Learning on the job. Jim Keeble turned the original Gordon GT idea into reality, but he had help from a young apprentice who saw it from the inside. Meet Derek Baker.
Derek Baker was born in 1943 in east London but moved to Slough as boy, which led him to apply for a position at a boatyard on the Thames at Maidenhead at the age of 14 when he left school. Fatherly disapproval scotched that idea so instead Derek won a bet with a school chum by walking boldly into a newly established company in Slough and asking for a job. That company was Peerless Cars.
The Peerless GT was built in a workshop behind a Jaguar distributor called Peerless Motors, owned by John Gordon. The cars consisted of a spaceframe chassis clothed in a handsome coupe body made in glassfibre, the whole lot running on Triumph TR3 or 3A mechanicals, but with a De Dion-style rear suspension set-up. The cars sold well and had success on track, winning their class at Le Mans in 1958 and beating the works Triumphs.
Peerless expanded into premises on Farnham Road, Slough. One day a man in his mid-thirties arrived in a blue Ford 100E van, as Derek Baker recalls. This was Jim Keeble. I gathered that he ran a specialist tuning and racing garage in Ipswich. He’d been asked by one of his customers, a USAF pilot called Rick Nielsen, to mount a Chevrolet V8 in a Peerless chassis. There was the engine, stowed in the back of the little 100E. I was asked to work with Jim and our welder to do the conversion.’
Above: G-Ks could be – and were – driven as bodyless rolling chassis for testing purposes. Below: Derek Baker’s archive contains many personal snapshots as well as factory photos
The V8 conversion had sown a seed in John Gordon’s mind and he asked Jim Keeble to design a car to a specific set of criteria, one of which was that it would be powered by a Chevrolet V8.
‘Working alongside Jim, I soon realised what a brilliant engineer he was,’ says Baker. ‘Jim was an experienced competitor; he’d raced Archie-Scott Brown’s Connaught and he was one of the founder members of the Eastern Counties Motor Club with Jack Sears.’ Meanwhile, John Gordon had gone to Bertone to commission a body design. Working for Bertone was a 21-year-old by the name of Giorgetto Giugiaro, or ‘George’, as Baker remembers him.
‘George Giugiaro was just out of the Italian army after his national service and the Gordon GT was only his second design.
The first pen-shape he did was the Alfa 2600 coupe, and if you put one of those next to a Keeble you can see the design for the Gordon GT is just a bigger version of the Alfa.’
Derek Baker (above) only met Jim Keeble (below) as the result of a boyhood wager, but went on to become both a willing pupil and lifelong friend of the skilful, intuitive engineer
The first tubes for the chassis were laid down on a jig made of RSJs and Baker thinks they completed the rolling chassis, suspension and all, in around three months. ‘Jim would draw something on the floor, say “Can you do that and that”, and we’d cut and weld, and so it went on. Then an engine went in, the one our of Rick Nielsen’s Peerless.
Did Nielsen’s V8 Peerless ever get finished? I remember towing char car to Southampton docks, minus the engine, where it was shipped off to the States. I don’t think he did get his engine back.’ The prototype chassis (with Nielsen’s engine) was shipped off to Bertone for Giugiaro design to be made flesh, or rather steel – the Gordon GT prototype would be steel-bodied, as the costly reality of building steel- or aluminium-bodied cars had yet to hit home.
They built the body the chrome pieces and the interior trim, and got it mounted on the chassis in 28 days, says Baker, still in awe. It stole the show at Geneva in March 1960 on the Bertone stand.
The prototype came back to the UK to be made into a useable car, and John Gordon then gave it to The Autocar. They said it was the most electrifying car they’d ever tested; says Baker.
Instant success? It seemed likely, to start with. Orders started to come in and many other publications queued up to drive it and write about it. However, John Gordon was losing money at Peerless and he folded up production of the Peerless GT in 1960. He tried to keep up interest in the Gordon GT and strove to raise money and make deals, including a trip to America. He and the GT prototype set sail on the Queen Elizabeth and met senior figures at GM, including Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole. Duntov, best known as the father of the Corvette, took the car for some fast laps of GM’s test track and approved of it. Cole enjoyed a drive through
They built the body, the chrome pieces and the interior trim, and got it mounted on the chassis in 28 days’
Michigan’s back roads and made John Gordon a wonderful offer: he would supply Gordon with Corvette V8s and gearboxes for an all-inclusive £400, and could he please have 1500 of them to display in Chevrolet dealerships to pull the punters in?
Gordon returned to the UK in what must have been a positive mood. But he was still without backing and couldn’t put the order into production. There followed a period of limbo lasting three and a half years. Derek Baker moved to Ipswich to live with Jim Keeble’s family as an adopted son, where he got on with making several Gordon GT chassis, I made the first five sets of tubes and brackets, and Jim and I did jobs for his old customers,’ says Baker. ‘We had some wonderful years there…Jim and I were members of Felixstowe Ferry Yacht Club. Once, we got three skiers on the back of a Riva speedboat – I was one – and we went all the way out to where the ship that used to broadcast Radio Caroline was anchored. Adam Faith and Tony Blackburn were on board. Tony came on the air saying “Bloody hell, we’re being buzzed by water skiers!” We stopped and yelled a request for some Beatles records to be played for the Yacht Club and Tony duly mentioned them on air. We were heroes when we got back; we didn’t have to buy a drink all night.’
Eventually, one of the Gordon directors, George Wansbrough, bit the bullet and sunk his own money into the venture to allow production to begin. In the middle of 1963 he bought the old Saunders-Roe machine shops at Eastleigh Airport and an assembly line was installed. The decision to switch to faster-to-build, more affordable GRP body shells had been made and finally, those first chassis built by Derek Baker found themselves becoming cars.
John Gordon had left the company during the hiatus but the new models would honour his influence and Jim Keeble’s design: they became Gordon-Keebles.
‘We had some good days, but too soon we were running into problems with the rest of the motor industry, through component supply interrupted by strikes and so on. The exchange rate between the pound and the dollar fluctuated and made the engines more expensive, and things started to go a bit belly-up,’ says Baker.
It was a halt in steering box supply that eventually stopped production – and therefore cash flow – in February 1965, but the company restarted with Jim Keeble and a new backer called Geoffrey West. Known as Keeble Cars, the firm moved production to the old Osram lightbulb factory at Sholing, but completed only seven other Gordon-Keebles before production ceased for good in mid-1966 and they turned to other work.
Baker continued working for Keeble and West as Keeble Cars became KeeWest, before leaving in 1972 to found a business specialising in carburettors and classic MGs that became a welcome source of expert help for Gordon-Keeble owners.
Baker stayed in touch with Jim Keeble until his death in 2003 and retains enormous fondness both for Keeble’s skill as an engineer and also the memories they shared as friends. What was Keeble like?
Below: The Peerless GT was the genesis of the project, when a US Air Force pilot wanted a Chevy V8 dropped into his car. A legend was bom…
‘He just had a flair for engineering. He loved motor sport – he used to race his 100E van with an Aquaplane head, with the windscreen out and the back doors off. He loved fishing, and jazz too, and was always being mistaken for Kenny Ball when we went to jazz clubs.’
Baker ended up buying Gordon-Keeble number 3, a car he’d built the chassis for many years earlier. He restored it and used it to take Jim Keeble for trips to race meetings up at Silverstone, both of them enjoying the fruits of their labours from decades earlier.
Derek Baker cites bad timing as the main reason Gordon-Keeble didn’t survive, suggesting that industrial relations were more stable a couple years after the company folded. But it’s equally tempting to think that the real opportunity was missed in 1960, when a lack of start-up funding prevented them from supplying Ed Cole with his 1500 cars for Chevrolet dealers. The pang is more keenly felt because you can look at every small, doomed car-maker there ever was without finding another that made a car this good.
But the past is long gone, and Baker knows what Keeble himself would have thought. ‘Jim would be thrilled by the interest in the cars today. He’d be really proud to see how sought-after the Gordon-Keeble has become.’
TYPICAL OF HIS HUMOUR
Above: Derek Baker’s collection of photos taken in the factory is thought to be unique. Below: Peerless GT chassis , shows many similarities to beefed-up G-K successor – see lower left
On the badge: Why the tortoise?
‘Jim was out on a photoshoot with the Gordon GT prototype when a tortoise walked out from under a hedge,’ says Baker. ‘Jim picked it up and put it on the wing of the car. John Gordon had left the company and the only badge we had was a stag on the Gordon tartan background. So Jim thought “You never see a tortoise on a badge. It’s steady on its pins, you never see one on its roof, so we’ll go for the opposite of things like a Jaguar or a prancing horse”. Typical of Jim’s wicked sense of humour, really.’
On the chassis:
‘Jim Keeble was my mentor and he taught me so many skills that enabled me to run my own business. He was a terrific engineer and put a lot of expertise into the design of the Gordon-Keeble’s chassis. You can put a jack under one corner of a GK chassis and lift two wheels in the air and still open and close both doors perfectly, it’s so torsionally stiff. And Jim’s location of the engine behind the front axle line means the weight distribution is a perfect 50/50, front to rear. That rear suspension too… you can push them very fast.’
‘John Gordon and George Wansbrough, a car-mad senior board member of Mercantile Credit, met during a press launch and Gordon invited him to become a director of the Gordon Automobile Company in the hope his contacts would bring solid backing.
An encounter with Renzo Rivlota was supposed to yield investment, but Rivolta sent the prototype back with scribe marks on the chassis, having copied it for his first Iso Rivolta GT.’
Chevrolet 327ci (5.3-litre) V8 was used for production rather than 4.6-litre version found in the prototype. Below: Len Williams of coachbuilders Williams and Pritchard (left), and Jim Keeble.
Below left: Jim Keeble in cable-knit jumper and thoughtful mood as he sets off in another G-K, possibly for a high-speed test. Below right: laying up a few final GRP pieces to finish the shell the factory’s rotating flat-bed jig knows the cars inside-out today.
Above: Derek points out David Wansbrough, son of George, an alarmingly fast demonstration driver. Below: G-Ks were very cleverly laid-up as a one-piece shell, lacking only the inner wings and floors.
Giugiaro’s original pen sketch of the Gordon GT (left), then just a one-off but almost unchanged for production. Right: a chassis is welded together on the factory’s rotating flat-bed jig.
Above: G-Ks could be – and were – driven as bodyless rolling chassis for testing purposes. Below: Derek Baker’s archive contains many personal snapshots as well as factory photos.
Derek Baker (above) only met Jim Keeble (below) as the result of a boyhood wager, but went on to become both a willing pupil and lifelong friend of the skilful, intuitive engineer.