UNIPOWER GT 

 

Production car or Component/Kit Car ? 

Well straight away, lets dispel any idea that the Unipower GT was a Kit Car, it was most definitely 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, but a 'Component Price List' published with owners supposedly fitting some parts so as 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 parts themselves to fit. So except for the aforementioned reasons, all the cars produced left the factory as fully assembled cars, and were driven away or delivered. There was however one exception. A bare unpainted body/chassis unit without any parts fitted, was purchased direct from Specialised Mouldings by Unipower's distributer in Kent, having been held back from delivery prior to Unipower Cars going into receivership. This was never allocated a chassis number, as it was just the 'part' of a car and is 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, however even these were mostly modified in one way or another. This article will hope to explain just how specialist the Unipower GT is.   

The Kit Car perception was probably propagated by the 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 powered derivatives like the Mini Marcos, Mini Gem and GTM, all used a Mini as a donor car just added that belief. It is often asked by visitors to Classic Shows, how do the Mini sub-frames fit in the front and back maybe that idea coming from the fact that the car 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). At the time also of course, Lotus cars were producing Kit Cars in the form of the Louts Elan and Lotus 7, as were Marcos and many others, so it would probably have seemed logical that the Unipower GT was also.

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Hot Car Magazine in August 1968,  Unipower GT in an article on Component Cars

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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 in fact the same. This was because 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 being a 'home build'. Most of the 'components' were ready assembled in the factory, but still took in reality about 4-weeks to build a car due to its hand-built nature. Even at these prices, the car was still quite expensive when compared against the opposition, who only sold in 'kit' form. Hence UPD '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  never made it to the road, mainly because they used old or scrap donor cars and the 'kit' also not being very well made. 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 !. So as you can see the fundamental reason behind the need to publish a 'Component' price-list was only so that cars sold in 'component' form, didn't attract the dreaded Purchase Tax, which at that time was around 33.5%. If this Tax had been added on, Unipower would have been uncompetitive and not have sold very many cars. 

 

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.

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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 powder coated with no other corrosion protection, which is why so many suffer from internal condensation after all these years, 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 (the third a bespoke one for the tail of the gearbox to the chassis) with an additional specially made top engine stay, connecting 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 through a side sill to the engine. This was different to the pre-production concept as shown below, which had the radiator at the rear beside the engine, as was of course the case with the Mini.   

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Right Hand Drive & Left Hand Drive Shift patterns

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Special front Radiator with thick cores

Another rather unique feature of the Unipower GT was the gear-lever mounted on the drivers door sill rather than in the middle as on most cars. The reason was most probably seen as the best way to control the gearbox change mechanism on the back of the Mini engine. This however necessitated a rather complex shift mechanism, with the gear-lever angled towards the driver to clear the door, 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 build, but ultimately so much more rewarding to own and drive. 

The dashboard layout changed a few times over the course of production, but all used the dashboard top from a Triumph Spitfire, providing impact protection and of course matched the use of the Mk1 Spitfire windscreen and surround. For the Dash-panel the 998cc cars all 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 in front of the passenger. Why would a real driver ever need to see what speed he/she was doing !. The more important instruments, Rev-counter, combined Water temp/Oil pressure and Fuel gauge being located in front of the driver surrounding 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 from the Hillman Imp were 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, being either 12.5" or 13" in diameter and would have a small winged Unipower badge affixed in the centre of the wheel.

 

Customers could also choose some additional 'options' such as a Radio and Heater/Demister. The heater/demister was in fact an additional Fibre-glass duct that channelled warm air from the top part of the special 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 driven many miles as a daily driver all year round, I can contest to this being no better than a lukewarm draft !. 

The following B&W photos, below left, taken in period (the factory demonstrator) illustrate the aforementioned. The colour pictures perhaps give a better idea, but are from a restored example. Note: The gear-lever gaiter is not correct in the yellow LHD car, as it was again a specially made convoluted rubber gaiter as shown in the picture bottom right.     

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The fuel tank is specially crafted in aluminium and mounted at the front of the car above the foot-well with a capacity of around 6-gallons. The fuel pump, a Mini SU pump was mounted behind the radiator with the fuel lines running through a door sill to the engine, the same sill carrying the throttle cable and brake lines for rear brakes. The spare wheel is a full-size 145/70 x 10" tyre and situated next to the fuel tank, again above the foot-well as shown in the photo below. 

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.  

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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 as proved to be in practise as was the oil pump which fed engine oil 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 was as a higher 2.9:1 Final Drive ratio for motorway use (also often used on the Competition GT spec cars) and Carburettors were always SU of the 1.25" versions as supplied by BMC. Driveshafts 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 fiberglass boot with a lid, for luggage give very a very useful capacity of 5cu/ft. This was protected from exhaust manifold heat by a special aluminium sheet spaced away from and secured to the front of the boot.   

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Suspension and brakes were heavily modified, using coil over shock-absorbers front and rear, the suspension design calling for specially modified 'donor' Mini front lower suspension arms, modified in length and shape and attached to both front and rear Mini brake hubs. The ends of all these special arms had metalastic bushes fitted to attach them with cap-head bolts to the chassis pick-up points. The rear hubs use the hub steering arms in combination with specially fabricated track-control arms attached to the chassis, to facilitate rear tracking setup. The steering rack was specially supplied and modified Mini unit by the manufacturer, Cam Gears.

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, to facilitate handbrake cables. The handbrake cables were again specially made and operate via a standard Mini handbrake lever located between the seats.      

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Comp Spec front suspension 

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.   

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UPD Rear lights

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U.W.F. Rear lights

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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 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 a week, but in reality was much longer..  

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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 in raiding the parts bins from other cars to manage costs (Aston Martin, Lamborghini etc...), Unipower were no different in using parts that would otherwise be too expensive to manufacture and homologate in managing costs. The important thing is that the Unipower GT managed to integrate these parts in a very homogeneous way, so as to create the beautifully proportioned shape that is so much of its period, but truly timeless. 

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