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Move over Del Boy - three wheelers are back (and cool)

Classic cars are the stars of the Circuit des Remparts race in Angoulême in mid September, and joining them this year will be France’s three-wheeler fans the Amical Tricyclecariste de France. Samantha David meets their president

22 September 2016
Prestigious British car maker Morgan - and a handful of other small manufacturers - still make three-wheel cars but older models remain most popular
By Samantha David

In Britain, the popular modern image of a three-wheel vehicle is Del Boy’s battered yellow Reliant from the long-running BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses.

But the vehicles boast a longer and much more impressive heritage than that offered by the hapless Trotter clan. And now, they also have a growing fan club in the 21st century.

Frédéric Viginier, president of Amical Tricyclecariste de France (ATF), explained that the joy of the three-wheel car starts with the noise it makes. “When you start the engine, it sounds like a Harley-Davidson, the noise vibrates right though you.

“And the smell of oil and petrol, the way they handle. You only have to drive a tricyclecar once to get hooked.”

He said that he especially enjoys going into tight corners fast enough to get one front wheel off the road. “It feels like nothing else.”

Cyclecars are all open-topped. Although a few do have soft tops, apparently ‘only softies’ use them.

“The point is to drive in the weather, in the surroundings, to get the real experience,” said  Mr Viginier.

“We wear goggles to protect the eyes from wind, rain and bugs but even when it’s snowing, driving a three-wheeler is a fantastic thrill.”

Cyclecars are not fast, but because the seats are so low, even 80-120kph can feel chaotic, while cornering and braking become a whole new experience.

The vehicles are a motorcycle/car hybrid that were all the rage during the decade 1910-1920.

They were designed to be as lightweight and cheap as a motorcycle, while looking more like a car. Many featured three wheels, although some had four.

They are divided into two classes. The small class weighs between 150-300kg and has an engine capacity of up to 750cc, and the large class can weigh up to 350kgs and have an engine capacity of up to 1100cc.

Mainstream production stopped nearly a century ago, but the cars have a growing club of fans, who say they are uniquely fun to drive and boast vintage good looks.

Cars take to the winding country roads of southwest France

Mr Viginier became interested in them via a friend of his father’s who started the ATF. “My father was into it and I got bitten at a young age. I bought my first three-wheeler when I was 20. It goes in families and circles of friends I suppose. But we’re happy for people to discover this passion.”

British car manufacturer Morgan still makes three-wheelers (starting at about £25,000) as do a handful of other, usually one-person outfits.

“The Morgan three-wheeler is designed for one purpose alone,” said James Gilbert of Morgan. “To make driving fun.”

Purists prefer vintage cars to new models but they are rare. It is thought that there are no more than about 400 in France. They are expensive, and tend to change hands among club members.

Mr Viginier said it is impossible to put a price on passion. “In any case each car is different, has a different history. How can you say what they’re worth?”

The ATF has 120 members all over France, and is proud to include Belgians, Swiss, Germans and Italians.

“So far we don’t have any Brits, but we’d welcome any that want to join us,” he says.

“The club includes people of all ages, and is very family orientated. Some cars have a third or even a fourth seat so children can come along, too. Between us, club members are expecting five babies this year.”

The club organises three-day driving tours in various parts of France. The events revolve around hitting the road but are also social occasions, with big meals at overnight stops.

The club also acts as a marketplace for spare parts.

“There are specialist garages around, but many members tinker with their own cars, and the club helps members exchange parts and know-how.”

Members help each other with repairing and maintaining their machines. Because mechanically, they’re completely different from modern motorcycles and cars, it can be fascinating for aficionados.

Finding original spare parts is practically impossible, so members make them, often making extras to sell to other members. “Making spare parts or getting them made is cheaper when you make more than one, so it’s also a way of keeping costs down.”

Three-wheeled cyclecars do not have to pass a contrôle technique (MOT), but four-wheel models do and there are specialist centres that can test them.

For both three- and four-wheelers you need a standard class B driving licence. Minimum third party only road insurance can be as cheap as €40 a year but a comprehensive policy can be pricey.

“Driving a cyclecar is fantastic fun, but I also like the social aspect,” says Mr Viginier. “When people see you driving one, they smile and wave.

“When you park, people come towards you, they are attracted to the cars, they want to take photos, so you get a lot of contact with people, and when we’re all out together we’re like kids in cars, zooming along, overtaking each other. Getting one wheel off the road.

“We’re big kids with big toys.”

Frédéric Viginier and his wife Alexandra at the wheel of a Darmont Aéroluxe 1935

Classic cars race around city streets

This month’s Circuit des Remparts was first raced in 1939, then returned in 1947 after the war.

The 1.2km loop is set in the heart of Angoulême, passing in front of the cathedral and around the nearby park - a route that has remained the same since the first race.

You can watch a film of its 1939 debut on the circuit’s website www.circuit-des-remparts.com in the history section.

The race lost popularity after the Second World War and eventually ceased, like similar competitions which were held in Albi, Nîmes, Aix-les-Bains and Perpignan.

However, in 1978 it returned with a historic slant and has become as much about displaying cars as competing in them. This year’s circuit takes place on September 16-19 starting with a vehicle ‘beauty pageant’ along the Champs de Mars on Friday evening.

On Saturday, 200 teams will cruise along a 180km route in the Charente countryside, leaving the Pôle Image Magelis at 8.00 and returning to the place du Champ de Mars at Angoulême at 16.30. Spectators can watch for free.

The circuit itself takes place on Sunday with 160 teams taking part from 8.00 until 19.30. The best spots to watch are in spectator stands where you will need a ticket – it is recommended that you book in advance via the website as some stands are already filling up.

The circuit is one of three events held over the weekend in Angoulême
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