Picture the scene: The ferry has docked in Cherbourg and an hour later you are revelling in gloriously empty French country roads, when far ahead you see a car driving in the same direction as you.
Still in UK driving mode, you do not pay much attention until, suddenly, you have to slam on the brakes to avoid running into the back of it.
You realise it is a voiture sans permis (VSP) – licence-free car – bowling along at its top speed of 45km/h with two large French people inside, at least one of whom is wearing a cloth cap or beret.
These little cars have been a feature of French roads, mainly in rural areas, since the 1970s.
What are licence-free cars?
Almost all have small, two- or three-cylinder Japanese-made motors, derived from compact tractors, but, instead of having 15-20hp, they are throttled or electrically controlled to produce a maximum of eight horsepower.
Gearing is through a centrifugal gearbox, like those used on a moped, and there is usually just one forward and a reverse gear.
Most of the time the motors produce a distinctive noise, not unlike that of a lawnmower.
Fuel consumption is low: between two and three litres of diesel per 100km.
Among the many nicknames for them, pot de yaourt is probably the least rude, and refers to the glass-fibre bodies, often left white and unpainted, with minimal styling, which characterised early models.
The bodies were made of glass fibre to help meet weight restrictions of 425kg empty.
The other key rules around their construction are that they must have only two seats, and a maximum length of three metres.
Who drives these cars?
In spite of these restrictions, sales of VSPs have been steady, at around 15,000 vehicles a year in France since their introduction.
In 2021, sales grew to 22,472 in France, and up to 40,000 in Europe, partly as a result of the introduction of electric models, and partly because the VSPs have become fashionable with teenagers.
Buyers were at first often rural widows, who had never taken a driving test and found themselves isolated after the death of their husband.
With the introduction of driving licence bans for drink-driving and speeding, another set of buyers opened up, leading to the less flattering nickname of voitures d’alcoolos, despite the fact that fewer than five per cent of VSP drivers are in this category.
Many drivers are people who, for one reason or another, are not able to get French driving licences, sometimes because of physical disabilities.
Another category of buyers is people who have been advised to stop driving by their doctors, but who still need to be mobile.
Recently, the design of VSPs has been transformed and now they often come with flashy metallic paint and high quality sound systems.
This has led to more youngsters buying them or, rather, more parents buying them for their youngsters, mainly because they are seen as safer than the mopeds which are often the cheaper alternative.
Another change is that both Renault, with its Twizy, and Citroën, with its Ami, started making all-electric VSPs, at prices considerably less than the €10,000 starting price demanded by the two well-established VSP makers, Aixam and Ligier.
The Morocco-built Ami is available from €7,390.
This prompted them to launch all-electric versions of their own models, again at prices higher than Renault and Citroën, but with the not inconsiderable advantage of having huge boots.
Most models can take two golf club bags.
Teething problems for Citroën Ami
Launching the Ami, which made history by being the first car sold by book and electrical goods store FNAC, was not without problems for Citroën.
Early models suffered from leaks when it rained, and buyers were baffled by a lack of storage space.
Since then, things have improved, and the company claims to have sold 20,000 of the vehicles since its launch in 2020, of which 6,000 were sold in France.
More models in the pipeline
Other brands in the Stellantis group such as Peugeot, Fiat and Opel are reportedly now working on their own models.
The Twizy, with its open sides meaning it more closely resembles a quad than a car, has not had the same success – around 30,000 have been sold in the 10 years since its launch.
What are the rules?
If you were born before December 31, 1987, the only requirement to drive a VSP is to make sure the vehicle is insured.
Most insurers offer the compulsory third party insurance, usually with added bits, for around €40 a month.
For people born after that date, you need to be at least 14 years old and to have passed the brevet de sécurité routière, or the more modern AM permis de conduire.
This involves passing a written test, often done in school, called the attestation scolaire de sécurité routière (ASSR), or a driving school attestation de sécurité routière, and then doing eight hours of practical driving, over two days, either at a motoring school or at a local association set up to promote mobility.
Once you have the attestation, you can drive for a maximum of four months without taking the practical part of the test.
The practical part either concentrates on mopeds or on VSPs, and involves an hour of training off-road and at least three hours on road, as well as tests of road sign recognition.
If the candidate is a minor, they must be accompanied through the test by a parent or legal guardian.
Prices at driving schools are not fixed – government guidelines say they vary between €150 and €400.
The brevet or AM permis is valid for 15 years and also allows you to drive VSPs in other European countries during that time.