22 February 2012

Gordon-Keeble: A Brit you've never heard of

Handsome Anglo-American in an Italian suit never clicked


Anglo-American sports cars have a fine tradition, dating back to the early 1930s and the arrival in Europe of the 1932 Ford flathead V-8. Significant collector car names include AC Cobra, Atalanta, Batten, Brough-Superior, Jensen, Railton and even Morgan, with the Buick-sourced Plus 8.

A rare and worthy addition to the list is the Gordon GT designed by 21-year-old Giorgetto Guigiaro in his first job at Bertone. The handsome four-seater coupe was shown at the 1960 Geneva Motor Show and powered by a Chevrolet Corvette 283-cubic-inch V-8, with a four-speed transmission and Dunlop disc brakes all round.

he project got started when John Gordon met race car driver Jim Keeble in 1959. Keeble had opened his own garage in Eastleigh in Hampshire, and was intrigued by the Peerless — a four-seater fibreglass coupe which was built from 1957-60, using a TR3 engine and chassis. About 325 cars were constructed before the company went bankrupt, though it was revived briefly as the Warwick in 1961.

Gordon left the Peerless in 1958, disappointed by sales, but he met Keeble when the latter was fitting a 3.5-liter Buick V-8 into his car, in search of more power. The two immediately began to plan the high-quality Gordon-Keeble GT and formed a company to manufacture the car. Despite the prototype’s warm reception, production would not commence until 1964, but 99 Gordon-Keeble GK1s were built between 1964 and 1967, first in Eastleigh and then in Southampton.

Beset by supplier strikes and unrealistically low prices, the company failed in 1965, but was rescued by Harold Smith, and nine more cars were built in Southampton.  The company failed again in 1968, but continued to tantalise investors. American John De Bruyne built two more cars for the 1968 New York Auto Show, but nothing came of the attempt to move construction to the U.S.

Journalists spoke glowingly of the Gordon-Keeble’s performance, despite its whimsical badge, showing a tortoise surrounded by laurel leaves. The 300 horsepower, 327 cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 was good for 0-60 mph in under six seconds, a quarter mile came up in 15.6 seconds, and top speed was near 140 mph. The de Dion rear end and four-wheel independent suspension made for excellent handling and the Dunlop disc brakes were up to the task.

The first Gordon GT was built of aluminum (and the chassis design would eventually reappear in Italy as the Iso Rivolta) but production cars had fibreglass bodies built by Williams & Pritchard. Unlike the Peerless and Warwick, which were criticized for poor fit and finish, Gordon-Keebles were well constructed, with handmade, square-tube frames and insulated by foam rubber injected between the tubes.

Not surprisingly, the combination of subdued, but handsome styling, careful construction and bulletproof reliability led to faithful followers who could afford 16-20 mpg, and eschewed Bristols or Jensen Interceptors. A club was formed in the UK in July 1970 by Ernest Knott, who had bought a Gordon-Keeble and was keen to meet other owners. The first meeting took place at Silverstone and attracted 16 cars.

Amazingly, 95 of the 100 cars are known to the club (the 100th was built in 1971 out of leftover parts) and the 40th anniversary in 2004 was notable for attracting 40 surviving cars. The club is shooting for 50 cars for the 50th anniversary. You can contact them through their excellent website for information about joining, detailed history, scheduled gatherings and technical advice. The club secretary is David Yeomans, 26, Burford Park Road, Kings Norton, Birmingham 8PB, and he can be reached at gkoc@yeomans26.freeserve.co.uk.

Buying a Gordon-Keeble is probably most easily accomplished through the club, but two cars came up at auction in 2010. The first was a 1964 model that sold for about $26,500 at H&H Auctions in March, while the second, a 1965, was a no-sale at Bonhams' December sale at Brooklands for a little over $52,000. Another example is being offered by a dealer for just under $55,000. All of which suggests the H&H buyer did rather well.


 

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