Michael James tells the long and interesting story of Unipower – and recounts some of its most significant products, including the gorgeous Unipower GT.
Unipower: innovation from the outset
It was 1934, the year that Meccano first introduced the Dinky toy, Percy Shaw patented the famous road safety Cats Eye and the great liner RMS Queen Mary was launched on the Clyde in Scotland. However, it was England that hosted the Empire Games that year and it was also the year that the company first known as Universal Power Drives was established.
Wembley was the principal venue for this the second occurrence of the games, the nearby London suburb of Perivale the location of Universal Power Drives’ (UPD) new factory with its head office just ‘up the road’ in Aldwych, central London.
The company designed and manufactured niche market 4×4 off-road commercial vehicles, mainly for the timber industry for both home and overseas markets. In addition to its own models, the company later had a lucrative business in modifying other manufacturers’ products, notably Rootes (typically Commer models), Ford and Dodge types by upgrading them with to multi-drive axle designs utilising their own in-house developed components.
It was in the later on in the 1950s that UPD also started to convert some British Motor Corporation (BMC) Lorries such as the FJ type to typical Unipower configuration.
Through the post-World War II period of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s Universal Power Drives continued in much the same productive way, changing their marketing name to the more familiar Unipower brand along the way. Things were going well enough for the company to start to explore new business opportunities and it was in 1971 that the company successfully unveiled the new Invader chassis.
This latest model was targeting alternative markets away from the established off-road designs for industrial use and was developed as a suitable platform for other specialist builders making low-volume products such as airfield crash tenders, fire-fighting and construction trucks; sadly, after years of growth and profitability the later 1960s had nOt been so profitable and the Invader platform was a good product, but too late to halt the slow decline in the business.
However, a few years earlier in the 1960s, an even bolder direction than the Invader was taken that also, as we will see involved an interesting BMC connection.
Unipower GT – the future
In 1963, with the company buoyant with its well-filled order book for its heavy vehicle and conversion products and now well established in its twenty-ninth year in Perivale, Tim Powell, the owner of UPD and a motor racing enthusiast, decided to diversify and develop a small two- seater sports car fit for the competitive mid-1960s marketplace.
A small project team, including former Team Lotus mechanic Ernie Unger, was assembled in the workshop of the racing driver Roy Pierpoint. This group of Development and Production Engineers had useful ability in the realm of sports/competition cars and low-volume production. Added to this team a little later was the expertise of Andrew Hedges, the BMC factory racing driver (and Sales Manager of UPD) and, with the substantial financial backing of Universal Power Drives the Engineers engaged in the task of productionising the interesting sports car concept.
By the middle of 1964 the design had been finalised and, with enquires to BMC concerning a supply deal successfully concluded, the project entered the production design phase. Finally, the idea transferred from the drawing board and became a physical prototype in Roy Pierpoint’s workshop during early to mid-1965, with testing starting immediately and full production planned for mid-1966 at Perivale.
The car seemed ‘right’ from the start and consisted of a square tube spaceframe chassis with a bonded fibreglass shell by Specialised Mouldings Limited, the company which made bodies for many contemporary automotive organisations, racing teams and F1 outfits such as Brabham, Lotus, McLaren and, perhaps most notably, the 1964 World Championship-winning Ferrari 158 driven by John Surtees.
It should be noted that Specialist Mouldings also made the bodies for the Ford GT Le Mans cars which may offer some insight into the Unipower GT’s general well-proportioned if shrunken resemblance, but more of this later.
The team had decided to base the new car on the by then tried and tested BMC Mini mechanical components. The initial offering was the Mini’s transverse power unit that was assembled for Unipower by BMC Abingdon in standard 998cc Cooper tune, with a later production option for the larger 1275cc Cooper S engine.
The Unipower GT differed from the BMC Mini in the mounting of the powertrain in a mid-engine configuration for superior handling and traction; additionally the Unipower team raided the BMC Parts’ bin and, beyond the powertrain package, front and rear brakes/hub assemblies were utilised, mated with all-round independent coil spring and wishbone suspension based on Formula 3 race car practice of the time. The result was a well finished, attractive small and nimble two-seater sports car with excellent all-round performance for the period.
The Unipower GT is finally launched
It was January 1966 at the London Racing Car Show that the public and press first got to see the new Unipower GT in 998cc form and it is said to have been generally well received, even with its price tag of £950 which was a tidy sum in 1966 as only £620 would get you a brand-new four-door 1200cc Ford Cortina.
As production got underway in the late autumn of 1966 sales settled at around three cars a month for the period January 1967 to November 1968, when production was temporarily halted after about 60 examples. By this time the factory was offering the more desirable 1275 Cooper engine version, but what this added in performance would also add in cost, as the retail price had escalated by a substantial £200 to £1150. One must remember that £1150 was a considerable amount in 1968 as alternatively you could have had a more pedestrian but similarly-sized engined Ford Capri 1300 for £890.
The initial cost aside, the 1275cc-engined car in road tune was said to manage 0 to 60 time of 8 seconds and have an absolute top speed of 120mph; also produced in limited numbers was a lightweight racing version with modified Downton-tuned 1275 motor, prudently fitted with all-round disc brakes and bigger knock-on Minilite wheels producing even greater performance figures.
It was around this time, and in trying to encourage sales that Powell and the Design Team at Perivale and Specialist Mouldings had toyed with design and production of a Targa version for 1969 but, instead, frustrated with the lack of progress with the project, Powell sold the production line to a 22-year-old aristocratic playboy racing driver called Piers Weld-Forrester.
New Ownership and New Racing Campaign
Forrester was joined by Ernie Unger and they set up a new production entity called Unger, Weld-Forrester (U.W.F.) Automotive in January 1969.
U.W.F. Automotive moved to a new place in London and made some minor updates before relaunching the car shortly after.
The relaunch was accompanied by a significant racing programme in which three bright yellow left-hand-drive lightweight works cars were built and fitted with yet another A-Series derivative, this time Janspeed-prepared 1340 Cooper S engines.
One of these works cars was entered for the Targa Florio in June 1969, but was unable to start due to a mechanic crashing the car prior to the race commencing. In July, another car was entered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and was reportedly timed at 140mph on the Mulsanne Straight but, again, the car was unable to start due to a complete and catastrophic engine failure during the pre-race practice session.
End of production and bankruptcy
As the racing program ate into the new company’s finances production shuddered to a stop with only around a dozen or so cars produced by U.W.F. during the last half of 1969. Cash flow issues ended production prematurely in early 1970 even with a healthy order book of a reported 20 plus cars; so as John Lennon sang ‘Instant Karma!’ into the top five of the UK charts, the capable little Unipower GT that deserved better was no more.
It was a sad end to the promise of this capable little car. However, another sad note relating to the story is that in 1977 – the same year that James Hunt won the F1 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch – on 30 October the enigmatic 31-year old Piers Weld-Forrester died racing a 750cc motorcycle at the same circuit.
1966 Unipower GT Brochure
Another attempt with BMC and the AC Cars connection
Around the time of the sale of the GT business to U.W.F. planning for a refresh and/or replacement of the GT got underway. It was soon felt that the use the existing Unipower car was to be only as an interim model and (U.W.F) looked to design a completely new product based on similar BMC Mini componentry and market it as the GT Mk2 model
This is where Robin Stables and Peter Bohanna, already indirectly involved, enter the project to a greater degree.
Peter Bohanna was an Automotive Body Structures Engineer, who had originally gained experience with complex fibreglass structures initially as a Boat Engineer. His talent was seen by Ford UK and in 1966 he first moved into the motor industry and found himself as a Technician at the Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations – the Motorsport division of Ford – where he worked on the body of the Ford GT40 for the 1967 racing season. It has been suggested that Bohanna – unbeknown to Ford – (re)designed the production Unipower GT body using design experience from the GT40 which is where the similarity between the two cars arises.
Late 1967 saw Bohanna moving to work as a Body Technician for the famous Lola racing car engineering company founded in 1958 and this is where he met Robin Stables, who would become his business partner.
When at Lola – where both worked on the famous Lola T70 racing car – Bohanna and Stables found common interest in a desire to design their own sports car, the pair already had experience in fibreglass bodies and tubular spaceframes frames; so they set about working together after the workday ended at Lola on their own projects.
So, it was at the end of 1968 Peter Bohanna and Stables designed a small, light mid-engined sports car with similar concept and packaging to the Unipower GT and, after some contact with Tim Powell/U.W.F., this design was to have replaced the original Unipower GT as the Mk2 GT, but, as outlined previously, that was not to be.
Interestingly, it was prior to U.W.F.’s purchase of the GT production line that Bohanna and Stables were involved in another project with Weld-Forrester.
It was sometime in 1968 that Weld-Forrester, eager to become involved in competitive racing and the motor industry in general offered two development contracts to various independent designers of which one was awarded to Bohanna and Stables.
This developed into a larger two-seater mid-engined sports car than the Unpower GT and, in place of the BMC A-Series, was supplanted the newly-announced BMC (ADO25) 2.2-litre six-cylinder E-Series engine again installed amidships. However, as British Leyland struggled in the turmoil of the early 1970s, the production six-pot engine was delayed until 1972 (the unit was used initially in BMC 1800 range (ADO17) and later Austin/Morris 2200 and Wolseley 18–22 (ADO71) ranges of 1972 to 1975). At this point in mid-1970, the effort was abandoned and it is here that the team of Bohanna and Stables focused on starting their own business and put this design on hold only for it to be resurrected a little later.
As for the ‘other’ Weld-Forrester project it evolved into a development contract – awarded to another unnamed/unknown team – to develop a large sports car to complete with likes of the Jaguar E-type but utilising the newly-announced Triumph 3.0-litre V8 engine, a motor that was ultimately only deployed in the Triumph Stag with only a few additional official applications – 30 factory Triumph 2000/2500 Mk2 and a little-known production run of 48 Saab 99 V8s in 1970 for development purposes. This project never progressed beyond the concept stage and little is known of the design today.
So, with the large GT car in their mind, Bohanna and Stables started their own consultancy in 1972 as Bohanna Stables Limited in modest premises in High Wycombe.
At first, much of their time and effort was centred on the large GT car, a project they believed in so strongly that they funded the ongoing design themselves, spending all available time and financial resources as they could get on this project. Such was the belief in the project that the team felt it was good enough for series production.
The car was typical of the era, square tubular lattice spaceframe, wrapped in a contemporary fibreglass body and mid-mounted engine over coil sprung independent suspension. However, due to the unavailability of a customer supply of the six-cylinder E-Series engine, the Austin Maxi four-cylinder 1500cc version of the unit and associated gearbox, with its then unusual five-speed configuration, was substituted. The idea was to offer the car, as did Lotus, as both a built up car and as a self-assembly kit, such was the optimism surrounding the car.
So it was at the October 1972 Racing Car Show in London that Bohanna Stables Limited presented to the world their new concept car the ‘Diablo’
It is interesting to note that Bohanna Stables exhibition space at the show was right next to their former employers’ Lola stand.
Sadly, the market for the Diablo concept did not gain traction and all enquires for funding were unfortunately rejected. Prior to the 1972 show, offers for cooperation to various companies were made including established low-volume manufacturers AC Cars and TVR but, although there was interest, there were no takers.
After the successful presentation and public reaction, but disappointing financial situation and with thoughts of abandoning the project AC Cars owner Derek Hurlock reconsidered and negotiated the purchase of the design and prototype.
AC planned a production run of 10 to 20 cars a week commencing almost immediately with a 1973 model, the Thames Ditton concern contacted British Leyland’s Longbridge Engine Plant at Cofton Hackett with a request for an ongoing supply contract only for British Leyland to refuse the request citing ‘supply difficulties’ due to the projected production needs for the upcoming Austin Allegro.
This and other setbacks eventually saw the car released in 1979 with a Ford 3000cc Essex V6 and a custom gearbox as the AC 3000ME. The car, while interesting and contemporary in 1973, was out of date six years later and sold poorly during its five-year production run selling fewer models that the Unipower GT.
The impish Moke competitor – the Nymph
With the sale of the Diablo/3000ME to AC Cars so ended the story of Bohanna and Stables with BMC/BL products. However, the pair did produce a further interesting car which, whilst having nothing directly to do with BMC or, indeed, Unipower, did utilise other British manufacturers components: Hillman and Jaguar.
Jaguar had purchased the Coventry Climax engine company in 1963 and, just prior to that, the company had developed an all-alloy four-cylinder 875cc engine, a derivative of its FWM water pump motor for the Rootes Group; this engine would be used in the upcoming BMC Mini competitor, the rear-engined Hillman Imp range.
By 1974, Bohanna and Stables had designed a small four-seat doorless and roofless fibreglass-bodied recreational buggy similar in concept to the Mini Moke utilising the running gear and the 40hp OHC engine of the Hillman Imp.
By 1975, the car had become known as the delightfully named ‘Nymph’ and was shown to the management of then Chrysler UK with a view to gaining supply contacts with that organisation; surprisingly the UK management were very supportive and proceeded to consider the car for series production at its Ryton Plant – where the Imp engine/transaxle were manufactured – as a product mainly for export to struggling former Rootes Group distributors in warmer climates such as Australia and the Caribbean.
Chrysler UK management looked to re-purpose some of the soon-to-be withdrawn Imp production tooling and facilities with initial thoughts of up to 4000 units annually; it was considered to be a potentially profitable car with little production costs for the beleaguered Anglo-American concern.
Alas it was not to be as Chrysler UK’s parents in Detroit were unwilling or perhaps unable to invest (due in part to their own imminent bankruptcy) and decided that the investment, albeit tiny, was not justified and the decision was made to simply discontinue production obsoleted Imp line completely in 1976.
Bohanna Stables Limited then proceeded to produce the car in-house as a kit, utilising donor cars for the running gear, from late 1975 until mid-1977. Production peaked at approximately 40-45 kits before the company dissolved and withdrew from the automotive manufacturing business entirely.
The final BMC-Unipower diversion: the Quasar-Unipower CubeCar
Stepping back in the story a few years, the later 1960s saw Unipower involved in what must be one of the most unusual vehicles ever produced in the UK.
The 1960s were undoubtedly a time of interesting fashions, some great music and above all seemingly endless optimism, so the 1968 Quasar-Unipower must be viewed in that context; it would be difficult to consider the car as even a low production niche model, but more so a series of concept cars sold mainly to a select few Parisian eccentrics.
Designed by French-Vietnamese Designer Mr Quasar Khanh – a stylist/designer more famous for some oh so 1960s pop art inflatable furniture – it was first presented in public and press on 9 April 1968 in Belgravia, London.
The so-called CubeCar was produced and marketed as the Quasar-Unipower and built in very limited numbers in 1968 at the Perivale plant alongside the GT car. The model featured a rear-mounted BMC 1100 A-Series engine and transmission from the Austin 1100 (ADO16), Mini hub/brake assemblies and 10 inch wheels together with a custom box chassis, a unique bus-like steering column and minimalist instrument binnacle together with a body of domestic glass sliding doors, full-length safety glass windows and roof. The car sported clear plastic inflatable seats for allegedly six occupants in questionable comfort and minimal safety to complete the very sparse interior. Obviously, unusual in many ways the CubeCar is still unique in the motoring world as it is wider than it is long.
Fifteen of these wonderfully strange autos were produced and retailed at a staggering £900 each – remember you could buy a 1300 Ford Capri for around the same money in the UK at the time and that is over £14,000 in 2018 inflation adjusted Sterling – with the majority of the production run finding homes over the channel in France sold from a single showroom in Paris and a solitary car is known to have been exported to Montreal Canada in 1969 with another, left-hand-drive car remaining in the UK. Six are known to exist as of 2018 with only one or two roadworthy.
End of independence
When researching the ‘DNA’ of industry it is sometimes surprising how many interwoven connections you can discover, the story of Universal Power Drives has, as we have already seen, revealed many associations with BMC, Jaguar/Coventry Climax, AC Cars and the Rootes Group/Chrysler UK.
However, in 1977 yet another twist in the story occurs as Unipower was acquired by none other than AC Cars which quickly shut down and sold the Perivale site and moved all production to AC Cars home in Thames Ditton, Surrey.
- The story does not come to a complete end there though, as we shall see in Part Two of Connections.