The Unipower GT is more than a British sports car; the little-known model is an exemplar of the can-do spirit of the 1960s. Launched in January 1966 at the Racing Car Show, it was the brain child of automotive engineers Ernie Unger and Val Dare-Bryan. With time at Lotus, the Rootes Group and Ford between them, they knew one end of a drawing board from another.
However, there was a problem. They couldn’t style a car. So they approached Ron Bradshaw, the very same designer who created the Ford GT40, to draw the GT’s shape, and he agreed on one condition: it would have to be done in secret he was also working on the GT40 at the same time.
Taking inspiration from Carlo Abarth, Unger and Dare-Bryan’s goal was to bring race car design and thinking to the road and bundle it into a small and affordable package. That meant a slippery shape, a spaceframe structure, independent wishbone suspension and a mid-mounted engine. For the engine they looked to the BMC A-Series and gearbox.
Tim Carpenter first came across his Unipower GT in 1982. A chartered engineer with experience in the automotive industry, his first set of wheels was a Honda 50 Sport which he fixed up in time for his 16th birthday. He then upgraded to a 1955 Hillman Husky which he bought from a school friend for princely sum of 40 pence.
While working as a fitter for the RAC at their Waddon base in Croydon during his school holidays, Tim bought a retired RAC Minivan. “I swapped immediately the 850cc motor for one from an Austin 1100 which I bought in a scrap yard” he recalls. “And I fitted a go-faster SPQR remote gearshift, a hard but comfortable bucket seat bought from a Mini racer and a very loud cassette player”. It was the start of an obsession with Minis which would see him own more than 14 restored and modified examples.
The rare Unipower GT was well known in the performance Mini community, thanks to its BMC A-Series power plant. Such was its reputation it had even earned the nickname the Mini-Miura and was long-considered the Holy Grail by Mini enthusiasts. While attending the Classic Car Show in 1982 – held in Brighton in those days – Tim noticed a scruffy note on a table on the Unipower GT stand. On it was scribbled: ‘Chassis No.1 for sale.’ “I was actually trying to buy a Ginetta G4 which had caught my eye. But when I saw the advert for the Unipower GT, I did not think twice. I tracked down the owner and snapped it up straight away,” he recounts.
Tim was now the proud owner of the fabled Mini Miura. In fact, his new project was the very first Unipower GT production car. He had a lot of work ahead of him however to return it to its original factory condition.
“The car was a rolling shell sitting on JA Pearce 6” rims when I bought it. It was very tatty and in need of a total rebuild. Someone had hacked off all the wheel arches and was in the process of converting it into a racer when it had been rescued from that fate. The body had sustained quite a few minor knocks here and there over the years which had caused local damage. There was some rust in some of the lower tubes of the spaceframe chassis and in the windscreen surround. All the rubber components and bushes were shot and the rear screen was broken.” The original engine and gearbox were long gone. But, essentially, the car was straight, fairly sound and original.
Drawing on his engineering background and his countless Mini builds over the years, Tim set about restoring the Unipower GT. It was a detailed effort that took two years to complete. He repaired the fibreglass bodywork himself, painstakingly scraping off the paint down to the gel coat. “This took ages and required considerable care and patience but it gave me time to consider and really appreciate the contours of the body shape as I removed the paint”.
As the project progressed, Tim called in outside expertise to help. “I got Swaymar Race Engines to machine the engine and Chris Tyrell, the larger-than-life Mini Se7en racer, to develop the head. A good friend to this day helped replace the rusted sections of the spaceframe. Plus I got the seats re-trimmed by Creech. But I did all the other work – bodywork, paint, engine assembly, the other mechanicals, all the electrics, hydraulics, glazing, interior trim, component manufacture… you name it”. And throughout the restoration, Tim never lost sight of the original design philosophy of the Unipower GT.
“The original Unger and Dare-Bryan design concept is very pure and executed without much compromise” Tim explains. “I was clear in my head that I wanted to be faithful to the original concept. Everything was directed towards ending up with a fast and practical road car with that in mind. This has been the guiding philosophy behind what I’ve done to the car. I’ve made practical improvements here and there but always in the spirit of the original design”.
Speaking of performance, Tim decided to improve on the original A-Series engine specification that would have been fitted at the factory. “I was influenced by David Vizard’s book, Tuning BMC’s A-Series Engine at the time and decided to install the largest one practical, so I ended up with a 1,398cc unit. I wanted something driveable on the road so the cam and head are not too wild. The bottom end is balanced and polished and it runs a lightened flywheel. The car is very light and there’s loads of torque so I fitted a tall final drive – which goes some way to compensating for the economy of its Weber 45 DCOE carburettor! The stainless steel exhaust system is by Nick Garratt and the whole lot was set up on Andy Cattani’s rolling road at Classic and Race.”
So how powerful is the mighty little motor? “The power to weight numbers are very good actually” Tim says. “The motor currently pulls 68bhp at the wheels at 5,500rpm so is probably about 100bhp at the flywheel. Measured torque is 50Ibft at 4,600rpm. The car weighs only 590kg so the performance is lively. The progressive power and torque curves mean that the car drives nicely from low revs all the way to the red line”.
Tim describes the car as ‘Chic and Quick’. A real head turner, it appeals to all: “Fashionistas love its style and Petrol Heads love its engineering”, he says.
Inside the car, the first thing you notice is how low you are compared to everything else on the road – door handles on other cars are at eye level! This gives a fabulous impression of speed. With the gear lever in the right hand sill, you sit shoulder to shoulder with your passenger. “I was dreading the 1960s driving position when I was rebuilding the car,” Tim recalls “but it’s very comfortable and all the controls are in the right place.
“It’s huge fun both on the road and track. The car is so well behaved, it almost drives itself. The steering has good feel, is light and responsive and the handling is completely progressive”
The whole package is very impressive. The car’s looks and performance demonstrate the brilliance of Unger and Dare-Bryan’s original concept. They are now in their eighties but Tim is in touch with both designers. “I tell them that they should be proud to have created something as good as this. To remind them, I keep them up to date with things I do with the car, events it’s entered into, people I meet, comments they make”. Ernie Unger even showed up at Goodwood a few years ago to help when Tim was shaking down the chassis after a long period in storage. “That’s what you call after sales service!” he laughs.
Tim is an energetic champion of the car’s heritage. He sees it as his responsibility to get the car in front of as many people as possible, tell its story and promote the marque. “It’s a privilege to be owner and custodian of such a rare example of automotive design excellence. I feel honoured when the car is invited to participate in demonstrations and exhibitions – and I always accept on its behalf,” he jokes.
For good reason, Tim’s Unipower GT opens doors. Sir Stirling Moss inspected the car at the 2016 Goodwood Revival and graciously posed with it to recreate a Unipower GT 1967 publicity shot. “Sir Stirling was so charming and courteous” says Tim. ”He took an interest not just in the car but also in me. I was proud to show him his signature in an autograph book which my Grandfather, a sometime Goodwood official, had collected for me when I was a boy and which is still a treasured possession.” Truly, a memory never to be forgotten.
“This car is just huge fun” says Tim. “There are so few of them. I am so lucky to have been able to restore it to its former glory. I get little butterflies every time I take it out of the garage.”
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