A brief history of the
What was to become the Unipower GT was conceived as early as 1960, many years before production started in 1966, when Ernie Unger, an auto engineer who from his early days working with Lotus and who 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, and 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, 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 on the subject of component costs, 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 thereby enabling a considerable saving over individual ‘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, as they were very much 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) hiding 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.
The chassis was made up of a square tubular space-frame fabricated by Arch Motors with brakes from either the Mini Cooper or Cooper ‘S’, but had a specially built 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 aluminium fuel tank and 145 section 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 of 45/55 providing the Unipower GT with great handling assisted by its 508 kgs (10 cwt) all up weight.
The body was formed in fiberglass by the well respected, Specialised Mouldings. An early prototype was track-tested at Brands Hatch by the late Tony Lanfranchi as a bare tubular chassis, proving an integrity that could enable body panels to be lightened (an owner in Spain removed the roof to create a Targa version, without compromising the cars integrity). 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 trimmed to a high standard by Wood & Pickett the acclaimed coach-builders, with room for two 6 ft plus occupants, reclined in specially made seats with the gear lever situated on the door sill, adding 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 original aluminium buck 1965
Brands Hatch chassis testing 1965
Concept open two-seater version
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.
Universal Power Drives production
After an early prototype (Chassis #P1) had been completed at Roy Pierpoint’s workshops in Hersham, Surry, initial production began in the Universal Power Drives facility at 14, Aintree Road, Perivale, London using workshops as part of the heavy truck manufacturing business run by Tim Powell, MD of Universal Power Drives Ltd (UPD), who by then owned the Unipower project. Interestingly the car's name was to be the 'Hustler', however there was a need to use the name for the 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 Show material, the name Unipower GT was adopted as there were supplies of badges etc.. readily available from the parent company.
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 Show 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 on a revolving plinth fitted with an engine and basic components. 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 mentioned that a Competition version will be made available fitted with a larger engine, even though there was no design ready at that time.
UPD Aintree Road factory February 1967
UPD Racing Car Show 1966 with prototype Chassis: P1
UPD production at Aintree Road factory 1966. Chassis 766.3, 866.4, 866.5 in build
UPD Racing Car Show 1967 Stand 34. Competition GT car on show Chassis 1266.9
A change of ownership
Production at UPD continued until around late 1968 when Tim Powell decided to concentrate more on his business and emerging love of Power Boat racing, later 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, an ex-Army officer who had a inheritance to invest. 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, Park Royal, London.
U.W.F. Automative Engineering factory in Cumberland Avenue, Park Royal, London
Original Factory publicity photo with Piers Weld-Forester driving
Sales of car was never a problem, as they were seen as very attractive, however production was impacted by the racing programme that year and could not keep pace with the demand. The Unipower GT was a time-consuming hand-built car and despite various running changes (rear-lights, door handles, rear window vents, dashboard layout) being implemented to improve the product, sometimes as previously used parts became difficult to source, added to the delays.
London Motor Show Earls Court 1969
The racing programme that had been embarked on in 1969 by Piers was having a detrimental impact on cash-flow, with subsequent delays in supplier deliveries impacting production. So, at the end of 1969 with UWF having built another 29 cars bringing the total production to just 73 cars, and with 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 especially as an even more attractive Mk2 was very much a possibility..
A great many of the cars survive today and located all over the World, with cars as far away as Australia. Many are still roadworthy or in private collections, with quite a few still currently being raced in the USA and Portugal as well as the UK. It is testimony 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 greater number of cars are being restored, such is the interest and passion for these cars, 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.