Hard to believe, but many Autopians dream about hybrids. Uh, really? Are you kidding? Aren’t those usually products made for maximum efficiency, or at the very best compromise-cars for buyers that just aren’t ready to abandon one type of technology and embrace another? Well, there are Porsche and even Ferrari hybrids far more enticing than a Prius, but can any be the object of lust above all other ICE cars? Wait a minute. You thought I was talking about gasoline/electric hybrids? Oh, of course not. That might be the typical definition of the word today, but I’m referring to a different kind of hybrid: the combination of an American V8 engine under Italian crafted steel or British coachwork.
The Cool Hybrid
For much of the postwar automobile era, European car makers looking for dependable, affordable power sources for their sporting machines turned to the Big Three in the United States. The most famous of these hybrids must be the Ford V8 powered, Shelby-modified English AC roadsters that bore the Cobra name.
The Italians got into the act as well with cars like the Chevy-engined Iso Grifo and Bizzarinni Strada; Ford powered the Detomaso Mangusta (with gullwing doors over the cargo area/rear engine compartment) and later Pantera (initially sold in Lincoln Mercury dealerships).
These were typically balls-out sports machines, the kind driven by bad guys in movies or famously wrecked by rockstars. However, there was another genre of Euro/US hybrid: the high-powered grand tourer. There are so many great examples from the British Jensen Interceptor (which was available in a model with all wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and traction control.. in 1967!) and Bristol to the French Facel Vega and even the Swiss Monteverdi High Speed, all with large V8s under the hood (Chryslers in all of these cases).
Typically these engines were attached to the American automatic transmission which seemed to suit the refined image of a Continental tourer better than some “rock crusher” four speed with a heavy clutch, anyway. Most also received the American freeze-your-ass air conditioning systems to create the perfect sport/luxury gentlemen’s express. Here was the ideal car for some seventies dude in a turtleneck to reliably and comfortably transport his mistress with giant sunglasses along the autostrada at triple digit cruising speeds (at like nine miles per gallon).
I always thought that these things were far more appealing than the concurrent four seat touring offerings from Ferrari. I’d miss the exotic, high revving V12 of the Maranello products, but for a useable car I’d much rather have something under the hood that a random drunk American mechanic could get running perfectly again in twenty minutes if I broke down in rural Iowa.
There’s also something pleasingly incongruent when you envision one of these elegant, understated things firing up in front of a casino in Monaco and having that Detroit grumble coming out of the exhaust pipes. Better yet, just turning the key of these Chrysler-engined rides will yield that iconic DAHHHR DAHR DAHR DAHR sound of the “Highland Park Hummingbird” starter motor:
The Lost Marque
One of these GT hybrids that often falls under the radar is the British Gordon Keeble. When the Peerless motorcar firm that John Gordon worked for collapsed, he took his learnings from the experience (and a space frame chassis that had been in development) to start a new firm with business partner Jim Keeble. A 283 Chevy V8 powered the all-disc-braked chassis, an interior with a “small aircraft” was feel added, and the body to cover it was designed at Bertone by a 21-year-old on staff there. It sounds like they dumped the job on a young intern but this designer’s name was in fact Giorgetto Guigiaro, the talent that would go on to international fame as creator of icons like the Mark I Golf, Lotus Esprit, BMW M1, and Delorean. This Alfa-looking coupe made its first appearance in 1960, but production didn’t start until four years later.
One of the issues facing this car at the start was the lack of a logo for the brand, which was solved when a turtle walked onto a photoshoot of an early car. For whatever reason, the story is that the turtle was placed on the hood as a joking “there’s your logo” gesture. Somehow the irony of the world’s slowest animal being used to name a car more suited to a “Cheetah” or “Gazelle” moniker stuck.
The other issue with the Gordon Keeble was that car’s price point seemed like a steal, since it was: the company was not making money and went belly up after only 100 cars had been built in 1967. Remaining examples are highly prized (the club claims 90 percent of production still exists) due to their lovely aesthetics and supposed perfect balance of performance and luxury for the time. It’s funny that when asked on Slack which auto brand the staff would like to see revived, our own Jason Torchinsky uttered “GORDON FUCKING KEEBLE” within seconds. I didn’t see that coming; wouldn’t you expect him to prefer the rebirth of some two-stroke thirty-horsepower eastern bloc shit that barely ran?
The Turtle’s Revival
By the early seventies, the hybrid era was effectively over; the impending emissions and safety regulations really curtailed the release of any new Turin/Detroit combos. Still, in 1984, Bertone actually made one more Chevy-powered hybrid as a concept. The Ramarro was a dramatic showcar built on a C4 Vette chassis that incorporated the styling house’s design language of the day, which was a dramatic transition between the knife-edge angularity of the seventies and the softer, rounded forms that would forms that appeared later in the decade.
I flat out love this style which was used on a number of vehicles such as the Lamborghini Athon and the Citroen Xabrus; like the Ramarro, none of them saw production.
For a moment, let’s imagine an alternate reality where somebody with deep enough pockets in Saudi Arabia saw the Ramarro’s merits of putting a Turin-penned body onto a car which, other than the pushrod engine, was one of the most advanced automobiles of the time. You might not see it now, but at the time of its launch the C4 Corvette was a revelation and pure state of the art. I mean, it dodged lasers, for Chrissake:
For 1985, this imaginary investor from Jeddah would work with Bertone to develop the Ramarro style as a bespoke grand touring coupe that would likely be priced near six figures and produced only a few dozen per month. Launching such a high-end car without a storied name could prove challenging, so this mysterious investor would somehow get the approval and licensing to name the car as a Gordon Keeble. Thankfully, this machine would certainly do justice to the revered, short-lived marque.
At Bertone, the Vette chassis is stretched to allow for a wheelbase long enough for rear seats; we’ll stay with non-Z51 spring rates for the best ride and handling compromise. Being 1985, we’ll be able to use the L98 multi-port injected V8, but still be saddled with the odd ‘4+3” manual transmission with the add-on overdrive for the top three gears (though being a grand touring car many if not most would be ordered with the automatic).
The steel body takes the wedge shape of the earlier show cars to the extreme with a depression that runs the full length of the car until it terminates in the trunk lid at the rear. Up front, four sealed beams peer out of slots with covers above that flip up when the lights are turned on. An inset eggcrate grille is essentially right from the original Gordon Keeble, just inverted. What is interesting is that the wheels on the Lamborghini Athon concept look surprisingly similar to the C4 wheels used on this new GK.
In the back, a small slot under the trunk lid hides the rear lights, while below the bumper are reversing and rear fog lamp. A recessed area holds either Euro or US plates (note that the light fixtures wrap around for side markers in the North American market).
Inside, the famous Corvette C4 digital gauges sit in a full width slot across the top of the dash. Severely angled surfaces for the center console and door panels hold Corvette switchgear like controls for the climate controls and Bose sound system, surrounded by hand-stitched leather panels. The idea is to take the parts you can’t make in low volume and build around them so they look like they belong.
The “2+2” rear seats are split by another angled panel with extra air conditioning vents, and head restraints cantilevered off of the C pillars.
Six Figure Rivals
Would there have been a market for a new Gordon Keeble? Looking at the ultra-high-end coupe competition of the time, it seems like there could have been a niche, and our GK could have filled it:
Ferrari 412- grey market 0nly in the US; unfairly maligned but with a highly maintenance-dependent V12
Mercedes 560SEC- great car but not sporting at all (I drove a w126 for 13 years and 120,000 miles so I should know)
Rolls Royce Camargue- really just a giant two-door sedan, and a rather ungainly one at that
With the C4 mechanicals but a more upright, relatively spacious interior the new GK would bridge the gap between top-tier coupes that leaned towards luxury (like a fire-prone Jaguar XJS) and those that were really more like sports cars (Porsche 928). It’s almost like a faster BMW635csi for people that couldn’t bear to be seen in that ‘cheap’ $40,000 car.
In the cocaine-fueled big eighties there had to be a couple hundred people a year with the means to upstage the other patrons at Spago in an Italian-built car with the spirit of a British legend and a soul from Bowling Green, Kentucky. That’s the kind of hybrid you can get excited about.