The sixties spawned more than its fair share of Mini-based specials, but none so special as the sublime Unipower GT. Words Martyn Morgan-Jones. Photography Gerard Hughes/archive courtesy Ernie Unger.
POWER TRIP THE UNIPOWER GT
Martyn Morgan-Jones chats Ernie Unger, the man behind the incredible Mini-based 60’s supercar.
The Mini undoubtedly redefined motoring, establishing new standards of packaging, handling and performance. Yet, paradoxically, despite the superb dynamics and brilliant use of space, some individuals wanted to put their own ‘spin’ on Issigonis’ baby and tap into an entirely different market. As a result, there were a number of Mini-based specialist cars launched during the 1960s, including the Ogle SX1000, Broadspeed GT and Mini Marcos. These were good cars, with much to commend them. But to all intents and purposes, they were rebodied Minis. And they still relied on the donor car’s front-engined, front wheel-drive format.
Others, such as the Deep Sanderson, Cox GTM and Unipower GT, also employed the Mini powertrain and a number of Mini-derived components. However, this trio were boundarypushing, mid-engined designs. None more so than the Unipower… and the man behind this microsized marvel was car-obsessive Ernie Unger.
“I was fanatical about cars from an early age,” admits Ernie smiling. “At the age of four, for the amusement of my parents, I used to stand on a street corner and correctly identify every make and model that passed! When old enough, I spent my school holidays working at a local garage. I de-coked cylinder heads, helped with the servicing, did anything asked of me really.”
It was a passion which would lead to a highly-successful career in the automotive industry. Never short on selfbelief or confidence, in 1954 Ernie wrote to Lotus asking to become a mechanic and surprised everyone, including himself, by getting called for an interview. “I was interviewed by Colin Chapman and Mike Costin,” he recalls. “The actual interview only lasted 20 minutes, but the next hour was spent arguing about wages until a compromise was agreed!”
Although fiscally-satisfied, Ernie quickly discovered that Chapman demanded his ‘pound of flesh’. During the day mechanics worked on customer cars and components; at nights and weekends they’d be looking after team cars. The experience was invaluable, but the hours and demands were unsustainable and in Ernie’s view, counterproductive. Exhausted and somewhat disillusioned, he left Lotus at the end of 1955 to join the Rootes Group Student Apprenticeship Scheme, but he continued to lead a double life: focusing on mainstream projects at work, preparing racing cars and running teams in his spare time. And there was more.
STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
Having always admired engineering excellence, Ernie was becoming increasingly fascinated by the sensational cars the Turin-based Abarth concern was producing, feeling that Abarth’s sublime creations possessed the flair and brio absent in British sports cars. “Abarths were delightful, and their engineering exquisite,” he enthuses. “Their bodies were beautifully designed and made; the engines were like Swiss watches. Although Lotus, Marcos, TVR and Ginetta etc were starting to blossom, and their cars possessed excellent dynamics, the sophistication I sought was still lacking.”
Seeking this sophistication and spotting an opportunity, Ernie set about creating his own GT. His formula for success was to take the dynamics of the best British sports cars; the aesthetics and engineering of the Abarths, blend, and then present them in a compact, attractive and perfectly-proportioned package. If the fundamental design wasn’t a problem, finding the right powertrain was.
“Through my work, I was able to have a very good look at the Mini and it suddenly became obvious. It was just a case of suitably repackaging the Mini’s power train,” he elaborates. “The A-series engine was in volume production, and inexpensive. The basic design had been around for aeons, so tuning gear was already well developed, and affordable. And it soon became available in a variety of displacements.”
Ernie had already penned the basic design layout sketches and as alluded to, had decided upon using the Mini’s powertrain. But it was whilst attending a Goodwood race meeting, that his GT project turned a corner. At Goodwood he met Val Dare-Bryan, a freelance designer who was also running Roy Pierpoint’s Ford Falcon saloon car racer. Having discussed his plans with Val, Ernie was pleased to discover that he too had been having similar ideas. Encouraged, the pair formed an alliance.
“I had the notion that Val could take my basic concepts and sketches, and turn them into working drawings,” recalls Ernie. “We agreed on lots of things and disagreed on some, but eventually had the makings of the basic car which was going to be a small, compact, high-quality, road-going GT.”
To see if their proposal was intrinsically sound, a test mule was built.
Powered by a tired 850cc Minivan engine, it was a kind of spaceframed ‘flying bedstead,’ fitted with front Mini uprights all-round, Mini rack mounted upside down, softer damping, modified Mini lower arms, and bespoke coilovers. The all-important gear linkage used a RH sill-mounted lever, cranked rod linkage and reverse gate operation.
“As well as handling, ride quality was a major consideration,” mentions Ernie. “At Brands, we used tyres that Pirelli had provided, plus we had a box of springs and dampers and swapped them around until Tony Lanfranchi, who was testing for us, gave it his thumbs-up.”
It was an intensely busy (and costly) period for Ernie who, in the interim, had been head-hunted by The Ford Motor Company where he found himself immersed in all things Cortina. Ford provided Ernie with a vibrant working environment, new technological challenges and more importantly, access to key personnel. Keen to tap into this expertise, finesse the GT’s design and ensure that the detail was up to professional standards, Ernie handed the drawings of the proposed bodyshell to one of Ford’s top stylists who penned the finishing touches. “He was working on the GT40 project at the time, so we had to keep his name out of it,” says Ernie with a grin! “The revised drawings were delivered to coachbuilder Robert Peel & Company in Kingston upon Thames, together with a tubular spaceframe chassis we’d built and we then spent a day building a welding wire framework onto which the Peel Brothers crafted the sleek aluminium body.”
With a low frontal area and clean lines, the end result was a stunning car. Specialised Mouldings, renowned for its sports, GT and GP bodywork, reproduced the aluminium body in glassfibre. Arch Motors fabricated the production chassis. But to peg tooling costs, the car became the beneficiary of many proprietary parts.
“Arch Motors made the suspension links,” mentions Val Dare-Bryan. “But the front uprights were Mini items, with the spindles cut off and the steering rack was left hand-drive Mini. The screen was a Triumph Spitfire. Door hinges and locks came from the Cortina – state of the art at the time, front indicators were Austin 1100, Jensen’s CV-8 provided the 5.75 inch headlights, Vauxhall’s Viva the rear light clusters and the wheels were, initially, stock Mini.”
This might sound like a hotchpotch. Yet, due to the fact that every component had been carefully selected so as to fit within the car’s very modest dimensions and crucially, maintain its design purity, the end result was not only cohesive, it was aesthetically pleasing. Practical too. The rear bodywork hinged for access, and there was a 5.8 cu ft boot (with additional luggage space behind the seats). Up front nestled a 6.5-gallon fuel tank and the spare wheel. Plus there’d been an important design revision. “We visited MIRA to test the prototype in their wind tunnel,” remembers Ernie. “The only issue was front end lift. So Val designed a slim front airdam. It made a tremendous difference.”
Although day jobs and other commitments delayed progress, by 1965, the design had reached the point where production beckoned. All that was needed was someone willing to finance the venture and somewhere to build the cars. As it transpired, on the basis of what he’d seen (particularly the impressive aluminium prototype), World Powerboat Champion Tim Powell, a good friend of Ernie’s and whose company Universal Power Drives (UPD) manufactured specialist trucks and forklifts, agreed to provide the backing.
Powell and UPD’s sales director Andrew Hedges, a successful racing driver, felt that a small, high-quality, GT could transform the company’s somewhat staid image. A corner of the factory was put aside for development and production purposes.
Things progressed well and before long, the team had a demonstrator ready for unveiling at the Racing Car Show. However, it had yet to be given a suitable moniker. Thankfully, Ian Smith, the show’s organiser came up with a suggestion. “With the show imminent, Ian contacted us, asking whether we had a name for the new car which could put in the event programme etc,” remarks Ernie. “Well, we hadn’t actually decided upon one. Ian then went on to say that seeing as UPD owned the name Unipower, why not simply call it the Unipower GT. So Unipower GT it was!”
The Unipower GT (which soon garnered the nickname ‘Mini Muira’ due to its mid-engined format and styling) debuted in January 1966, at the Racing Car Show, and the response was phenomenal. It wasn’t just the public who were attracted either; Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Graham Hill were all spied drooling over the car at various times during the day. This was hugely gratifying for Ernie, but the high point was when a certain Austrian gentleman came visiting. “Carlo Abarth and his entourage spent hours on our stand, which made the day rather special for me,” recollects Ernie fondly.
Not only did the Unipower earn approval from Carlo Abarth, it was also much-admired by Issigonis. “We took the demonstrator to BMC’s Head Office, to show it to Issigonis,” Val Dare-Bryan reveals. “We felt that it would be good to get his approval. I remember him saying that he particularly liked the way we’d packaged the car.”
Encouraged by such plaudits and buoyed up by a rapidly filling order book, the team began thinking about actually building the cars. Nevertheless, unlike the rest of the UK motor industry, Ernie and Val weren’t willing to let a car leave the factory until it was completely sorted. “We were not prepared to do the development on our customers,” impresses Ernie. “The planned for targa version was dropped and we made several changes on the GT, such as switching from drop to sliding windows and did some re-engineering as testing had thrown up a few teething problems.”
The problems were mostly minor but it was the lack of cooling that caused brows to furrow the most. The standard Mini radiator, rear-mounted, buried deep in the bowels of the car, certainly had the required volume, but inadequate venting resulted in the A-series becoming all hot and bothered. The solution proved to be as innovative as it was unusual. The team devised a very effective combined heater/ radiator matrix that could be positioned neatly in the nose of the car, directly in the airflow.
START TO FINISH
Nonetheless, as a result of the development delays, the first customer Unipower GT didn’t actually leave the factory until late 1966. Cost was £950 for a Cooper 998-engined version, climbing to £1150 if the buyer opted for 1275 Cooper S power. Plus for various reasons, the build process proved to be labour-intensive and hence, slow. Consequently, UPD’s interest waned and late in 1968 Piers Weld-Forrester, an aspiring racing driver, took over the helm, by which time it’s thought that around 40 Unipowers had been produced. Val, whose contribution was significant, left soon after to pursue other projects and the new company UWF (Unger, Weld Forrester) set up in nearby Park Royal.
Specialised Mouldings put the body/ chassis together and delivered them to Park Royal. Having learnt important lessons at UPD, the UWF facility, which was home to the paint shop, assembly line and parts department, was well planned, cleverly integrated and smooth-flowing. A revised car was shown at the 1969 Racing Car Show and a race car had been built for Group 6 events. A very good practice session for the 1969 Targa Florio boded well. Unfortunately, early the following day, a mechanic crashed the car! Still, this was an unforeseen problem; the Unipower was undoubtedly a quality car with huge potential.
Unfortunately, as often happens with emergent small-scale specialist companies, the wheels began to fall off the business.
Weld-Forrester planned to race a Unipower he’d acquired. Alas, his high-octane aspirations hit the company where it hurt most – in the balance sheets! Ernie, who was juggling his day job, racing team commitments and his directorship of UWF, was caught unawares. “Piers’ racing desires took over,” rues Ernie. “Working life became sidetracked and the unapproved drain on company resources brought UWF down. We simply didn’t have the resources to continue. Regrettably, production ceased in December 1969 and the company was wound up in January 1970… the month we were due to show our demonstrator at the Racing Car Show.”
Records show that just 72 Unipowers were made, of which around 40 have survived, the majority residing overseas. Good examples fetch significant prices, which reflects the Unipower’s specialist car stature, if not its actual size. For many, the diminutive, deliciously-styled and very competent Unipower GT, a car that drives as sublimely as it looks, and encapsulates the free-spirited ‘swinging sixties’, is truly the jewel in the ‘Mini-alternative’ crown.
The Unipower GT was revered for both its stunning looks and superb handling. Cabin was surprisingly comfortable in such a low profile car. A masterpiece in packaging. Gearchange was located in the driver’s sill. A masterpiece in packaging. Many components, such as the Viva rear lights, were proprietary items but it all worked together brilliantly. Plenty to smile about, but sadly, sales never matched expectations. This beautiful Unipower was formerly owned and restored by Mark Butler. It’s now owned by Mark Glaisher. Ernie pictured with the aluminium-bodied prototype. Engine sits just behind the cabin. The Unipower received rave reviews when it was displayed at the Racing Car Show. Due to spiralling costs, Targa never made production. Left-hookers ready for export. Janspeed bought and prepared this car in 1967. It was later acquired by Piers Weld-Forrester. The Unipower not only looked great, the low frontal area made it extremely aerodynamic.