“Motor Sport” Samples the Unicar Model-T
IN an age when the Continent is a breeding ground for minicars it is good to know that Britain has the Unicar. Haying a soft spot in his heart for the cyclecar the Editor persuaded the makers, S. E. Opperman Ltd., Engineers, of Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire, to lend him one of these little economy saloons and the folloeing observations are written after driving over 500 miles in this latest version of a decidedly ingenious approach to the problem of minimum motoring.
It is fair to describe the Unicar as a modern cyclecar, descendant of the Bedelias, Rollos and G.N.s which proved commendably economical, if not particularly reliable, and which surprised big car owners by their brisk performance many moons ago—the lively little vehicle from Boreham Wood has a rear-mounted, air-cooled, two-cylinder 328-c.c. two-stroke engine, chain primary and final drives and a solid back axle. There the cyclecar associations end, for the construction is highly ingenious and incorporates such modern features as i.f.s., fibre-glass chassis and body, and the handsome appearance of the Continental tinies.
The platform chassis is plastic, with surprisingly little metal bonded in, although there are metal side-members. Vertical brackets at the front corners take the double fabricated wishbones of the i.f.s. Girling strut-type suspension units picking up on the upper wishbones, A normal Burman steering box is used (no wire-and-bobbin in 1958 !), with the track-rod out in front of the chassis. The engine is mounted virtually amidships, the cylinder block across the car. It is a 328-c.c. Excelsior Talisman Twin Mk VI. adopted after another make had been tried in the original Unicar model-A. The present T designation derives from the use of the proven Talisman Twin power unit and is not an intentional link with the model-T Ford !
In unit with this two-stroke engine is a 3-speed and reverse Albion Type HJR gearbox, driven by enclosed primary chain and with ratios obviously well suited to the Talisman’s torque curve. Final drive is by a single exposed chain (clean and lubricate every 500 miles) to a solid back axle suspended on long trailing arms sprung by means of a single, central coil spring anchored to a bracket high up on the rear of the body structure. Girling cable-operated brakes complete this ensemble, in which ingenious planning has achieved the required light weight and simplicity. A cylindrical tank in the boot carries the fuel and ” petroil ” lubrication, with gravity-feed to the Amid Type 376 carburetter.
The body is a two-seater fibre-glass shell, well finished in bright colours sprayed-on (blue, red, fawn or grey). Two persons are accommodated on a simple bench seat, adjustable by pegging it in to a series of holes in the floor. The engine is immediately behind this seat, an easily detachable hatch giving access for plug changing, which is the most obvious maintenance task with a two-stroke and which can be done entirely from inside the car on a wet day ! Two small infants’ seats flank this hatch, the 12-volt battery living under the off-side one, a tool-box under the near-side seat. The tool-roll, one notes, includes magneto spanners and plug-cleaning wire brush.
Neither boot nor ” bonnet ” open, the spare wheel living on a shelf under the dash over the driver’s feet and having to be removed via the near-side door, the remainder of this extremely deep shelf taking the (light) luggage. Two trailing lockable doors are fitted, with sliding windows, these doors being wide enough to give the children as well as their parents access, at the expense of the front-seat occupants having to reach back for the interior handles, which are on the trailing edge of the doors. Slots in the doors act as ” pulls ” but at that on the passenger’s door, which was hard to close, the fibre-glass had begun to crack.
Because of the differential-less back axle the Unicar has a crab-track of 12 in, achieved by fitting the back wheels “inside out.” Dealers are apt to turn the wheels the other way, to improve appearance and render the tyre valves accessible, at the expense of increased tyre scrub. The Unicars controls are normal, the mansized central gear-lever working the positive-stop change in a prominent notched quadrant-gate. The hand-brake is of umbrella-handle type under the facia shelf on the right, this holding securely with a small movement. There is a good rear-view mirror. A pleasing feature is a stalk on the right of the steering-column, controlling the non-self-cancelling direction-flashers, with a horn-button on its extremity. Instrumentation is confined to a small Smiths 60-m.p.h. speedometer with total mileage indicator; a tiny Wipae turn-switch for the lamps, an indicator light for the direction-flashers, detachable ignition key, and starter button for the silent and efficient Type AZL. SX 12/90-1,200R Siba Dynastart. Apart from a Bowden choke lever by the driver’s left leg and a petrol cock that he can reach by stretching an arm, awkwardly, to the left rear corner of the body—this cock should he turned off at each prolonged pause–that’s the lot. There is a single-blade screen-wiper, the wiper switch up under the dash, as on the Renault 4 c.v.
On the road ? The Unicar is impressive, even to one who delights in driving queer little cars of this kind, at all events for short periods; the design shows evidence of having been carefully tested over 35,000 miles after development from the original, which was laid down, inevitably, by Laurie Bond.
The seat is very upright, and hard, interior trim is crude, and there are some sharp edges. The engine vibrates until speed picks up in the gears and, driven fast, the noise level renders the occupants quite deaf, suggesting that car-plugs and/or Anadin should be supplied with the car. Yet the willing manner in which the Unicar performs excuses these deficiencies. The writer set off from Boreham Wood to a Perkins’ party at Peterborough, which necessitated driving flat out for over three hours. It was soon evident that, with luck, 40 miles can be put into the hour on main road, the useful acceleration and a cruising speed of 45-50 m.p.h., allied to the Unicar’s ability to go through small gaps, usually making such averages possible. The yowl of the Excelsior engine adds to the fun, and, in fact, one horse-power more than was claimed for the pre-war Austin Seven” Ruby” saloon in a car weighing only 61 cwt. spells quite impressive performance. That hordes of such small cars would choke our roads is an absolute fallacy. On this initial run we time and again passed and out-accelerated conventional cars !
Driven thus fuel consumption came out at 49 m.p.g. (not counting the small amount of oil in each gallon). Later, pottering about and holding speed down to a tedious 30 m.p.h., this improved to 57 m.p.g., which isn’t really good enough, especially as one-third of a gallon of S.A.E.30 oil has to be added to each gallon of petrol, putting the cost per gallon, although the cheapest petrol is acceptable, above that of super fuels. Against this, if choice lies between the Unicar and a used car of like price, it can be argued that a three-year old vehicle is quite likely to use the same quantity of oil (400 m.p.g.) as the Unicar, more if stump-draining is taken into account. But no minicar should do leas than 60 m.p.g. at normal speeds and we were disappointed not to get anywhere near the maker’s claim of 75 m.p.g. As no petrol gauge or reserve-tap is fitted it is almost essential to have a tin of “petroil” mixture on board.
The present cost of the Unicar (£399 10s.) is close to that of a good used car a conventional type but if the Government would abolish p.t. on tiny low-power cars of this type the price would immediately fall to £265 12s. and increased sales would probably get this to below £200, when a very ready market would open up for this practical and jolly little vehicle. Particularly for the garage-less, because the fibre-glass body is rust-proof.
As it is, especially if money is a secondary consideration, the Unicar is well worth considering as a second-string or as m’lady’s shopping car. A de luxe version is available for £427 17s. The car is economical on tyres as well as fuel, easy to drive and easy to park (though a smaller turning circle would make it even more so), while it is attractively finished externally and of quite a nice shape.
The ride is hard but comfortable on normal roads but there is a tendency to wander. The car corners “flat,” with accurate steering. The steering needs only two turns, lock-to-lock, and is light, with mild castor-return action. Cornered with enterprise there is pronounced oversteer and a sense of instability intrudes, but on normal bends the Unicar is fast and safe. The brakes are just adequate. Visibility is excellent, although the screen pillars are rather wide. The gear change will delight the enthusiast, so crisp and positive is the action; the need to select a gear or get neutral before coming to rest, and the fact that the gear lever knob tends to bruise the driver’s left leg, can be easily forgiven. Reverse is forward, the other positions on the visible gate, going back towards the driver, being N, 1, 2 and 3.
Treadle pedals operate clutch and throttle, the former having a small movement, so that it is easy to stall the engine, although a touch on the starter button gets it going again instantly. There is little room for the clutch foot, but leg-room for the front-seat passenger is enormous.
No cooling fan is used, the engine taking air from beneath the car, hot air leaving via the hole from which the petrol filler protrudes. The hatch above the cylinders remains quite cool, but the engine tends to run-on after the ignition is cut.
The only trouble experienced was with one K.L.G. FE70D plug which, like a certain well-known motoring journalist, grew a whisker. This may have been because we forgot to turn off the petrol overnight, although this did not affect matters for at least 20 miles, and later the trouble occurred once again—perhaps we misjudged the oil content. After cleaning the plug the Talisman Twin went better than ever. Before, it hung at just below 30 m.p.h. in middle gear, but subsequently the absolute speedometer maxima in the gears became, respectively 27, 42 and 56 m.p.h.
When it isn’t hurried to the full extent of its rather surprising capacity the Unicar it less noisy and at all times it provides satisfactory transport in reasonable comfort. Definitely it is no sluggard, its appearance is far from comic and for night driving the beam from the inbuilt Wico-Pacey Mk. 2 headlamps is unexpectedly powerful, and useful even when dipped; with lamps alight the facia is illuminated and the speedometer can just be read, but not the mileometer.
We enjoyed our spell of cyclecaring and those who seek a really small coupe of sound design should support the iniative which S. E. Opperman Ltd. show in this ingenious contribution to the minimum motoring field. The Unicar is, in fact, the least-expensive true four-wheeler on the British market.—W. B.
THE UNICAR MODEL-T COUPE
Engine : Two cylinders, 58 by 62 mm. (328 c.c.). Two-stroke cycle. 7.9 to 1 compression-ratio. 18 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m.
Gear ratios : First, 15.6 to 1; second, 8.2 to 1; top, 5.13 to 1.
Tyres : 4.40 by 12 Firestone 4-ply Gum-Dipped, on bolt-on steel disc wheels.
Weight : 6 cwt. 2 qr. (less occupants, but ready for the road, with approx. one gallon of petroil).
Steering-ratio : Two turns, lock-to-lock.
Fuel capacity : 31 gallons (range approximately 170 miles).
Wheelbase : 6 ft. 0 in.
Dimensions : 9 ft. 8 in. by 4 ft. 10 in. by 4 ft. 7 in. (high).
Price : £265 12s. (£399 10s. inclusive of purchase tax).
Makers : S. E. Opperman Ltd., Boreham Wood. Herts, England.