Home » Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines How 1980s American Muscle Could Have Revived The Lost British Brand ‘Gordon Keeble’

Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines How 1980s American Muscle Could Have Revived The Lost British Brand ‘Gordon Keeble’

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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.

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Mecum (car for sale)

 

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).

Hybrid Sports 3
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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).

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ramarro
Bertone via Motor 1 and Mecum (car for sale)

 

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.

Bertone
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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).

Chassis
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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.

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Bertone via diseno-art.com

 

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).

1986 Bertone Citroen Zabrus Concept 02 1024x750

 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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

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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.

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Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines Corvette Sedan And Wagon In 1978 – The Autopian

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Roofless
Roofless
10 months ago

Holy shit that corvette commercial goes so hard – I’ve never seen anything like it before!

Dennis Frederickson
Dennis Frederickson
10 months ago

Rear headrests attached to the C pillar?
Patent this stuff Bishop!
Genius.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
10 months ago

Dear God, the Zabrus. I would sell many, many of my relative’s kidneys to realise a Zabrus bodied Citroen C6. It’s so Syd Mead it hurts. And I need one.

Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
10 months ago

Let’s not forget the original Anglo-American hybrid, the Fairmile Railton. Looking for inexpensive performance, the previous owner of Invicta imported some Hudson straight-8 engines and chassis, put on a stylish lightweight body and made the fastest production car in the world (in 1935 13 seconds 0 to 60 was blisteringly fast). Reid Railton, the fastest man on earth, received a royalty for each one made.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
10 months ago

“…it dodged lasers…”
I see what you did there…
Great write Mr. Bishop, an insanely cool concept.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
10 months ago

The tortoise badge story is true, but you left out a bit. The reason that the background is yellow. The indignity of being plonked on the bonnet of a car car caused the tortoise to widdle copiously! If anyone wishes to licence the Gordon Keeble name I might be able to help.

On a wholly different subject, as I cannot get the tips thingy to work (my fault I am sure) I came across this yesterday,

https://www.carandclassic.com/auctions/2006-rhino-buggies-blizzard-swb-8KwQO8

I have no idea why it is for sale in England, or what it is.Please will someone enlighten me before I do something I know I will regret. (I am already watching the auction, a slippery slope awaits).

Internal Error
Internal Error
10 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

Why don’t I hate this? Quick glance through the pics and there are parts bin pieces everywhere. AMC? Are those interior door latches from an early Toyota?

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
10 months ago
Reply to  Internal Error

I have no idea, as far as I can discern the Australian company behind it ceased trading about ten years ago. Sod the door handles, I cannot work out the chassis! Short of going to look at it, I have not asked yet, I am as far in the dark as you. I am fairly sure that AMC had nothing to do with the thing, Australian Mad Creation? Maybe. I should hate it, but …………..

Frank Carter
Frank Carter
10 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

Best guess is this was built on a full size 70’s Chevrolet Blazer chassis. Correct length and parts are quite available. 350 cubic inches and turbo 400 trans.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

How lumpy is your couch?
Kidding, but this is relatively short money—and if you couldn’t have a few thousand quid of fun with that in short order, you probably wouldn’t be here.

If it helps, I’m about to make a likely worse gamble on a high-mileage BMW; I’ll be happy to commiserate with you 😉

Phuzz
Phuzz
10 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

It’s got an MoT, so presumably that means all the rest of the paperwork is in order, and it’s in a running condition. Finding parts for the engine might be a pain, but they’re cheap in the US so it should be easy enough to find someone that’ll ship to the UK.

It’s probably too big to fit in any normal parking space, but this is for someone that owns enough land they can go off-roading on it.

Mikan
Mikan
10 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

These are an Australian rebody kit using a Nissan Patrol chassis, the brochure is available here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20091012183621/http://www.rhinobuggies.com.au/PDF/Rhino%20Buggies%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

Tomato
Tomato
10 months ago

I drive yet another type of hybrid. It’s a combination of high revving top end parts from a 3.2L v6 and the low end stroke of a later model 3.5L v6. With an average 22.6 mpg, I’m a regular tree hugger.

Goblin
Goblin
10 months ago

You can actually see a hybrid/hydrogen/whatever Facel Vega in downtown Manhattan, in the first minute or so in (the amazing movie) Anon, on that streaming service that starts with N and ends with Etflix. Just saying.

http://www.imcdb.org/i001189190.jpg

Angular Banjoes
Angular Banjoes
10 months ago

Man, that Grifo and the Mangusta were/are such good looking cars.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
10 months ago

Ask the folks at Powell Manufacturing Company how well the idea of using a chassis from an older vehicle worked out when they ran out of 1941 Plymouth chassis to build upon.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
10 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

The C4 wasn’t an old chassis in the ’80s

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