalibur, made in 1964, used a modified Studebaker Lark Daytona chassis and drivetrain; production cars, from 1965 onwards, still used Studebaker chassis, but switched to Chevrolet for engines and sold pretty well.

So the Gazelle is actually a replica of a replica. Unlike the Excalibur, which was sold as a fully-built car and had a Corvette engine, the Gazelle was a cheap fiberglass kit for 4-cyl. drivetrains. And despite what it says on that “radiator,” there were definitely no Mercedes-Benz bits involved in this one.

But I don’t think anyone was ever fooled by that. Even the Excalibur, despite being made out of metal, was pretty hard to confuse with one of the 40-odd genuine SSKs ever made, as pictured above. The thing with the original SSK is that some were bodied for racing, which is what the cycle-fendered Excalibur went for, and others were more for the road, like the one above. And the Gazelle, I guess.

Our Gazelle du jour’s engine is in the rear end. Not sure what all that front bit with the leather belt is used for, then? It all depended on what you based your kit car on: the kit was cleverly designed to fit both rear-engined and front-engined drivetrains, the latter typically using Ford Pinto or Chevrolet Chevette bones.

Most Gazelles were made by Tiffany, Fiberfab or CMC from the early ‘70s to the mid-‘90s, when CMC, which seems to be the outfit that eventually bought out the other two, went bust in 1994 because of a class action suit filed by the Florida Attorney General on behalf of 900 of the kit-maker’s least satisfied customers. It seems not everyone found the humour in owning a Gazelle…

But then, those companies did plenty of other replicars, including Auburn Speedsters, Bugatti 35s, MG TDs, Shelby Cobras, Porsche 356 Speedsters and many others, so there were a lot of kits out there, probably not all well-designed and made, and certainly not all well assembled. After CMC disappeared, their assets (the molds, chiefly) were bought by a successor firm called Street Beasts, which continued production of certain kits until 2010. Because the best comedies always spawn sequels.

Our feature car here seems to be chiefly used as a prop for wedding photos, so it’s probably not required to do very high mileage on a regular basis. And given how they take care of their vehicles here, it’s likely one of the most coddled Gazelle in the world, so there is no telling how old it actually is.

However, one look at the dash and the ’70s VW heritage is quite evident. Those column stalks look very familiar, don’t they?

Add the rest of the layout, the Wolfsburg castle on the shifter, the shift pattern, etc., and the VW clues are pretty visible in here. But from the outside (and without the engine on, as the exhaust sound would also be quite a tell), it’s impossible to know what a Gazelle is based on. Until you see the air intakes behind the spare wheel, that is.

But when finding a Gazelle SSK outside the United States, the likelihood of it having a Pinto or Chevette drivetrain is probably very small. The Beetle bits make this kit truly global – a very shrewd move on the part of its creators.

On might also point out that both the Mercedes-Benz SSK and the Beetle were engineered by Ferdinand Porsche, so our feature car, at least in this guise, uses one Porsche design to motivate the imitation of another. Serendipity, thy name is Gazelle SSK. All in all, it’s quite fun and clever as a kit car, but as a replica, one ends up laughing more at it than with it.


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