Paris a la Voiturette

Tiny cars produce less pollution, maneuver well, and fit in snug parking spots

FRENCH city drivers are proving that small and simple is beautiful. Enter the voiturette, a miniature two-seat car that does not require a driver's license or registration. It can park perpendicular to the curb, gets up to 100 miles to a gallon of diesel fuel, and can be driven by a 14-year-old on the day of purchase.In tune with the down-to-earth, environmentally friendly 1990s, the voiturette sans permit (without license), or V.S.P., stands ready to incorporate nonpolluting electric engines, to promote safety with a built-in 30-mile-per-hour speed restraint, and help open up the circulation of traffic on city streets. "The voiturette is the solution to city traffic," says Parisian distributor Jacques Cottini, citing the waste and impracticality of full-size cars. In these times where typical drivers cannot understand or begin to repair computer-driven engines, the voiturette satisfies the needs of urban transportation with soothing simplicity. There are two gears, one for forward and one for reverse (which makes conversion for disabled drivers easy), and a no-frills interior to match a simple body design made of strong, biodegradable polyester and steel tubing. Repairs on the two-cylinder diesel engine are minimal. Ten years is considered a "reasonable" life expectancy. Although passengers sustain a noisier and bumpier ride than regular autos, voiturettes move deftly through tight traffic. "I bought a voiturette to avoid taking the difficult French driving test," says 32-year-old Paris architect Francois Alexandre. "Now I've had it for one year and it gets me where I'm going." Indeed, luxurious appointments or speedy acceleration take a back seat to daily necessities. The problem of parking, often a costly undertaking, is obviated as the car - for the time being - has no registration and hence cannot be traced. The Transportation Ministry, however, is cracking down on the 100,000 cars parked illegally each day in Paris and has devised a special registration for voiturettes to take effect in March of next year. Pessimistic dealers project as much as an initial 40 percent drop in sales. Others believe that two years will pass before any discernible change takes place in ticketing practices. Even after this legal loophole is closed, size will carry the day. Voiturettes are only 8 feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide, permitting urbanites to fit their vehicles into half of a normal-sized parking spot. "If tomorrow everyone had a voiturette, there would not be anymore parking problems in Paris," claims Philippe de La Jousseliniere, director of the Parisian distributor Citycar. The V.S.P. first began whisking about the French capital only two years ago. Originally a rudimentary rural vehicle designed for retired people who have never taken a driving test, a few of the nine French voiturette companies changed the look from a spartan "telephone booth with wheels" to a veritable mini-automobile. Marketed as cute and practical in the French capital, now over 6,000 Parisians own voiturettes and five Parisian rental services have sprouted. Owners are progressively younger and more urban; sales are now nearly evenly split between country and city buyers. Referring to the distinctive Erad Junior, which sports a single gull-wing hatch, Chantalle Renard, a communications manager, says "Women like the singularity of the voiturettes. It's like a little bubble that they can get around town easily with." With a relatively expensive price tag of $7,500 to $11,000, sales efforts are aimed at pensioners, parents who prefer to see their children in a slow car rather than a scooter or small motorcycle, and as a second or third car for yuppies. The simplicity of controls make voiturettes convenient for the handicapped drivers who constitute a small portion of the clientele. Rental services target drivers with revoked licenses almost exclusively. About 250,000 licenses are suspended in France each year, with 60,000 in Paris. Asked whether a V.S.P. defeats the purpose of a revoked license, Jean-Pierre Gausson of the Transportation Ministry points out that excessive speed is the principal cause of suspension and "a vehicle limited to 30 miles per hour is a sufficient form of penance." Those who pass only the written part of the French driving exam can legally drive a more powerful voiturette with a top speed of about 50 miles per hour. HILE it is a popular social phenomenon at home, French manufacturers are looking abroad. Government and industry officials are currently preparing a proposal to establish a European Community-wide definition of the V.S.P. "Exports account for so little of our production [15 percent] because the V.S.P. is recognized by very few countries," says Christian Boulanger of the trade union, Federation Francaise de la Carrosserie. "There is a real need for a European initiative." Martial Howa of Aixam, France's largest voiturette producer, forecasts a 40 percent increase in sales by 1993 as the product becomes accepted in neighboring countries. While experts estimate that voiturettes now emit seven or eight times less exhaust than full-size autos, a simple transition to battery-charged electric motors could open up the urban market in capitals where air pollution is of primary concern like Zurich, Athens, and Mexico City. "We see the electric car as the urban car of the future," says Philippe Blandelle of the Transportation Ministry. He organizes joint research projects with the Ministry of Research and the Ministry of the City. While some complain that the slow-moving V.S.P. is a fool's trap (piege a cons) on fast country roads, voiturette manufacturers are moving undaunted into the urban market. "We provide the same comfort and security as a regular automobile," says Mr. Cottini. "We sell our product like a real car." Major automobile manufacturers Renault and Peugeot are currently testing a fleet of industrial vehicles in French cities Chatellerault and Marseille, and envisage an electric passenger car for sale within one or two years. Aixam will have electric voiturettes on the road as early as this fall. Volkswagen and the Swiss firm SMH, known for its successful marketing of Swatch watches, are creating a joint company to produce a nonpolluting city car within four years. Nicknamed the "Swatch Volkswagen," Swiss newspapers have quoted SMH chairman Nicolas Hayek as saying the car should be a "cheery, environmentally safe, and inexpensive city car for two people...."

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