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Unique Performance Ford Mustang GT 500 - All Revved Up
For Unique Performance, Eleanor Was A Jumpstart Into Something Really Big
"You ain't seen nothing yet" is what Unique Performance should have told us in 2002. That's the year they started building continuation G.T.500E Mustangs in partnership with Carroll Shelby.
Come to think of it, founders Doug Hasty, Richard Kearby, and Chris Layne didn't know how big and how quick their humble car shop would grow. But look at them now. After just four years, the company is on back-order 12 to 14 months for its popular continuation Shelby Mustangs. They have aligned with Tecstar to produce a new '06 Chip Foose Mustang that will appear in Ford showrooms this summer. They have also forged a deal to build Foose Camaros. They'll even have a part in creating and building the new Shelby F-150 series pickup. No doubt Unique will build more special performance vehicles wearing the blue oval, ranging from restomod to new.
To learn more about this trend-setting company, we flew into Dallas and drove about 10 miles to Farmers Branch, 13950 Senlac Drive, home to Unique Performance. From the outside, it looks like every other concrete building in the industrial complex. Only a painted sign on the front-door glass reveals what's inside.
Visitors are greeted by Kristen, whose official job title is administrative assistant. Unofficially, cohorts call her the director of first impressions because she has a smile that lights up a room. To her left is the showroom. On this trip, we spotted a G.T. 500E convertible, a prototype '06 Foose Mustang Stallion convertible, and a standard G.T. 500E fastback.
The shop takes up most of the 30,000 square feet, where Bobby Mikus supervises a metal and body shop, twin paint booths, vehicle assembly, and what Unique calls an R&D skunk works program.
We noticed a few Foose Camaros under construction, but mostly we saw '67 Mustang fastbacks and a sprinkling of '65s. There was also an almost-finished '68 convertible that we hear is a new model called the G.T. 500SR. Under the hood was an FE-series 427 topped by a trick fuel-injection setup. A just-finished '65 G.T. 350SR caught our attention with its flashy white paint and red stripes. Turns out, it's Mikus' personal car.
At Unique, there's no telling what may come up next. The shop reminds us of Shelby's old place at the L.A. Airport where he built Mustangs, Cobras, and Ford GTs.
Front and center at Unique is Doug Hasty, a personable man in his 40s, who runs the day-to-day operations. He has that executive look and demeanor but with the rough exterior of someone well acquainted with building hot rods.
"We basically started the company just to fill our desires for cars," Hasty explained.
High on the original list was an Eleanor Shelby like the one that appeared in the movie Gone In Sixty Seconds. Hasty built one using a body kit from Cinema Vehicle Services, the company that supplied the cars for the movie. His original intention was simply to drive his Eleanor on the street. But he discovered a demand for the car when his home-built Eleanor won awards at car shows
"Going back to day one with Carroll Shelby, we had four employees and a 6,000 square foot shop. Carroll and I talked about doing 10 to 15 cars. There were no plans to grow the business. Demand and supply is what created it. When sales keep rolling in the door, then you've got to expand to accommodate the demand."
From the start, Unique Performance worked hard to satisfy that demand. They created a base Eleanor (302) and a Performance edition (351 Windsor stroked to a 392, then later to a 408), followed in the summer of 2003 by the Super Snake, powered by a blown 427 with 725 hp. For its Performance series, the staff developed a taller hood, then used it on the Super Snake.
Upping the horsepower to such ground-pounding levels on classic Mustangs with a chassis that was originally borrowed from the Falcon requires serious engineering and development. We peered under a G.T. 500E at a dizzying array of high-tech parts and pieces. Nothing much resembled an early Mustang.
Under the front end, Unique engineered a coilover suspension. The stamped-steel control arms were replaced with TIG-welded, tubular upper and lowers featuring 4130 chrome-moly rod ends and Teflon inserts. Steering is modern rack and pinion. Adjustable shocks from QA1 feature 11 positions on compression and six on rebound. Springs are rated 450 psi.
Unique also fitted the rear end with a coilover suspension that is obviously strange to a '67 Mustang. The laid-down springs and shocks and upgraded rear leafs allow 17x11-inch wheels to mount wide P315/35 series tires. For the G.T. 500Es, Unique installs the Currie Tru-Track differential, a 9-inch rearend (the old 9-inch Ford will not fit) featuring a big bearing housing and a short-yoke, nodular race case. The Tru-Trac eliminates clutches (mega-horsepower big-blocks are apt to burn a few clutches on a conventional Traction-Lok rearend) and can withstand up to 900 hp.
The inside story of Unique Performance is as much one of engineering as it is of marketing a car or forging a business partnership with Carroll Shelby to capitalize on a movie-car craze. In the evolution, Unique has built up a cottage industry supplying parts for these classics.
Fresh out of college, David Ambler presides over the parts department. He knows the parts inside and out, and also the cars. He even built his own Eleanor from a '67 fastback.
Let's say you own a Mustang and want a trick part such as a set of sequential rear taillights. David laid out the parts for us and explained that instead of the old two-piece design, Unique has gone to a simpler one-piece design. Unique also stocks the electronic modules and harness that actuate the sequential lights.
We wondered if anyone could order parts over the counter. For many of them, the answer is yes. The new continuation Shelbys are such a performance step up, they have solved many of the problems that restomodders encounter.
For example, let's say you own a '67 Mustang and have installed a 500-horse engine. The original four-speed can't handle the power. Unique has been there and done that. The staff has already engineered new motor mounts and a transmission crossmember to retrofit a Tremec TKO 500 (or 600), allowing you to take advantage of its R&D, keep your Mustang looking nice and original, and enjoy your big-time horsepower.
Ambler explained that Unique's parts list for early Mustangs is long, from side gas-cap relocation kits to fuel injection, a fiberglass rear package tray, side-exiting exhausts, and even an Eleanor body kit for those who want to build their own.
Although Unique assembles the cars at its facility, there is another important shop a few miles away. I heard Brent Fenimore, vice-president of business operations, mention driving to Denton. I figured he meant Denton, Texas, but he meant the other shop on Denton Drive.
Starting with 35- to 40-year-old cars is much more difficult than starting with new vehicles as Shelby did in the glory days of the '60s. Rough and not-so-rough Mustangs are delivered to Unique's sheetmetal fabrication shop on Denton Drive.
Before visiting Denton, as the shop is called by Unique employees, we visited with another cog in the Unique wheel, Tess Neilson, who works out of a plush office located near DFW Airport. As part of her job, Tess maintains an expansive Web site (www.uniqueperformance.com) that includes photos of employees, as well as the products, news, and press releases. She takes great stock in the people who are proud to be part of the organization.
Unique sprung out of an even larger organization, with several companies operating out of this office. Hasty, Kearby, and Layne had already developed other successful businesses, including Personnel Advantage and KHL Insurance. Basically, Unique Performance utilized existing personnel, such as Tess, to promote and sell cars. Most of them believe the car business adds sparkle to what they do. That's why dealing with Unique Performance is very much like dealing with a larger, Fortune 500-style company. Unique is not the typical start-up hot-rod shop. When the company puts out a new model, they have press releases with photos to distribute to magazines and newspapers.
Layne and Kearby are involved in the other businesses. We spotted the affable Layne in a back office at the Personnel Advantage facility. The next week we saw him at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Florida. He obviously wanted to witness the three Unique vehicles selling at the auction.
The Denton shop was busy. As we walked around, Shift Leader Manuel Contreras explained, "We strip 100 percent of the car. Then it's soda-blasted. We bring it back to our shop, and build the car from scratch. All the sheetmetal work and bodywork is done to get it ready for paint."
Manuel pointed to a stack of old doors that won't be reused. Instead, they'll hang new doors. According to Contreras, about the only thing left of the original car is the VIN, roof, A-pillar, B-pillar, grille, top cowl panel, and dashboard.
Brent Fenimore works in the office but knows car construction inside and out. He led us through the manufacturing process in detail, picking up the steps where Manuel left off. "After soda-blasting, the cars come back to Denton for sheetmetal evaluation to see what will be cut out and what can be reused. There may only be 20 to 50 percent of the original sheetmetal on the new build. Quite often we replace front rails, rear main rails, trunk sections, and all the flooring throughout the vehicle. A typical vehicle has 35-40 new sheetmetal panels welded into it."
When the Mustangs leave Denton, they're ready for painting and assembly with body kits already installed. From there, they move to the building at 13950 Senlac Drive.
Unique moved into this building in October 2003 and held a Grand Opening car show that included Carroll Shelby, Chip Foose, Courtney Hansen (then the host of the TV show Overhaulin'), and even the king of the customizers, George Barris. In typical Unique style, the event was a grand affair that cost upwards of $30,000. At Unique, they don't do anything halfway.
With five times the space of their original shop, Unique continued to expand its lineup and hire more employees to supply the demand. That October, Unique was ready to start production of its first non-Eleanor. Continuing the relationship with Shelby, it looked at the hottest of the collector Shelby Mustangs of the '65-'70 era and decided to create a continuation of the competition '65 G.T. 350 Mustang, dubbed the R-model by the hobby. Unique and Shelby called this new G.T. 350 the SR, which stands for street and race. Instead of making an exact replica of the original R-model, they built a 21st century edition with a hotter engine (410-horse 347), Tremec five-speed, and a raft of features to surpass the classic in handling. Unique put the G.T. 350SR into production with a limited run of 40 cars as a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the original Shelby Mustang.
The next addition to the Unique line was an Eleanor convertible. Their first car, Pure White with Argent Blue stripes, set the auction world on fire at Barrett-Jackson's 2005 Palm Beach sale where a collector paid $550,800 for the G.T. 500E ragtop.
Toying with the idea of expanding into other car lines apart from Mustang, Hasty wondered if there was a Carroll Shelby of Camaros and Chryslers. Discovering there was no charismatic Shelby-type in either the Chevy or Mopar ranks, he thought outside the box. His answer was Chip Foose, the cool-dude designer on Overhaulin'. Tune in and you'll see him customize cars, old and new, starting from scratch with his racy sketches.
Television exposure has been part of Unique's success. Rides did a feature on Unique in a step-by-step build of a G.T. 500E in July 2004. Six months later, Unique got more exposure on perhaps the most watched hot-rod show of all, American Chopper, starring the Teutul family. Basically, the Teutuls built a theme bike in the motif of a '67 Shelby G.T. 500E. The build covered two shows, with the last scenes shot in Las Vegas at the SEMA show. There, the show's patriarch, Paul Teutul Sr., received a '67 G.T. 500E Super Snake in trade for the chopper.
For Unique, Foose first applied his styling skills to a '69 Camaro. Then he put pen to paper to customize a new '05 Mustang. In August 2004, Unique had a prototype of the Foose-designed '05 Mustang Stallion.
The Foose partnership brought another company into Unique's sphere. Tecstar, a top OEM supplier and manufacturer in Troy, Michigan, handled the engineering, validation, and assembly of the new Stallion. Unique Performance and Tecstar have formed Unique Performance Concepts to manufacture limited-edition, high-performance vehicles.
This past January at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona, a collector bought the preproduction Foose Mustang for $167,000.
"With the Foose Stallion project, we know our limitations and our capabilities," Hasty said. "In our facility, we know all about musclecars. But when you jump into what the automakers are making today, it's a different set of rules. For any kind of modification you do on limited production basis, you've got regulations, validations, engineering, and a lot of other things to take into consideration. We don't have the flexibility that we have with the vintage vehicles.
However, Tecstar needed Unique's capabilities as much as Unique needed Tecstar. With Foose working his magic, Tecstar and Unique have created a Mustang to thrill enthusiasts.
Hasty added, "Tecstar does much more than build prototypes, having produced over a half million vehicles. They are a tier-one supplier to GM. All the Chevrolet Z71 pickups were built by Tecstar, something the general public doesn't know.
It's a small world because the Z71s roll off Tecstar's facility in Haslet, Texas, a 30-minute drive west of Farmers Branch. This same facility also turned out the famous SS Chevrolet pickups among other specialty cars. The Z71 is crossing over to another platform, so production is ending for now. At Haslet, Tecstar will pick up the slack assembling Foose Mustangs.
But, there's more specialty vehicles coming. Unique Performance Concepts will also assemble another specialty Ford, the Shelby F-150 Ford pickup.
Foose Mustangs will be sold through Ford dealers with full warranties. Dealers are limited to 100 and will also sell the Shelby product line. Hasty and Unique are bursting with excitement. "The Stallion will have 30 hp more than a stock GT Mustang. We'll have a supercharged option as well, plus better braking and handling.
While at Unique, we also learned Hasty and company are putting together a deal with AC Cars in England. This is the same company that supplied aluminum bodies and chassis to Carroll Shelby to build his original Cobra. AC has developed a new Mark V, which has a carbon-fiber body. Unique Performance will be the U.S. distributor for that vehicle.
New programs will roll out with time. Employee count has passed 135 and continues to grow. What started out as a specialty shop building Eleanor Shelbys has blossomed into two companies, Unique Performance and Unique Performance Concepts, that design, engineer, build, and validate performance cars from classic to new. As you can see, Eleanor was just a jumpstart.