Bygone Brands - Unipower GT

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Peter Burn

Presented by

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Mini-based British micro GT had a short and unspectacular life

From Unique Cars #305, Nov/Dec 2009 

Among the automotive foibles to emerge during the 1960s was the quasi ‘GT’. British car makers and their Australian affiliates were among the most adept at turning mundane models into something marginally desirable via the addition of stripes, an extra carburettor and a ‘GT’ badge on the boot.

Consider then, the wildly exotic machine staring back at you from these pages. The Mini-engined Unipower is also a GT, but even further removed from the traditional European ‘grand tourer’ than a badge-augmented Hillman Imp or Ford Escort ever was.

Design engineer Ernie Unger had been working for the Rootes Group when BMC’s revolutionary front-wheel drive sedan was launched. As part of the team responsible for devising Rootes’ response – which emerged in 1963 as the Hillman Imp – Unger realised the Mini drivetrain’s potential for use in a low-cost, mid-engined sports car.

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A touch of Lotus Europa, a smidgeon of MGB and even GT40 –the Unipower had many styling influences

By early 1965, two prototypes had been built by Unger’s motor-sporting friend Val Dare-Bryan, with bodywork reportedly inspired by the Ford GT40.

The body for the un-named two-seater was hand-made in aluminium and in this form the car was demonstrated to Tim Powell, a part-time racing driver and managing director of Universal Power Drives. Founded in the 1930s to produce fork-lifts and off-road trucks, UPD had spare production capacity and Powell fancied the prospect of having a sporty car to bolster the staid image of his commercial vehicle company.

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The expense of hand-building bodies was overcome by enlisting the resources of Specialised Mouldings: a fibreglass manufacturer that had been involved with Lola, Brabham and Lotus.

Its most recent task had been to build prototype bodywork for the mid-engined Lotus Europa. With sufficient funding and manufacturing facilities to ensure supply, Unger and Dare-Bryan quickly moved the now-named Unipower GT from prototype stage to centre-stage at the 1966 London Racing Car Show.

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Photos of the Unipower’s acclaimed debut show a bare chassis with the steering wheel and pedals almost centrally-mounted, plus a completed car sitting on plain steel Mini rims.

A flood of orders followed, but getting the car from hand-made display form to full production proved difficult. A plan to improve ventilation by offering a lift-out roof panel was shelved when its effects on body rigidity were investigated and the rear-mounted radiator was moved to the front of the car to aid weight distribution and cooling. However, the GT40-style air-scoops were retained.

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Product placement played an important role in the Unipower’s early promotion; one of the early build cars appearing in BBC TV’s oil industry drama Troubleshooters.

Interest came from around the world. Several cars were sold into Europe and a shipment of 12 left-hand drive Unipowers (including our featured car) were shipped to the US.

Testing the factory ‘demonstrator’ in 1968 for Motor Manual, our own M. Browning (obviously still on his ‘P’ plates) found aspects of the mid-engined coupe endearing and others diabolically frustrating. Topping the list of Browning’s gripes was the gearshift, cunningly mounted within the broad sill panel to make entry and exit difficult. To designers familiar with open-wheel racing cars, the right-hand shift may have seemed second nature, however, repositioning the Mini ‘box produced an unforeseen side effect – the shift pattern was reversed, with first where second should be and so on.

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As Browning lamented; "Every gearchange requires constant thought until the topsy-turvey set-up becomes second nature."

More amenable was the car’s well-balanced handling that "made a nonsense of advisory speed signs" and steering that required little more than thinking about which direction was required for the car to respond.

With unladen weight less than 650kg and a 58kW Cooper S engine growling beneath the lift-up bodywork, the GT was claimed to be good for 190km/h. None of the cars released for media testing was capable of this pace, with Motor in the UK doing best at 172km/h.

Various final drive ratios were available; the one fitted to Motor Manual’s test car giving 0-80km/h in 7.5 seconds and a maximum third gear speed of 130km/h.

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Unipower only weighed 650kg so Cooper S engine’s 58kW was more than adequate

This car was also fitted – as many have been – with a fold-back Webasto roof that allowed cabin heat to escape while maintaining most of the turret strength that would have been lost if the ‘targa top’ plan had progressed.

Attempts to race the Unipower came virtually to naught. A car entered for Le Mans in 1969 was reportedly clocked at 135mph (218km/h) but failed to qualify for the race. Better omens had come earlier that year in practice for the Targa Florio road race, but the car was crashed by a mechanic after qualifying in 12th position.

Lead driver at Le Mans was the brand’s second owner, Piers Weld-Forester. UPD, having persevered with the car’s teething troubles and managing to deliver around 60 cars in the space of two years, gave up the struggle in 1968 and sold out to Weld-Forester.

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Bare bones interior looks racy but note ‘reversed’ shift pattern sticker at the left of the dash; tricky

Ern Unger transferred with the business – now known as UWF (Unger Weld-Forester) Automotive – and supervised development of a Mark 2 model with improved suspension and ventilation. New taillights and twin reversing lamps set low into the tail panel help identify cars produced under UWF ownership.

Despite price rises that put the GT into direct competition with the Lotus Europa, orders were plentiful and 15 Mark 2 cars were built. However, the cost of attempting to give the Unipower a competition profile absorbed any profit the production cars could deliver and Weld-Forester abruptly halted the project in late 1970.

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