The little car you can drive in France without a licence

image copyrightAlamy

If you are planning on driving in France, beware - one could be heading straight for you at the next roundabout. Carolyn Brown, who lives part of the year in Brittany, has a cautionary tale about a very small car.

Losing one's driving licence in the UK is a serious matter - expensive and, to say the least, very inconvenient.

But in France, no licence? No problem. You can simply go shopping for a VSP a voiture sans permis - a small two-seater car that anyone aged 14 or over can take out on the road with as little as four hours' experience behind the wheel, sometimes not even that.

It's impossible to say how many there are as no official figures exist. It is what the French call a chiffre noir - an unknown quantity.

You'll probably hear them coming first, a high-pitched whine like a sewing machine being run at full throttle. If you get stuck behind one on a windy rural lane, tant pis. Top speed is 45km per hour (28mph). It's probably a good idea to stop in the next lay-by and admire the view for a while rather than sit fuming in its wake.

On market day in my nearest town here in Brittany the little voitures sans permis splutter into the main street. Although the literal translation is "car without licence" it is in fact the driver who doesn't need to bother himself or herself with any proof of ability behind the wheel.

Once seen as an anachronism that, given time, would inevitably be legislated out of existence they remain a vital means of transport for an ageing rural population. For the most part they are scruffy and battered. Their bodywork is faded and peeling, often touched-up with a spot of household gloss paint. Wire and gaffer tape hold loose panels together and one I saw had its bumper held in place with washing line fashioned into an elaborate blanket stitch.

image copyrightAlamy

My local notaire, or solicitor, admits she is nervous on Thursdays - which is market day. Especially of the old ladies. The problem, she told me is one of inheritance. A husband who always did all the driving passes away and the voiturette is inherited by his wife.

Because it's impossible to survive here without wheels she will nervously trundle into town at snail's pace. She won't do much damage because she is going so slowly. Insurance will only get expensive if she hurts someone, but most of the time it's just a busted wing mirror or a slight scratch and the insurance company just takes the hit.

I tell her that I am frankly astonished that VSPs still exist.

"Well," she says with a shrug, "there are people who would still drive without a licence but they would be in much more powerful, and therefore more dangerous cars."

The fact is that a lot of conducteurs who lose their licence because they are too fond of the pastis, walk out of court down to their local VSP outlet, et voila they can be back on the road in hours. Yes, they ought to have insurance, which is pricey if you have a record of illness or a fondness for alcohol - it can set you back as much 85 euros (£63) a month. A reputable dealership won't sell you a car unless you can show insurance, but it's not a problem if you pick one up from your mate.

I asked around in my local bar but the drinkers were coy about their reasons for driving sans permis.

One chap told me the theory exam for a full licence was too difficult. But in a quiet moment the patron told me what he said was a common story. One of his regulars lost his licence and bought an ancient voiture sans permis. When his licence was reinstated, he sold the voiturette to a drinking chum who had just had his licence taken away . It changed hands once more in the same way and then after a year or so the original owner (who evidently hadn't kicked his pastis habit) bought it back again.

image copyrightAFP
image captionA French driving licence, a miniature bottle of pastis and a (very) small car

The barman shrugged. "Ca roule," he said. That's how it goes. (So many people shrugged while I was investigating this story I looked to see what the French word was for "shrug". They don't have one.)

Curious as to how strict a dealership would be, I went to the local VSP outlet - it's not a regular garage, they are sold alongside tractors and motor-mowers.

The salesman tells me they sell three a week on average. So, would they sell a voiturette to just anyone who walked in off the street? "Mais, oui," he says, "provided they have insurance." But what about knowing what to do at a roundabout? It turns out that the salesman takes the would-be purchaser for a spin. If he and the car come back in one piece, he'll do the deal.

"That's a big responsibility, isn't it?" I ask. Another eloquent shrug.

Here my eyes were opened to the new generation of VSP. I got to take a ride in the latest top of the range model - called, without any intended irony, the "sports" model. (Top speed still 45km per hour.)

image copyrightAlamy
image captionEasy to park: A VSP tucked between an old-style Mini and a Smart car

At a cool 14,000 euros (£10,000) it has air conditioning, a reversing camera and a top-flight sound system, which is essential for the new target market.

Microcar, Aixam, Ligier and other manufacturers are aiming their publicity at young urbanites. You can't take VSPs on motorways or expressways but they are cheap to run, turn on a centime and are easy to park.

They also aim the hard sell at parents. Since last November children as young as 14 can drive VSPs. They're deemed to be safer than a scooter and it's a way out of the cliche of "Mum's Taxi" service.

Youngsters at least have to take a theoretical exam in the French highway code (this is waived entirely if you were born before the law was last changed in 1988) and drive accompanied for a minimum of four hours, but no-one has to sit any kind of practical test to frappe la rue (hit the road) in a VSP.

So whether you prefer red, white or rose, to stay safe on French roads there is perhaps another French "whine" you should be steering clear of.

A selection of your comments:

Pete, Audierne, France: Interesting slant on these. There are plenty of them around where I live. The vast majority of them are driven by old people who for whatever reason no longer have a licence - but I very much doubt that the reason is Pastis or any other form of alcohol. There is a fair chance that I'll consider getting one when the time comes. I don't know what the system is here, but if regular medical checks are needed to see if a person is "still fit to drive" then one of these may be a more attractive option.

Barry Taylor, Benidorm, Spain: Quite common here in Spain but you do have to have a licence. They are a bit of a pain on main roads (they tend to drive on the hard shoulder but you rarely find them in the mountains, and about town they don´t seem to get in the way any more than hire cars full of tourists.

Steffen Holzt, Noumea, New Caledonia: These cars are a best seller in New Caledonia which is a French overseas territory. Most of the schoolkids have one and there are hundreds parked in front of the high schools. My son has one which is the 16 year version, it goes 105 km/h, amazing. I am totally astounded that this has not caught on everywhere in Europe. I'd rather have my kids drive a thing like this than a motorbike.

Jose Amarante, Lisbon, Portugal: They also exist in Portugal, mostly in the countryside, where they are called "mata-velhos", in English maybe "oldies-killer", because they are mostly used by old people and there are many fatal accidents.

Alan McDonald, Castelo Branco, Portugal: They are quite common in this inland area of Portugal. Almost all Aixam. They are no problem on the road - their slow speed makes them very easy to pass. They are much safer than more powerful cars for timid drivers. They give rural dwellers (a threatened species in many parts of Europe) the freedom of being able to take themselves into town and back. Public transport is infrequent or non-existent.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

BBC World Service: At weekends - see World Service programme schedule or listen online.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.