Monday, 28 September 2020

Unipower GT really used carbonfibre in 1969 - UPDATED

Carbonfibre may now be used everywhere in the motoring industry, but was of course first seen in motor sports. The very first structural use of carbon in a car is said to date back to 1981 when McLaren came with its MP4/1 model. It became the first F1 car to use a monocoque chassis of carbon fibre composite.

But there may have been earlier uses and I was recently sent a clipping which indicates so. Dated April 1969 the article is all about the Le Mans Essais (tests) of that year and gives some great insights. The Unipower GT famously made it to that Le Mans test day, too, and it was great to read the following: "British interests were upheld by the Healey-Climax V8 2-litre prototype and Piers Forester with his carbon-fibre element bodied Unipower 1.3." Yes. 'Carbon-fibre element bodied'. Twelve years before McLaren, that is.

Unipower aficionado Gerry Hulford had mentioned it before (here), writing: "The car had a very thin fibreglass body strengthened by carbonfibre strands laid across the fibreglass (I saw it with Piers Forester when I visited the Works in May of 1969)". Unfortunately the car itself does not survive as it was crashed and written-off at the Nurburgring in September 1970 using a Ford 1600 engine. The yellow racer that Gerry has is a replica of the Le Mans car (which I didn't know when Maximum Mini 1 was published back in 2009!) 

But back to the use of carbon fibre, if only it was for that very early date. I have asked a little around and Michael Cooke came back with the following: "Although it was invented in the 1950s as a stable consistent filament, it was a research laboratory in England that first made a workable form in the mid 1960s, I'm sure it was a division of Courtalds that managed to weave / produce the sheets. It is possible that they teamed up with or sold to the motoring industry, but my knowledge is not motorsport based. But motorsport has always found uses for other industries developments, eg - aluminium honeycombs, titanium, inconel et cetera. Most of the initial development was for industrial and defence uses but motorsport is always is very quick to capitalise on the developments of new materials. Earlier carbon composite materials are quite different from later/modern composite composition though."

An interesting article shows the Unipower GT at Le Mans Essais in April 1969... 
Picture courtesy Henk A. Hazelaar

...and mentions it, too, as: the 'Carbon-fibre element bodied Unipower 1.3'
Picture courtesy Henk A. Hazelaar

Forester and his Unipower GT had no luck at the test day in April 1969, last in this list
Picture courtesy Henk A. Hazelaar

UPDATE 1 October 2020 - Not one, but three messages from Gerry Hulford, added below. I have edited them mildly by only taking out the more personal stuff in order to shorten them a little.

"Dear Jeroen, I read your blog about the use of carbon fibre by Unipower back in 1969, which is of course very true as the Unipower GT was an innovator in a number of ways back then. However, firstly where did you ever get the idea that my car is a ‘Replica of the Le Mans car’? I bought my car in 1976 and it was both the first Unipower GT car sold by Universal Power Drives (UPD) in January 1966 and the first chassis constructed by UPD. It was also sold and built as the first ever competition GT version of the Unipower GT and delivered to its customer in April 1966. For various reasons following another Unipower owners’ untrue claims as to the provenance of his car, my car’s history & provenance was recently legally documented and authenticated by Ernie Unger, the founder of the Unipower GT sports car. It has always been a competition GT version, and was raced by John Miles for its first owner before being bought back by Piers Weld-Forester the then co-owner of UWF Automotive Engineering, the second company to manufacture the Unipower GT. Piers raced the car in the UK as a UWF factory entry before, following the participation of the two only other factory competition GT cars in the World Sports Car Championship in 1969, to be co-driven by Piers in the last two races that year, being the Nurburgring 500kms and the Barcelona 12hrs, again as a factory entered car. The car bears all the original patina of its international history, carefully maintained during its sympathetic refresh in 2014 and it displays many unique features in its construction, that date its documented history throughout its life. So thank you for mentioning my commitment to the marque, but please do not refer to my car as being a ‘replica’, as this does not do service to the Unipower GT marque. There was I admit some confusion many years ago, supported by early corroboration from ex-members of UPD, that my car had been used for the Le Mans test day in May of 1969 for the Le Mans 24hrs attempt that year. However I always had my doubts, despite the obvious potential status for the car, and following extensive research by myself with the benefit of employees from the UWF factory over many years, found that the confusion had been caused by the test day entry never ‘officially’ having been built and recorded in any factory records and as my car was being raced by Piers, it was ‘assumed’ it had been used by him. He being also the only driver to drive the car at that test day. As to the carbon fibre story, indeed this material was in its infancy in those early days. The ability to work with such a material was being learnt, hence the rather crude, by today’s standards, use of the material affixed in ‘strands’ formed into a matrix to the underside of the conventional but much thinner fiberglass layup on the Unipower GT built specially for the June Le Mans 24hrs attempt. This I did indeed see when I was first shown the car by Piers Forester back in early 1969. Regards, Gerry Hulford" 

"Hi Jeroen, Thank you for your reply. Indeed as I clearly stated in my email, I took the judgement of past members of the Unipower factory that my car had been used by Piers Forester on that test day in May 1969. However, I like to think to my credit, I still had a nagging doubt. In some respects for the promotion of the marque, that a car still existed from that event was good news, but you will see that I did not take it to lots of shows and make a big thing about it although various journalists liked the association. After many years of finding more photos and researching the paint layers (the initial colour and then many coats of yellow before another colour on the car when I bought it from the owner after Unipower), specific body features, as well as further in depth conversations with its designer and workshop manager and some close friends of Piers, I came to the conclusion that the car used that day, was built specially and never officially existed. I have much more detail around this story which will be in the book. All this I have authenticated from multiple conversations with ex-Unipower staff who thankfully are still alive. So the history of my car is as I stated in the email to you, with the added fact that, and once again now fully authenticated by the designer present at the testing and the driver of the car, the discovery and first use of air dam was done on my car in late 1966. Again I have the full story in a verbal transcript from the ex-Unipower source to confirm this as well as photographic evidence, also in a signed document. Regards Gerry"

"Hi Jeroen. Just also on your calling my car a ‘Replica’, this implies to your readership that my car is a ‘Fake’ and that it has been built as a copy of another car. Even, as in the definition of the term replica, that the car was not originally built by Unipower. I’m sure you will see how damaging such a statement can be to the Unipower marque and indeed to myself. So once again, thank you in anticipation that you publish my comment, but a small retraction/clarification from yourself I think is also in order, so as to remove the doubt that the ‘replica’ statement would have instilled in some people’s minds. Regards Gerry" 

My replies (also slightly shortened): 
"I will update the article with your comment but am still very much confused about your car since you told me with great determination that it was the number 53 Le Mans car many years ago. It is not that, I believe now. As the owner of a genuine historic Le Mans car I know very well now that you have to be careful with claims like this."

"Personally I would never claim a car to be a certain racer when I’d have a nagging doubt but, hey, that’s me. Best, Jeroen"

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