The history of the
What was to become the Unipower GT was conceived as early as 1960, a few years before production started in 1966, when Ernie Unger, an auto engineer who from his early days working with Lotus and was now working with the Ford Motor Company, had created a package layout for the concept. This was then used as the basis of body design renderings penned by Ron Bradshaw, a Ford designer friend of Ernie's, who had been working on the Ford GT40 project. Another old friend of Ernie’s, Tim Powell, who at 28, had an engineering company called Universal Power Drives, had become interested in the project by this time, when at a chance meeting between Ernie and Val Dare-Bryan, who was now designing and engineering for Roy Pierpoint, the Attila range of sports racing cars produced by Racing Developments of North London in 1964 and 1965, at Goodwood one day in 1963, discovered that they had a mutual synergy of thought and this stimulated the opportunity to move things forward and get started on the detail engineering / working drawings.
The concept originated around the building of a lightweight and aerodynamic two-seater mid-engined sports car utilising as many off the shelf components as possible to reduce the cost, Interestingly here it was the issue of component cost, where the famed designer Sir Alec Issigonis of Mini fame was introduced to the concept and was so impressed, that he was instrumental in enabling the Unipower production to obtain parts, where the design required, at BMC factory prices, enabling a considerable saving over ‘spares’ prices. Whilst the Unipower GT was still expensive, between £1,090 and £1,195 (or £17,000 - £20,500 in today’s money) depending on specification, because the cars were hand-built, it was still considered then and now to be the best of breed of the time.
The Unipower GT was built between 1966 and 1970 during which time 73 examples were produced both in Right-Hand (49) and Left-Hand (24) Drive. It was ground breaking for its time, being only 11’ 7” long and 40.5” high (same as the Ford GT40 by coincidence) but hid the tall Mini engine/transmission neatly behind the driver whilst still providing a substantial 5.8 cubic ft boot beneath the hinged rear clam-shell body. Maybe some similarities to the GT40, from the mind of that Ford designer found their way onto the Unipower’s body, like the side air ducts behind the doors, which were a great selling point in terms of its attractive design. However the nose was to prove to have less down-force than would be liked at high speed and was for the race cars at least, solved by the fitting a full-width air-dam, the very first competition car to use this aerodynamic development, accidentally discovered when testing a model Unipower GT in the MIRA wind-tunnel. Road car Owners went on to fit small front spoilers, which resolved the issue at road speeds.
The chassis was a square tubular space-frame made by Arch Motors (after the initial few cars), who also made the coil spring/damper independent wishbone suspension that was utlised. The brakes came from either the Mini Cooper or Cooper ‘S’ but had a pedal box with two brake master cylinders to provide a split front/rear braking system with an integral bias bar to adjust the braking balance. The fuel tank and spare wheel were located under the front bonnet with the water radiator hidden in front of the low nose. All this contributed to an ideal front/rear weight bias providing the Unipower GT with great handling together with its 508 kgs (dry) all up weight.
The body was formed in fiberglass by Specialised Mouldings in Huntingdon (Lotus and Lola race body development), with whom Val Dare-Bryan had a working relationship, all the non-movable panels bonded to the chassis adding to its rigidity. An early prototype was track-tested at Brands Hatch by the late Tony Lanfranchi as a bare tubular chassis, proving its integrity such that the body panels could be lightened in the future (some Owners have removed the roof to create a Targa version without compromising the chassis). The quality of the bodywork was to also to add to the appeal of the car and contributed to its crash resistance as was proved on occasions. External colour was to customers’ requirements, although there was a standard pallet of colours from Unipower.
Inside the quality of the interior was to a high standard made by Wood & Pickett the acclaimed coach-builders, with room for two 6 ft plus occupants who were reclined in specially made seats with the gear lever situated on the door sill, which added to the racing feel of the driving position. The dashboard layout reflected its racing image, with the essential instruments clustered around the steering wheel and the Speedometer located on the passenger side.
Power and transmission came from either the Mini Cooper 998cc (55 hp) or Cooper ‘S’ 1275cc (75 hp) supplied by British Motor Company distributors and Competition stockists, Stewart and Arden. Whilst most cars were fitted with the standard transmission, the Jack Knight 5-speed transmission was an option along with higher final-drives to take advantage of the lighter weight and aerodynamics of the car. A special gear-shift mechanism made by Unipower, connected the door-sill gear lever to the rear of the gearbox to provide a remarkably good feel to the gear-shifts. Wheels were either steel 10” x 4.5” or as optional extras 10” x 4.5” or 5” Cosmic or Dunlop alloy wheels.
Peel Bros aluminium buck 1965
Prototype open two-seater version
Brands Hatch chassis testing 1965
Universal Power Drives production
After an early prototype (Chassis #P1) had been completed at Roy Pierpoint’s workshops in Hersham, Surry, initial production begun in the Universal Power Drives facility at 14, Aintree Road, Perivale, London, the workshops being part of a heavy truck manufacturing business run by Tim Powell, by then a partner in the Unipower project with Ernie Unger. Early production was under the company name of Universal Power Drives Ltd (UPD). Interestingly the car's name was to be the 'Hustler', however there was a need to use the name for the launch of one for UPD's fork-lift vehicles and with pressure from the organisers of the 1966 Racing Car Show to put a name in the Programme and Marketing material, the name Unipower GT was adopted as there were some badges etc.. readily available from the parent company.
Universal Power Drives Ltd
Founded in 1934 Universal Power Drives the company initially made 4x4 forestry vehicles but their technology found it way onto more advanced vehicles when in 1977 the company was acquired by Catapillar Inc. In 1994 Alvis plc acquired the company naming their new subsidiary, Alvis Unipower Limited, with their trucks being branded as Alvis-Unipower.
An early Unipower forestry tractor. Note the winged Unipower badge above the radiator grill
Alvis/Unipower MH-8875 Tank Transporter
Unipower heavy recovery vehicle
Alvis/Unipower airport fast response fire tender
Racing Car Launch 1966
The Unipower GT was launched at the Racing Car Show on the 19th January 1966 on Stand 60, with the Prototype chassis # P1 and a chassis without body but fitted with an engine and basic components, on display with the stated intent to build an initial 50-cars, but only initially offered with the 998cc Cooper 55 h.p. engine. The Press release of the 1st January also indicated that an open two-seater sports version would be marketed later, at a price to be announced. Also interestingly, despite the car not having been designed for racing, the Press Release also mentions that a Competition version will be made available fitted with a larger engine.
The first Sales Executive was the well known Andrew Hedges, who at 29, was by then well known for his International bobsleigh (Twice representing Great Britain in the Winter Olympic Games) and motor racing achievements (Highest placed British car in the 1964 Le Mans 24hrs). With the first car delivered in April 1966, sales were mainly through Andrew and a small network of Importers in Spain, Portugal, Hong Kong and the USA. As mentioned a competition version had also been muted at the '66 launch and following an order taken at the Show, a car was built as a full Competition GT chassis (# 766.2), and in cooperation with its owners, Emlynn 'em' Newman, would undergo considerable development that year driven by Andrew Hedges and then raced by John 'Turner' Miles in 1967, before being bought back by the factory in early 1968 and raced both Nationally and Internationally as a factory ‘Works’ car. With the benefit of the competition development done on this car a second Competition GT (# 1266.9) was displayed at the January 1967 Racing Car Show on Stand 34 and delivered to its first owner in June 1967.
UPD Aintree Road factory February 1967
UPD Racing Car Show 1966 with prototype chassis # P1
UPD production at Aintree Road factory 1966. Chassis #'s 766.3, 866.4, 866.5 in build
UPD Racing Car Show 1967 Stand 34. 2nd production Competition GT car on show Chassis # 1266.9
A change of ownership
Production at UPD continued until around late 1968 by which time 44 cars had been built, when Tim Powell decided to concentrate on his Power Boat racing, becoming President of the United Kingdom Offshore Boating Association and a name revered on the international offshore scene throughout the World, before sadly passing away in 2017. Ernie now had to find another financial partner to continue production and this was found in 22-year old Piers Weld-Forester who had a inheritance to invest in his love of cars. This partnership was to form U.W.F. Automative Engineering (Unger Weld Forester) trading as Unipower Cars, with production moved to premises in Cumberland Avenue, London. These premises were the end product of a number of possible locations that both Ernie and Piers investigated during the transition period, with a midlands truck workshop and even the takeover of an Esso petrol station near Leavesden Green in London being considered.
U.W.F. Automative Engineering factory in Cumberland Avenue, Park Royal, London
Original Factory publicity photo with Piers Weld-Forester driving
While the flow of production cars was not at its best, sales had increased but production did not keep pace with the demand. The Unipower GT was a time-consuming hand-built car and some early running changes (rear-lights, door handles, rear window vents, dashboard layout) required as previous parts were difficult to source now, added to the delays.
Early in 1969, the need to expand the Dealer network brought about the appointment of Monty & Ward Motors in Edenbridge, Kent as a Sales and Service agent, headed up by the notable motorcycle racer Geoff Monty. Geoff would go on to sell a number of cars that year as well as around 7 second-hand cars.
To support the new sales drive in 1969, Unipower Cars would attend two motor shows, The Northern Racing Car Show on Stand 30 at the Belle Vue exhibition Hall in Manchester on 21st-25th April and later that year at the London Motor Show at Earls Court on October 15th-25th (see Earls Court Motor Show video here).
Geoff Monty outside his premises
in Edenbridge, Kent
London Motor Show Earls Court 1969
However Piers was also good with customers and along with a good friend of his, who would be the new part-time Sales Manager, Malcolm Clube (a member of the Dangerous Sports Club !), would foster his desire to go racing, although his inheritance Trust forbade such activity. Piers managed to do some club racing in the UK with the first competition chassis (# 766.2) bought back from its first Owner, meanwhile Owners in Spain had converted imported road-spec cars and were competing in races/hill climbs in Spain and Portugal.
At around the same time, Piers decided to take Unipower Cars racing on the International scene (see Unipower GT in Competition) A new Competition GT spec car # UWF1XXX was then entered into the Sebring 12hrs but did not go, most probably because there was less than 7-days between this and the Le Mans 24hrs Test day, which was probably considered more prestigious. For the Le Mans Test Day, the car was driven only by Piers Weld-Forester, however despite any real prior testing but with the benefit of a small spoiler on the car's nose, was 24th fastest with a 5:16.5 sec lap, made all the more exciting by the loss of a wheel on the Mulsanne Straight, caused by the paint on the new wheels cracking and loosening the wheel bolts. It is understood that the car managed a credible 140mph down the Mulsanne Straight with the benefit of a 2.9:1 Final drive.
The beginning of May saw the same car entered into the Targa Florio in Sicily, (now fitted with a much larger, deeper and now full-width air-dam to further reduce high-speed lift), which was a very challenging race and along with Andrew Hedges as co-driver, Piers qualified the car 4th in Class on a 41:05 sec lap behind a Porsche 908 no less. Unfortunately, the car had developed a misfire and in trying to solve the problem their mechanic (Michael Cane) had taken the car for an early morning test run and heavily crashed the car into a wall, luckily only sustaining a damaged ankle . The understandably upset Piers left the unfortunate mechanic to find his way back to England with the Transit van, trailer and damaged Unipower, without leaving him any money. Some sympathetic teams donated enough for him to get back.
The extent of the damage to the Targa Florio car was very severe frontal and suspension damage, and so the its entry for the Spa 1000 kms later that month did not happen. A very special lightweight bodied car # UWF1007, had been commissioned from Specialised Mouldings for the Le Mans 24hrs in June, using a carbon-fibre mesh for the first time, gave added rigidity to the very thin fiberglass layup of the body panels. Piers would drive the car at Le Mans, co-driven by Stanley Robinson, who had already bought the car with the inclusion of a drive at Le Mans ! (no doubt to mitigate some of the considerable costs being spent on the race program). The improved front air-dam had further reduced the high-speed instability issue and with a 2.9:1 Final Drive and only a 4-speed gearbox, Piers posted a promising 4:58.8 sec lap in Qualifying. However, Stanley was not so happy doing 145 mph down the Mulsanne Straight in such a small car whilst being overtaken by cars 70 mph + faster and failed to qualify as a driver, so the car did not start the race. A frustrating note here is that the engine supplied as being a 130hp 1293cc Cooper ‘S’ engine (still being installed whilst on the ferry to France !) was dyno tested on the cars return to the UK and found to only produce 75hp !!, a standard figure for a base 1275cc Cooper 'S' engine. It was calculated that the lack of power, cost about 15 seconds a lap, which would almost certainly have qualified the car !.
The Grand Prix of Mugello in July would see # UWF1007 with Piers and the Swiss driver Dominique Martin qualify 41st and finish 46th overall. In early September the car, now belonging to Stanley Robinson, was entered along with the other early competition chassis # 766.2 in the Nürburgring 500 Kms, with Piers/Robert Hurst and Stanley/John Blankley driving the two cars. Stanley crashed his car # UWF1007 in Qualifying and could not be repaired but he had qualified for the race. Piers’ car had developed a significant oil leak so did not qualify, but a rebuild of that engine got the car out in the race with Stanley/John Blankley driving, finishing 9th in Class.
Early October saw # 766.2, used successfully at the Nürburgring 500 Kms, entered into the Barcelona 12 hrs with Piers but now with Roger Hurst driving. The car qualified 20th but the clutch failed 9 hrs into the race.
Meanwhile back at the factory, the racing programme had had a detrimental impact on the cash-flow, with subsequent delays in supplier deliveries. So, at the end of 1969, with another 29 cars having been built by UWF, bringing the total production to just 73 cars, but despite a considerable number of cars on the Order books, production ceased and the Company was wound up on the 19th January 1970. If the racing programme had not had such an impact on production, who knows how many Unipower GT’s would have gone on to be produced.
Of the original company Directors, Tim Powell went on to pursue his second love and became Commodore and President of United Kingdom Offshore Boating Association and the salvation of the Cowes-Torquay Powerboat Race, sadly passing away in 2017. Piers Weld-Forester went on to compete in the World Motorcycle Championship and was killed at Brands Hatch in October 1977, at the age of just 31 years. Ernie Unger is in his later years and still going strong, is a great friend of mine, always a joy to talk with and who participates in the Club's gatherings and events whenever he can.
Most of the cars have survived and are now scattered all over the World, with cars as far away as Australia, with a great many still on the road today along with quite a few still being raced in the USA and Portugal as well as the UK. It is testimony perhaps to the original design that, as Ernie Unger has said, "the car was never intended to be a race car. It was intended as a road car which might be good enough for the occasional amateur sprint etc. It came as a bit of a surprise to be so well received that people wanted to race it seriously. If we'd started to do a race car it would have been very different", that the Unipower GT is still making its presence felt, to good effect, in competitions around the World. Now over 54 years later, a number of cars are in a state of restoration, their Owners determined that one day they will be back on the road again.
It is for this very reason that the Unipower GT Owners Club was formed back in 1972 to provide help, advice and guidance for these Owners to maintain and enjoy these remarkable cars long into the future.
As a closing note, there were discussions around possible Mk2 versions (See here), which would have had a more modern and lighter power unit, as well as being larger overall of course with more room inside, so who can tell.