America is a country where big is best. It couldn’t be any other way in a land where it used to take weeks to travel from coast to coast, where thousands of miles still separate the main areas of population, and where you have the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon, the Rockies and the Plains of Virginia. People get used to a large scale view of things; they get expansive: politically, philosophically, and artistically. When they decide to build something you can be pretty sure it will be the biggest, widest and tallest whatever it is that there is. When they decide to build an engine it isn’t a highly stressed, highly tuned 1500cc screamer, its a big, powerful V8.
Spellbound by the beauty of the Italian landscape one develops an eye for the sensuous. But that beauty is not unbridled like the beauty of Africa; it has intricacy, rhythm and proportion. It can be seized by the intellect, manipulated with the hands and is echoed in the paintings of Raphael, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the architiecture of Palladio. When the Italians design a car it has that same rhythm and proportion.
The English landscape is neither expansive, nor intricate. The weather is neither good nor bad; we have a moderate climate. Just when the cold and rain are getting too much to bear, out comes the sun. Just when everyone is getting rationed on watering their gardens, when tempers are getting a little too frayed, along comes a refreshing shower. Extreme comment is cut short, speculations are guarded, everything exists beneath an all pervasive veil of moderation. English art is moderation at its very best, and so is a good English car. It has class, but is not flashy. It is well made, comfortable and restrained. Fast — yes, but not breathless. Distinctive — yes, but not demonstrative. People should have to say, “what was that?”, because the badge was rather too small to read.
If all three came together and combined to build a motor car, what would you have? A powerful, beautiful and refined machine. In other words a Gordon-Keeble.
It is not only in Gordon-Keebles that the best of both sides of the Atlantic have combined to produce a superb motor car, and I hope to look at some of those other machines in subsequent articles, but the Gordon-Keeble seemed as good a place as any to start.
You don’t even have to drive the Gordon-Keeble to know that it is a special car: the looks alone are enough to move all but the most Phillistine. It starts with the aggressive slant of the twin headlamps, and the snarl of the radiator intake. This end of the car means business, and yet is defiantly flat, portraying exactly the sort of performer that it is. The slope of the lights allows a slightly lowered front, but that is the only concession you will find, for this car is not about to charm its way through the air, its going to punch it out of the way. In plan view the front of the car stretches forward at the intake reinforcing the impression of eager performance.
The pseudo air intake on top of the bonnet is a typical Sixties folly, but it adds rigidity to the fibreglass, and certainly looks the part. Moreover it is understated enough to arouse the curiosity.
Once the business end of the car has announced its general intent it allows you a look at its more civilised, refined nature. The wings run straight from front to rear with a very slight curve upwards in the middle. This reinforces the impression of the very roomy cockpit, with its narrow pillars and large glazed areas. The car’s designer Giorgio Giugiaro has spoken of how he consciously emphasised the roominess of the car and lengthened the roofline to allow comfortable rear passenger seating. Nevertheless there is a sporting slope to the rear windscreen as it runs down to the very well proportioned and nicely shaped boot. The curve of the tail underneath the bumper and back under the car adds a very satisfactory finishing touch. The twin fuel filler caps, and twin exhausts emphasise the sporty nature of the machine underneath the by now very graceful surface.
It all adds up to a very good looking motor car. Very satisfactory and particularly subtle for if any of the lines or proportions were changed in any great deal, the car would certainly suffer, and that precision is the mark of all great art.
But so much for the appearance, does it really go? One can very easily run out of superlatives to describe acceleration. Wringing the neck of a highly tuned twostroke 350cc motorbike will produce the same sort of figures as your average Ferrari, or jumping off a cliff, but the three experiences are certainly different. It is not sufficient to simply say that the Gordon-Keeble is quick, for it is the nature of that speed that is important, and although it would still disgrace many an upstart hatchback, figures that startled the press in 1964 raise no eyebrows in 1990. Of course this all reinforces the fact that 0-60 mph times are as meaningless a figure as any mankind has invented, not least because only the most self disrespecting lobotomy cases habitually drive like that in the first place. The Gordon-Keeble is certainly fast, but more importantly it is relentless. The torque curve of the 5.3-litre 300 bhp Chevrolet Corvette engine should not really be called a curve at all, for it is virtually flat. Maximum torque is 360 lb ft at 3000 rpm, but it is above 300 lb ft from 900 rpm to over 5000 rpm. There are no flat spots, or troughs, and there is no peaking out; the acceleration goes on and on and on. Consequently you really can drive to suit your mood. You can wind it up to 5000 rpm in each gear, (which will be fairly close to sixty in first) and climb with staggering ferocity up to the top speed of approximately 140 mph. Equally you can get it rolling in bottom gear, and then ease it into third or fourth and effortlessly surge your way up to the top end of the speedometer. Even this would be at a pace that would make many a self-respecting sports car a little breathless. However you drive it the speed is surprising, because it is achieved almost entirely without drama. The conversational burble of the V8 might get slightly more urgent, might even turn to a roar, but it is never intrusive, nor does the engine ever sound as though it is having to work at all hard. There is most noticeably a continuous surge, and you are pinned, rather gently, to the back of your seat. At the end of a short stretch of dual carriageway you might think that you are touching 80 mph; you glance down at the speedometer — 95 mph. That is how it is surprising.
Fortunately it has handling to match, or at least this car did. I was driving Ernie Knott’s rather well known car 9 MOR. Ernie explained to me that he bought this car in 1969, several years after first seeing a Gordon-Keeble at a 1964 Silverstone meeting. During his first few months of acquaintance with the machine he very nearly broke his neck on several occasions. It had a lot more power than the S-type Jaguar he had previously owned, and some rather wayward cornering tendencies which Ernie resolved to put right. “It was quite hairy, not least because it was on original Turbospeed crossply tyres, but there was also a bump steer problem. The angle of the front wheels changed as the car went up and down on its suspension.”
The first change that Ernie made was to fit Dunlop SP radials in place of the crossply tyres. This immediately made the car more predictable, but there remained the problem of the bump steer. So he set about an examination of the geometry of the front suspension, and through a process of trial and error, (he insists that he is no mathematician) by shortening and lengthening outer and centre track rods, and by altering the height of the steering arm, the main problem was pinned down to the centre track rod. An adjustable centre rod was made up, and with the car on stands, readings were taken for every half inch of suspension travel. The centre track rod was altered until the wheels stayed very nearly parallel as the car rose and fell on its suspension. With the modified track arm fitted, and the car up and running on radial tyres, Ernie discovered to his delight that the handling had been transformed. Beforehand one went round corners in stages, a bit at a time, constantly adjusting and readjusting the steering. (Even The Motor commented in 1966: “On a really bad surface the steering will swing to and fro by as much as a third of a turn, as the front wheels move up and down on almost equal length wishbones relaying as much feel from gyroscopic effects as from the road surface.”) Now corners could be taken in one clean and even sweep. In all the centre track rod had been altered by a total of four inches.
So much for the bump steer. Ernie was not content to rest on his laurels, nor leave the car as it was. He was still dissatisfied with the steering which had a snatch to it when the front wheels hit a bump, and also rather too much play to inspire absolute confidence. The reasons for this were that there was a certain amount of play inherent in the design of the Rover 2000 steering box, and that there were some six joints making up the steering linkage. Ernie set about trying to find a rack and pinion unit of suitable length, and he measured up the units of various makes of car as they came into the workshop. It was on a Cortina that he found a rack of a suitable length, and so he fitted one to his own car. The effects were once again immediately apparent; the steering was made much lighter and more precise, and when he also added power assistance, via a steering pump on the engine, all traces of snatch were done away with.
Essentially Ernie was using his car as a guinea-pig; once he had hit upon a modification that did genuinely transform the characteristics of the car, he offered it to his customers as a tried and tested improvement. Consequently a considerable number of cars of the original 99 have now been converted to the indisputably superior suspension geometry of Ernie’s car. Many also have rack and pinion and six have the power-assisted unit.
The transmission was the next item to undergo the spotlight of attention. The standard gearbox was a Warner T10 General Motors manual four-speed unit. It was good and robust but its one failing was that it had a very high first gear. This was rather good for providing neck-breaking acceleration all the way up to 60 mph, but not so good for running about in slow moving traffic since one had to slip the rather heavy clutch continually and soon ended up with a disproportionately muscular left leg. What was needed was a unit with a lower first gear but also with a fifth gear for motorway cruising. The series III XJ6 Jaguar provided just such a gearbox and could be easily adapted to fit the General Motors bell housing. It allowed much easier low speed running, but also 30 mph per 1000 rpm in fifth, leaving the engine very underworked at cruising speeds. Ernie’s car now has automatic transmission, although this is a much more recent addition. He had previously converted one other customer’s car to automatic and after a few rides in it came to the conclusion that it really was the bee’s knees. The General Motors 350 Turbo-Hydramatic gearbox bolted straight onto the back of the engine, and has made the Gordon-Keeble an extraordinarily easy car to drive.
It certainly seemed so as we drove out onto the Brackley bypass. The steering was good. It was rock steady, light and precise and with very little movement from lock to lock. One’s immediate impression of the car as a whole was that it would provide effortless motoring at the sort of speed you would have to try very hard to coax out of some quite high performance contemporary cars. Not bad for a machine that is 26 years old, albeit with some considerable development work. The automatic gearbox did enhance the effortlessness of the machine, although my personal choice would be to stick to the manual, perhaps with the Jaguar ‘box. Even in manual form the power of the engine was such that you could all but forget about changing gear if the mood so took you, or you could row it along like a racer. Certainly the handling with the revised suspension and 205 x 15 radials would allow you to do just that. There was no really significant body roll in hard cornering, and the taught spaceframe chassis told you exactly what the car was up to. The ride was reassuringly firm, for you certainly knew if the road was bumpy, but this only added to the feeling of control one had over the car, and the ride would never get uncomfortably rough.
The brakes were also particularly good. As all round Girling disc brakes they were good to start with, but also they have undergone a certain amount of modification, and are now Lockheed three pot brake calipers at the front. This, Ernie tells me, gives an even more powerful and progressive braking system than that which greeted the road testers of the Sixties. They were certainly hard to fault in practice. Gordon-Keebles were, and still are thanks to a considerable amount of continued development, high quality machines. Of course they had their faults, most cars do, and it is important to see around the rose tinted spectacles of classic car appreciation and realise those failings. But Ernie Knott has done much to iron out those of the Gordon-Keeble. If anything the main failing of the machine was that it was too cheap, probably by as much as £1000. The asking price when it came out was £2,798 compared to £3,392 of the Jensen CV8, or even £5,609 of the 250 GT Ferrari. Selling the car that cheaply meant that the company did not last very long. At the end of its fraught history only 99 cars had been made. The penny-pinching made necessary by keeping the price so low manifested itself in one or two sloppy details, especially in the interior, but generally the standard of workmanship was disproportionately high. Much of the bright work was chrome plated brass, and there was not a self tapping screw to be seen, only bolts and lock nuts. Certainly Gordon-Keeble itself had an image of the car that called for this quality of work even if it wasn’t always lived up to. The drivers handbook contained one or two gem-like phrases: one described the location of the towing hook saying, “you might get bogged down at a point to point meeting.” But best of all it suggests that owners treat their cars gently and with moderation “as they would the contents of their cellars.” CSR-W
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