Problems swapping a UK driving licence have prompted at least one British couple in France to buy a voiture sans permis (VSP) as a solution.
Manufacturer Aixam, one of two major producers of the cars famous for their lawnmower- noise engines, said the couple, from Normandy, bought one of the company’s electric vehicles as the easiest way of staying on the road.
“There have been other inquiries but we do not have the detail to know for sure who all the buyers are,” managing director Philippe Colançon told The Connexion.
The two-seater vehicles, hardly ever seen in the UK where regulations are different, are a familiar sight in France, and around 20,000 are bought new every year.
Anyone born before 1988 can drive one without any licence or training
If you were born in 1988 or later, you need to take the brevet de sécurité routière, (BSR). The course involves a theory exam and eight hours of driving, one hour of which is on instruction tracks, at least three hours in traffic with an instructor, and an hour of risk theory instruction.
Prices for courses are not fixed but the government website service-public.fr said they can cost up to €400.
Driving schools and local associations, often running youth clubs, offer BSR training, allowing students as young as 14 to drive these vehicles.
To qualify as a voiture sans permis, the vehicle has to have an empty weight of 425kg, be a maximum of three metres long, have only two seats, a motor limited to 6kw (8HP), and a top speed of 45kph.
These cars can be driven anywhere in France except on autoroutes or dual carriageways where the speed limit is 110 kph
While the VSP might look simple, it costs as much as some new cars.
Aixam, based in Haute- Savoie, is the global leader in their manufacture, making around 12,000 a year. Its cheapest model is €8,999.
Its main direct rival is also French. Ligier is a company which used to make Formula 1 cars and which offers its cheapest car at the same price.
For your money, with an Aixam or a Ligier you get an aluminium chassis covered with sharp-looking glass-fibre bodywork and, usually, a two cylinder Japanese-made Kubota diesel engine, which consumes around 3.5 litres of fuel per 100km.
Transmission is automatic, based on a centrifuge pulley system. Depending on how much you want to spend, nearly any option you can find on a car can be included.
Aixam and Ligier have both started selling electric versions of their cars, with lithium-ion batteries giving a real range of 80km, and a 3.5-hour charge time from a wall plug. Prices for electric start at €14,899 and Aixam sold 500 in 2020.
While cars from the VSP specialists look small, most have huge boots, with volumes of 700 litres being common. They are large enough to hold a set of golf clubs.
A slightly cheaper option is the Renault Twizy, an open-sided four-wheel electric vehicle which in VSP form costs either €7,540 or €10,000, depending on finish.
Citroën has also entered the VSP electric market with its Ami, with 75km of range. It can be ordered on the web, or through electrical goods stores Fnac/Darty.
Its shop-window offer is a long-term rental with a first payment of €3,408, then 47 months of €19.99. To buy outright, it costs €7,390, but neither the Citroën nor the Renault has the boot space of the VSP specialists.
All the manufacturers have financing offers for buyers, including long-term rentals, straight rentals or straightforward part credit, part cash.
Buyers of electric VSPs can obtain grants of up to €900 from the government as part of its campaign to reduce CO2.
Other options are small pick-ups and vans meeting VSP rules, with prices starting at around €11,000.
Only around 5% of people who buy VSPs do so because they have lost their driving licences through drink-driving, speeding or other legal reasons – but this does not stop the cars often being referred to as voitures des alcoolos
“Until the year 2000, 95% of our buyers were in rural areas, mainly people who moved there from the city and who did not have driving licences,” said Mr Colançon.
“Now, especially after we made an effort with design, two-thirds of our buyers are working.
“There is a fashion for our vehicles among the young in some schools. Parents are happier to put their children in one than on a scooter, and the children are happy to have the equipment, such as Bluetooth for their phones, as well as a sharp-looking vehicle.”
Disabled people and those who have been advised by their doctors to stop driving are also a customer base.
VSPs need to be insured with minimum responsabilité civile insurance. Tariffs are usually lower than for cars – insurance prices on the internet start at around €15 a month, but drivers do not benefit from no-claims bonuses as with cars.
VSPs must also be registered and have number plates on the back and front, if possible.
The cost of the carte grise varies from one department to another, but is usually lower than for a car.
Driving a voiture sans permis
Driving a voiture sans permis takes a bit of getting used to after driving a car but you adapt very quickly.
From the outside, a distinguishing feature of the VSP is the noise, the twin-cylinder Kubota diesel sounds like a lawnmower – but inside, with the windows up, as I was driving, the insulation is so good that the sound barely registers.
Gear selection is via a clunky lever, with normal automatic gearbox markings.
Once you are on your way, acceleration is brisk – until you hit the 45kph speed limiter.
What quickly becomes apparent is that, while driving, it is not a problem. Foot to the floor, the car bowls along quite happily, up hill and down dale, at a constant speed.
Brakes are not usually servo-assisted so need a bit more force than in modern cars, but the car slows quickly through engine inertia when the foot is lifted from the accelerator.
When the road opens, larger cars overtake, but there is no sense of losing out – you will reach your destination, just as they will reach theirs.
One garage selling VSPs in Chalais in south Charente did a test between a car and a VSP between Chalais and Angoulême, a distance of 50km on departmental roads.
The VSP was five minutes behind the car at the destination.