Production car or Component/Kit Car ?
Well straight away, lets dispel any idea that the Unipower GT was a Kit Car, it was not (see the paragraph on the Component price-list, later in this article). All cars were assembled at the factory(s) in West London to customer specification, to as you will read, avoid the Purchase Tax at the time on completely built cars. On rare exceptions, cars were sold without certain parts, such as engine/gearbox or wheels, as their owners had specific upgraded or special versions of these themselves to fit. So except for the aforementioned reasons, all the cars produced, left the factory as fully assembled cars, which could otherwise be driven away. There were however two exceptions. One car left the factory in a partly built state at the closure of the factory in January 1970, having been ordered by Geoff Monty, the Unipower Dealer in Kent, as his personal car and he took the painted and 60% built car from the factory with all its un-fitted parts in boxes just prior to the factory closing. The second was a bare unpainted body/chassis unit, purchased direct from Specialised Mouldings, it having been held back from delivery prior to Unipower Cars going into receivership, so was never allocated a chassis number and it not attributed to being a factory car.
Whilst many will spot the obvious use of donor parts from BMC, Triumph, Ford, Vauxhall and Renault for things like Windscreen, Door handles/Catches, Headlights/Rear lights and brakes/hubs, even these were often modified in one way or another. This article will hope to explain just how specialist the Unipower GT is.
The Kit Car perception was also propagated by motoring media, often writing about the car in the same collective articles as other cars that were definitely Kit Cars. That the Unipower GT used a Mini Cooper or Cooper 'S' engine also added to the belief that the car could be built from using structural components from a 'donor' Mini, onto which the pretty body was attached. The fact that other Mini engined derivatives like the Mini Marcos, Mini Gem and GTM all used a Mini as a donor car just added that belief. It is often commented by visitors to the Classic Shows, that Mini sub-frames were used front and back, the idea again given credence by the fact that the Unipower GT used Mini Cooper or Cooper 'S' brakes at the front and Drum brakes to facilitate a handbrake (the Competition Spec cars all had Cooper 'S' disc brakes all round and did not need a handbrake). Even Lotus cars were producing Kit Cars in the form of the Louts Elan and Lotus 7, as were Marcos and many others.
This was Hot Car Magazine in August 1968, when I first saw the Unipower GT, in an article on Component Cars
So whilst as shown below, the Unipower GT did indeed publish pricing in Component form, the difference in price between buying in component form and factory built, was minimal. This combined with as you will read in the following, the design of the car and the bespoke nature of the components, just did not lend itself to this strategy. Most of the 'components' were ready built and as you will read, took only about a day to build a car. Given that even at these prices, the car was still quite expensive when compared against the opposition, who only sold in 'kit' form. Hence I believe that the Management and Design team 'incorporated the build cost' into the component pricing as they wanted to ensure that each car went out as perfect as possible, not leaving it open to the varied talents of owners to construct. You only have to see how many 'kit cars' on the market at that time that never made it to the road, mainly because they used old or scrap donor cars and the 'kit' was also not very well made. So the reason behind the need to publish a 'Component' price-list was so that cars sold in 'component' form, did not attract the dreaded Purchase Tax, which at that time was around 33.5%. If this Tax had been included, Unipower would not have sold very many cars.
So in reality the customer would write a cheque to UPD or UWF for the car and another cheque to Stewart & Arden (BMC Main Dealer) for the engine/gearbox, thereby avoiding the Tax. Miraculously the engine/gearbox had found its way into the car when the customer came to collect the car !. The following documents are the original Component Price-lists as issued by both UPD and UWF taken from the Club's archives and show pricing for the Competition GT as well, which was considerably more expensive.
Having hopefully dispelled the idea that the Unipower GT was a Kit Car, we can now look at what made the car so unique for its time, given that the original design dated back to 1964.
The chassis is mostly made from square or rectangular steel tube, brazed together to make a very rigid frame to which all the suspension components, and ancillaries are attached. The body was bonded to the chassis, only serving to make the chassis even more rigid (the pre-prototype was tested at Brands Hatch with no body) with the frame was just painted with no other corrosion protection, which is why many suffer from condensation, rusting the chassis from the inside out.
The engine/gearbox is mounted in front of the axle-line, held in place with three lower metalastic engine mounts (a bespoke one for the tail of the gearbox to the chassis) with an additional specially made top engine stay, connected to the rear of the chassis. The radiator is mounted in the nose of the car (cooling being supplemented by a single fan for the 998cc cars and twin fans for the 1275cc cars) with steel water pipes connecting via a side pod to the engine. The pre-production concept however had the radiator at the rear beside the engine as was of course the case with the Mini as you will see below.
Right Hand Drive & Left Hand Drive Shift patterns
Special front Radiator with thick cores
Another rather unique feature of te Unipower GT was the sill mounted gear-lever rather than in the middle as on most cars (GT40 being the exception and the History of the Unipower GT will show the link here) The reason was most probably as being the best way to control the shift rods on the back of the Mini engine. This however necessitated a rather complex shift mechanism, with the gear-lever tilted towards the driver, all specially fabricated and different of course for RHD and LHD cars. This made for a unique driving experience for its time and added to its attraction. Indeed it was however the highly bespoke nature of the construction of the Unipower GT that made it very labour intensive and expensive to produce, but ultimately so much more rewarding to own and drive.
Before we talk about other parts of the car, the interior of the car was probably one of the most defining parts of its design. The seats were specially made, beautifully crafted with a fibreglass frame and with an acute recline, required to give the really very comfortable sporty driving position so different from anything else on the market (Marcos GT being the closest). Whilst not especially a 'bucket' seat, it held the driver in well and its continuations seat swab from the headrest to the front of the seat, was again a nod to the GT40 seats. The cutout in the lower front of the seat, is often though by some to be for the crutch straps of a 6-point full-harness seat belt. Not so, the design reason was so that you could put your foot into the car, further back than otherwise, when entering the car and negotiating the sill mounted gear-lever. The recent McLaren Senna, has also incorporated this in its seat design for the very same reason, so Unipower was 54-years ahead of its time !. The whole interior trimming was made by Wood & Picket, the well know and respected coach builders at the time, and incorporated door pockets for all this odds & sods that need somewhere to be put and there was no dashboard glove box. Whilst the interior used black vinyl trim extensively throughout production, as was often the case in period, the combination of texture and design made the cockpit a cosy place to be and with good visibility. Cosy for its occupants as well, because the seats sat very close together, maximising the space inside the car, with the handbrake between and just forward of the seats. Having driven well over 200,000 miles in one of my Unipower GT's in the 70's and 80's, I can vouch for its comfort and long distance capability.
Dashboards changed quite a bit over the course of production, but all used the dashboard top from a Triumph Spitfire, as this provided a low cost impact protection and of course matched the use of the Spitfire windscreen and surround. For the Dash-panel the 998cc cars had an anodised silver aluminium dash-panel with the more expensive 1275cc cars getting a black vinyl padded dash-panel. The early cars were again quite unique in having the Speedometer on the passenger side, why would a real driver ever need to see what speed he/she was doing !, with the important instruments of Rev-counter, combined Water temp/Oil pressure and Fuel gauge located in front of the driver either side of the steering column. An interior light was central on the dash-panel with switches (the 'pointy ones' on almost all of production until rocker switches were installed on the last cars) for the head-lights, radiator fan(s), wipers (single speed, self parking), push-plunger for the windscreen-wash and interior light. Ignition/start switch was a conventional barrel switch beside the Fuel gauge. Main beam and indicators are on stalks either side of the steering wheel. The carburettor choke control and heater control were both mounted on the engine bulkhead between the seat headrests, which were easy to reach. The steering wheel as you will see, was also another bespoke Unipower item, with its own unique design, its was either 12.5" or 13" in diameter and would, as produced, have a small winged Unipower badge on the wheel.
Customers could also choose some additional 'options' here such as a dash-panel mounted Radio and a Heater/Demister. The heater/demister was in fact an additional Fibre-glass duct that channelled warm air from the top part of the front mounted radiator through to a distribution box mounted under the dash-panel from which the driver could select the air to be directed to the top of the dashboard or into the cockpit of the car. Having as I said driven many miles as a daily driver all year round, I can contest to this being no better than a warm draft !.
The following B&W photos taken in period (the factory demonstrator), illustrate the aforementioned. The colour pictures perhaps giving a better idea, but are from a restored example. Note: The gear-lever gaiter is not correct in the yellow car, as it was again a specially made convoluted rubber gaiter as shown.
The fuel tank is specially crafted in aluminium and mounted at the front of the car above the foot-well and had a capacity of around 6-gallons. The fuel pump, a Mini SU pump, is mounted behind the radiator and whose fuel lines ran through the opposite door sill to the water pipes to the engine. The same sill carried the throttle cable and brake lines for rear brakes. The spare wheel is a full-size 145/70x 10" tyre and situated next to the fuel tank, again above the foot-well as shown in the photo.
The braking system is a dual system utilising two Lockheed brake master cylinders and a clutch cylinder mounted in a specially made pedal box with bespoke pedals, utilising a balance bar between the brake cylinders.
Specially built pedal box and Fuel tank in position
The engine options were either a Mini Cooper 998cc or Cooper 'S' 1275cc with a 4-speed gearbox with no other modifications. The water pump was considered adequate and proved to be in practise as was the oil pump which feed through an Oil cooler located in a NACA duct in the engine bay floor in front of the gearbox, but only on the Cooper 'S' versions or by special order.
A 5-speed Jack-Knight gearbox was offered as an option in the latter part of production for the Cooper 'S' units as well as a higher 2.9:1 Final Drive ratio for motorway use (also used on the Competition spec cars). Carburettors were always SU of the 1.25" versions as supplied by BMC. Drive shafts were again bespoke modified for length Mini units, utilising conventional U/J's on the gearbox output shafts on the Cooper 998cc gearbox or Hardy Spicer joints on the Cooper 'S' gearboxes.
To the rear of the engine, a lid'ed boot for luggage gives a considerable capacity. This is protected from heat from the exhaust by a special aluminium sheet spaced out from and secured to the front of the boot.
Suspension and brakes are heavily modified and in many cases specially crafted to the engineers design. Using coil over shock-absorbers front and rear, the suspension design calls for specially modified Mini front lower suspension arms, in length and shape, to attach both front and rear Mini brake hubs. The ends of all these special arms have metalastic bushes attaching them to the chassis points with cap-head bolts. The rear hubs use the steering arms in combination with again specially made arms attached to the chassis, to control the toe-in at the rear. Steering rack was Mini and modified.
All cars used either Cooper 998cc front discs (really not great, as many who have driven cars with these will know) or the much better Cooper 'S' discs as fitted to the 1275cc cars. Rear brakes on all cars (except the Competition cars) used the front hubs from a standard Mini but with a highly modified rear drum brake back-plate, fitted to facilitate a handbrake. So disc brakes on the front and drum brakes on the rear. The handbrake cables are again specially made and operate a standard Mini handbrake lever between the seats.
Comp Spec front suspension
Factory suspension assembly drawing
Lighting and electrics on the cars use a combination of Cibie lights on the front with Morris/Austin 1100 side lights/indicators. On the rear the early UPD cars use the Vauxhall Viva HA rear lights and the UPD cars use a Britax multi purpose lamp for Stop/Tail/Indicators. This is one way to differentiate the UPD and UWF cars.
Al the cars are negative earth and used a dynamo to charge the battery that is located forward of the engine bay, but accessed through a removable hatch behind the passenger seat.
UPD Rear lights
U.W.F. Rear lights
Lastly with regards to the body of the car, it is this that in many ways has made it the timeless design that it is.
Designed by Ron Bradshaw, as you will have read in the History of the Unipower GT, the body was made in fibreglass from moulds made by Specialist Mouldings, taken from the initial aluminium buck made by Peel Brothers. Whilst there are in some cases a number of mould parts to make for instance a rear body clam-shell, there are in fact seven principal body moulds to make a car. The early chassis were made by Roy Thomas before Arch Motors took over chassis and suspension production, passing the completed to Chassis' over to the nearby Specialist Mouldings for the body to be bonded to the chassis. The cars were then painted before arriving at UPD or UWF for assembly. Whilst there were some 'face-lift' changes in the UWF period as previously discussed, the first six cars were actually produced with wind-up side windows, as was the design intention. Sunroofs were fitted at the factory in production.
However problems of rigidity and water sealing, brought about a redesign change to sliding windows, requiring new moulds. Similar in look to the Mini, again these side windows were specially made by Triplex to a smaller size but used the Mini sliding window catches and modified window channel. The side-window surround was again specially fabricated in brass and chrome plated. So again, all specially made. The first six cars made had wind-up windows and five were recalled to have the new doors fitted. Only two cars exist today with the original wind-up window doors, Chassis P1 (prototype) and 766.2 (race car that had one piece perspex side windows installed).
Assembly at the factory was well ahead of its time for a small company, with Ernie Unger bringing his experience of working at Rootes and then Ford to bear, with the introduction of specially made trolleys that were filled by the Stores staff (Stephen Mark) with all the components, other than engine/gearbox, necessary to build one car. In fact once the car had been prepared for assembly, it is said that using this assembly process, a car could be built in one day.
So in conclusion, I hope this article has dispelled any idea that the Unipower GT was a Component or Kit Car. Whilst like many other major low production manufactures, raid the parts bins from other cars to manage costs (Aston Martin, Lamborghini etc...) Unipower were no different in using expensive parts to manufacture and homologate, to manage costs. The important thing is that the Unipower GT managed to integrate these parts in a homogeneous way as to create that beautifully proportioned shape that is so much of its period but truly timeless.