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 1906 - 1939

La Societe des Voitures Legeres Unic

When Georges Richard, who had founded the Georges Richard Cycle Company in 1893, broke away from the Richard-Brasier company to establish, somewhat confusingly , the Georges Richard Company, he was determined to keep to a one-model policy, in this new independent venture. Hence the new company's alternative title of La Societe des Voitures Legeres Unic. There was, however, nothing utilitarian about the Unic car, which first appeared in the early part of 1905. Rated at 10/12 hp, it was a handsome little car which, with ploughshare wings and a roi des beiges body, looked remarkably like a miniature Mercedes, though its 1798cc engine only had two cylinders.

The Gordon Bennett sweepstake

One of the very first Unics, valued at Fr 10,000, was given as first prize in a Gordon Bennett sweepstake organised by the magazine La Vie au Grand Air in May 1905. M Richard did not keep to his one-model policy for long: in 1906 he announced a four-cylinder Unic, the 16/20, of 2616cc, which sold in England for £450 complete, £100 more than the smaller model. Another four, the 12/14, appeared in 1907; this 1944cc monobloc-engined car became the basis of the most famous Unic of all, the taxi version.

The power unit remained in production for around two decades, while the Unic taxicabs were in evidence on the streets of London long after the model had ceased production. In fact, the old 10/12 twin, which survived until 1911, ended its days as a taxi chassis, too: the National Motor Cab Company of Hammersmith ran a fleet of 250, the day-to-day running of which was supervised by a young man named W. O. Bentley.

Oddly enough, considering the sporting reputation of the Richard-Brasier, the Unic cars were dull and stodgy machines, and not particularly rewarding to drive. Engaging top gear, for example, was a tricky business, and likely to jar the driver's wrist if handled unskilfully. The Unic cabs were notoriously bad starters on cold mornings, and Bentley had to heat their plugs in a coke brazier like roast chestnuts in an effort to persuade them to fire.

In 1908 a new big four was added to the line- up: this was the 24/30, with a 3759cc engine. A year later came a short-lived six-cylinder model, the 4086cc 25/35, which cost UK£620 in chassis form, but only survived in production until 1911. In any case, these ventures had become un-characteristic of the Unic, which was now firmly established as a taxi chassis: its then concessionaires, Mann & Overton of London, originally importers of high-priced luxury cars like the Mercedes, became identified with taxis as a result of their association with Unic.

Owners praised the uncomplaining reliability of the Unic. In 1912 Gilbert G. Blackman of Oxted, Surrey, wrote: 'The 12/14hp Unic I bought in July 1910 is still going strong, and in spite of the fact that I have just ticked off another 10,000 miles the motor is as good as when delivered to me. The replacements during the whole of the time have amounted to 4S 6d. Although I live in an exceedingly hilly district, I am able to average 32 to 45 miles per gallon'. By the outbreak of war, it seemed as though the old one-model policy was totally abandoned: an 8/10 hp 1206cc twin had lasted only the 1912 season, and the 10/12 twin had been replaced at the end of 1913 by a new 1460cc four, which was now the smallest of a five model range.

Agence Unic Paris
Agence Unic Paris.

Competition Unic prior to the 1907 Criterium de la France
Competition Unic prior to the 1907 Criterium de la France.
The 16/24 hp of 3308cc was a development of the 1906 model, but the rest was all new: there was a 2614cc 12/18hp four and a longstroke big four of 23/40 hp and 6242cc, while a six once more appeared in the range in the shape of the ephemeral 19/35 hp of 3921cc. But the war changed all that. Unics of the 1919-21 period were remarkable only for their complex double cantilever rear suspension, and in 1922 came a new 1847cc four, the Type L, with equally curious back springing by a single cantilever above a short quarter-elliptic spring. This was the last new model developed under Georges Richard, who was killed in an accident in June 1922, aged 59.

The Type L had unit construction of engine and gearbox, and four-wheel' braking as early as 1922. Though its construction was otherwise conventional, it was apparent that Unic were trying to slough off the old taxi image with this model, as good looking sporting versions were available, culminating in the 70 mph 2-liter ohv IICV Type L3T3 Sport of 1923-25, which was seemingly the first car to bear horizontal bonnet louvres: automotive stylists had arrived!

Returning to the One Model Policy

By 1926 only this 2 liter IICV model was available, in touring or sporting form, which showed that Unic had at last returned to its origins. But this singleness of purpose was submerged in a new consortium between ailing manufacturers which took place in 1927, when Unic, Chenard-Walcker and Delahaye linked up to rationalise their resources. Rosengart became part of this groupement in 1929, but by that time the partners had already started to go off on their own separate ways once more. In 1929, Unic again abandoned their single-model policy, announcing two straight-eights with overhead valves and four forward speeds alongside the IICV.

These cars had a new form of rear suspension - by double cantilevers of unequal lengths. But this was nothing to the curious front suspension adopted by Unic in 1934, after, it seems, a period in the economic doldrums when no cars were built. Reported The Motor's correspondent at the Paris Salon: 'Unic, after an absence of several years, present an interesting display of new cars, and this firm, like Peugeot, has adopted the "one colour" idea. All the Unic cars are finished in white with red leather upholstery. Intensely conservative in design, the new Unic cars nevertheless follow the trend towards independent suspension which has become universal on the continent. The Unic suspension arrangement retains the classic, half-elliptic spring, but the chassis is carried by articulated arms, bolted to the centre of the spring and hinged at the opposite side of the frame, all of which combines to form a two-part "axle".'

During 1936 Unic adopted the horizontal handbrake, which projected from the dashboard and alloy cylinder heads. The Motor commented: 'Unic, who returned to the touring car world last year after concerntrating for some time on industrial vehicles only, present two entirely new chassis, a 2-liter and a 3-liter. The most interesting is a sports version of the 3-liter. This has an overhead valve pushrod engine with an aluminum cylinder head, and a feature of the chassis is the double-reduction gear in the rear axle'. This gave a low overall height without a transmission tunnel.

Other features of the new models were an oil cooler incorporated in the radiator and Cotal electric gear-boxes. The complete cars were less advanced in their appearance than the majority of French cars, and were, therefore, in accord with British ideas. The four-door, four-light saloon, for example, was a well-balanced design with a large luggage trunk and sweeping well-balanced wings. But this conservatism spelt economic disaster on the French market. Unic's return to the touring car industry was short-lived, and in 1939 they once again turned to the production of commercial vehicles. Still listed when private car output ceased was the old llCV (though now they called it a 12) a reminder of the days in 1923 when it was introduced.
1924 Unic 12hp Type L
1924 Unic 12hp Type L.
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