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Not the only Gordon at the Show


Gordon Keeble, s/n 29, Light Metallic Green

Gordon Keeble, s/n 29, Light Metallic Green

Gordon Keeble, s/n 94, Light Maroon Metallic

Gordon Keeble, s/n 94, Light Maroon Metallic

Gordon Keeble, s/n 6, Midnight Blue

Gordon Keeble, s/n 6, Midnight Blue

Gordon Keeble, s/n 75, Metallic Grey

Gordon Keeble, s/n 75, Metallic Grey

Gordon Keeble, s/n 88, AM Royal Cherry

Gordon Keeble, s/n 88, AM Royal Cherry

Gordon Keeble’s 327 inch GM Corvette engine

Gordon Keeble’s 327 inch GM Corvette engine

 

Professor Gordon Murray was the leading, and highly appropriate, motor industry figure to open the London Classic Car Show. He presented a collection of his most celebrated successes, the McLaren F1, originally intended just as a road car, but which early owners soon wanted to race. So, making a few technical adjustments he’d sent a few to France and won Le Mans at the first time of asking. I was also there in ’95 to see three sister cars come home in the top five positions, so the exhibition celebrating the design and development of the model was certainly well worth exploring.

Other luminaries in the opening evening’s limelight - and filling the organisers’ pre-event press releases - included racing drivers, past and present, a selection of television faces associated with the sport and a former model. Interesting that by the following morning, the first public day, all the cameras had gone and so had the flash-bulb friendly ‘celebs’.

No matter. Unsurprisingly it was the classic cars at the Classic Car Show which I, and the vast majority of paying visitors, had come to see. Note; the following day, the most senior living legend of motorsport, Sir Stirling Moss, also arrived to lend his support to the event. Elderly enthusiasts would doubtless be educating their grandchildren just how talented the man really was in his heyday, and autographing their books was certainly worth any queue.

So, back to VIP-free Friday. In addition to the main hall, full of glamorous and shiny vehicles purveyed by smooth (and not so smooth) talking dealers, some of which were periodically demonstrated up and down the central drag-strip, was another. In fact, it took me a couple of hours to realise it existed at all. You needed an ink stamp on the back of your hand to exit the show’s perimeter security, then to cross the main Excel Centre thoroughfare, and re-enter a smaller, quieter, arena where dedicated members of British motoring clubs had brought the most cherished examples of their favourite automobiles.

It was here the grass-roots of the classic car industry were annexed. People who actually love driving cars rather than the sector who seem to focus on how much of an investment their next purchase will prove. Specifically, the amount of profit they will make when they flog it to buy the next money maker.

This is where I spotted another Gordon, in fact a group of Gordons and a very interesting bunch they were, too. In the ‘60s a phalanx of modest manufacturers crossed the Atlantic seeking deals to bring back American iron V8s for slotting into their ground breaking sports and GT designs, which ticked the boxes for power and unstressed reliability. Sunbeam for the Tiger, AC for the Cobra, and all the Jensens and Bristols built on English shores, to name a few. One not quite so famous, but certainly nearest the coast, was Gordon Keeble, based in Southampton.

The full story of John Gordon and Jim Keeble’s partnership and the birth of the car that bears their names, notable for a tortoise as its emblem, can be read at the excellent owners’ club site. However, a short summary is that Gordon, formerly head of the defunct Peerless company, was encouraged by USAF pilot Rick Neilson to shoehorn a Chevrolet V8 into a Peerless chassis. Neilson’s own Corvette was serviced by Jim Keeble, and so the concept of a luxurious 4-seater was hatched, with ample power, incorporating the competition engineering knowledge gained from a foray to Le Mans in 1958 with a Peerless sports saloon. That car had used a Triumph TR3 engine, but took the flag after 24 hours in 16th place.

Sensibly heading to Italy for style, the 1960 prototype’s bodywork was from the pen of Giugiaro and built in steel panels by Bertone. The chassis had a square-tubular space-frame, De Dion rear axle and discs all round to cope with 290hp of Chevrolet power. After only four months of development, the Gordon GT was the highlight of Bertone’s stand at the Geneva Motor Show.

Later the same year it was taken to Detroit where a deal was struck with GM to supply 327 cubic inch Corvette engine/gearbox units. Jim and John made a few revisions for the production Gordon Keeble, including a change from steel to double skinned fibreglass, thought more suitable for  hand-building in small numbers but, with a colossal 350 ft/lbs of torque from the 5.4 litre V8, the finished 1400kg cars would have a power to weight ratio of over 200bhp per tonne.

Production was in full swing during 1964, but problems of component supply, resulting from a lengthy workers strike by steering box manufacturers Adwest, contributed largely to the demise of the company before three figures of customer cars were reached. The initial group consisted of 36 vehicles then, with minor upgrades, cars 37 to 91 were also completed at Gordon Keeble Ltd’s factory at Eastleigh, a northern suburb of Southampton.

By early 1965 the company was forced into liquidation, with both John Gordon and Jim Keeble having resigned. Enter two new gentlemen, Harold Smith and Geoffrey West, who secured the firm from the administrators. They were able to re-commence manufacture at a premises a few miles away, but only chassis numbers 92 to 98 were finished by the Summer of 1966. One more car was built - chassis 99 - in 1967 and finally number 100, later completed from parts.

In 1969 a Mr Ernie Knott opened a repair facility for Gordon Keebles in Brackley, Northamptonshire and managed to trace all one hundred examples. Within a year he had established GKOC, the club that still thrives today.

I was privileged to witness 5% of the entire production run, but that’s nothing compared to what still exists in fine health. Three quarters of them are drivable and a further 15 are known to exist in pieces. That’s 90 per cent remaining, with the balance broken-up or simply lost. The club assembled 40 for a trip back to Southampton in 2004 to celebrate four decades and, in 2014 despite valiant efforts, they narrowly fell short of 50 venturing out for the half century, to where it all began at Eastleigh.

An impressive gathering, considering that 28 of them reside outside the UK. Some live in Europe while others are across North America. Examples even being found as far as Japan and Australasia. (Did you notice all four points of the compass having a direct association with the marque’s history?)

For an early 1960s GT Saloon they still look very sleek and modern. The driver has seven circular dials to feed him information and a very broad centre console houses many toggle switches, buttons and warning lights, as well as dual-band radio, gear stick and key ignition. The iconic tortoise, surrounded by laurel leaves, pictured on the steering boss is the centre of the wooden rimmed wheel. Contemporary road-tests showed they were capable of crossing the 100mph barrier in well under 20 seconds (one report stated below 17) and would continue pulling all the way through 140. When originally marketed at £2,798, they were some £1,400 less than the contemporary Aston Martin and just over half the price of the cheapest Ferrari available.

At the London Show, proudly displayed were chassis from right across the spectrum; numbers 6, 29, 75, 88 and 94. They attracted much interest from the casual wanderers and the custodians were happy to share their knowledge with those who had never seen one before, or perhaps knew just a little, like me. Three times I’d seen several lining up at Belgian and French ferry ports, returning from continental tours, testament to the Gordon Keeble fraternity regularly exercising their languid V8s on the best open roads and having a great deal of fun in so doing.

 

John Godley

Classique Car Conduits