Classic Cars: Grand touring for toffs and tycoons

Handsome but fatally flawed, the Gordon Keeble was an entertaining diversion, says Martin Buckley
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Indy Lifestyle Online

GT or Gran Turismo was one of the buzzwords of motoring in the early Sixties. It wasn't a Playstation game but a motoring mindset and a new type of car; a fast one with four seats, two doors, a huge boot and suave Italian styling for an international man of mystery who needed to cross a country in a day.

The Gordon Keeble seemed to encapsulate this ideal. It was the fastest four-seater on the road (it would do 70mph in first gear) with a body designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, then 21 and working anonymously for Nuccio Bertone while still doing his national service.

Thousands of pounds cheaper than an Aston Martin, it was the dream of the British engineers John Gordon and Jim Keeble. They started a trend for using cheap, reliable American V8 engines (in this case, out of a Corvette) in a light chassis. They were bought by British toffs and tycoons and a few escaped the UK; in the States, Jackie Kennedy ran one.

When the Gordon Keeble was being developed, nobody could agree on a badge design. Then, one day in August 1963 when the car was out having its first press photos taken, it was stopped by the police who were looking for the Great Train Robbers. While they were searching the boot, a tortoise walked out of the undergrowth and crossed the road in front of the car. Keeble picked it up and put it on the bonnet, where it promptly piddled and stripped the paint. Keeble was thus inspired to come up with the badge: a black tortoise on a yellow background surrounded by a laurel wreath. This design didn't change during the three-year production run and was used after the demise of the G-K on a brand of car polish.

The late Gordon ran a garage in Slough and had been inspired by a Buick-engined Peerless engineered by Keeble, an Ipswich-based specials builder. Gordon dreamed of building an American-engined GT car and saw Keeble as the man to engineer it. The two came up with a space frame-chassised four-seater with a De Dion rear axle, Girling disc brakes and a Corvette V8 engine inserted well back in the chassis. The ensemble was shipped to Bertone, who set his most talented young stylist - Giugiaro - to work.

It was completed in four weeks and was the only entirely new car at the Turin show in 1959, though it was not yet a runner. It is believed to have cost Gordon about £2,000.

Autocar tested the Gordon GT - Keeble didn't put his name to it until later - in October 1960, and teased some spectacular performance figures out of what was still the one and only steel-bodied prototype: 70mph in first gear and 102mph in second, with a top speed of 142mph.

The rave reviews helped fill Gordon's order book but he was still looking for financial backing to put the GT into production. He found help in George Wansborough, a city financier and a director of the Bank of England. A supply of engines was secured from Chevrolet - who had never supplied an engine officially to an outside company. They were so impressed with the car they talked about selling them through GM dealerships in America.

The Gordon Keeble was launched at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1964, priced at £2,902 - a figure Keeble always believed was too low. "I wanted to make fewer of them and charge £1,000 more," he told Roger Bell in Supercar Classics in 1990.

But the Gordon Keeble was a hostage to the whims of components suppliers, as so much of the car was sourced from outside. The order books were healthy but whenever a supplier went on strike, production stopped. This had a disastrous effect on the company's cashflow. When the AEU went on strike in 1965, G-K went 19 weeks without any steering gear, rendering 20 otherwise complete cars unsaleable. The receiver was called in after 80 (Keeble said 98) cars were built.

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