Oxymora sell. Gourmet burger, large studio flat, affordable luxury, freedom fighter, alcohol-free beer, genuine imitation… Those shouldn’t pair up so well. But they do, because they pique our curiosity and are thus PR gold: burgers, for instance, are a niche within fast-food and gourmet burgers are a niche within it. Now let’s consider the peculiar niche that are quadricycles, a.k.a license-free cars (LFC). Surely there might be a sub-category for “deluxe sports / high end” LFCs? Of course there is! Right this way to the Chatenet.
Quadricycles have a very long history, going back to the beginning of the automobile. European countries all had different laws at different times to regulate automotive traffic, but there was usually always a threshold (in terms of engine capacity, power output, number of wheels and/or overall vehicle weight) below which one could be allowed on the road without a driver’s license. France has a long history of LFC production. Renault, Peugeot and Citroën all partook in making very small cars in the early 20th Century, as did many automakers from many countries in those days, but most of the spindly little quadricycles of the ‘20s (then called cyclecar in France) fell victim to legislative and/or fiscal change and were all but wiped out by the ‘30s. Microcars were beginning to appear though. And made it big during and after the Second World War.
In many Western European countries, microcars (also called voiturette) only required a moped (or no) license, which is how the new niche of LFCs came to be. Companies in France, Britain, Italy and Germany were all competing for this small niche, which varied from one country to the next. Cheaper regular cars shrank the market again in the ‘60s; by the late ‘70s, France and Italy emerged as dominant – Britain’s enduring infatuation with three-wheelers left it isolated from the European market and Germany had shifted focus to regular cars and trucks. In France, by 1980, a jumble of microcarmakers such as Mini Comtesse, KVS, Ligier, Flipper or Duport competed fiercely for the LFC market. The ‘80s brought in yet more new players, such as Chatenet (in 1984) and Aixam, while others disappeared or consolidated, giving us the state of play we still have today. The market is dominated by three French companies: Aixam, Ligier and Microcar (these last two joined forces in 2008 and also own the Mega marque). Châtenet is a very distant fourth, ahead of Bellier and Italian firms Casalini and Italcar. Renault recently re-entered the market with their Twizy electric one-seater, selling over 15,000 units since 2012.
Brussels drafted EU-wide legislation regarding the LFCs in 1991 to harmonize the market along French and Italian legislation: two categories of quadricycles (light and heavy) were defined, the former being limited to 50cc for gasoline engines or 4kW (5.6 hp) for Diesel or electric engines, the car’s maximum weight being 350kg (200kg load limit). The “heavy” category is chiefly used for pick-ups and commercial vehicles based on the light LFC designs, which was pioneered in the ‘70s by Willam and soon emulated by many. Their power is maximum 15kW for 550kg (commercial vehicles have a 1000kg load limit), but this type requires a more thorough / expensive / time-consuming license than the light type. Current French (and other) legislation does not require any license of any kind for people born before 1988 to drive a light LFC. Younger people have to pass a relatively easy practical and written test from age 14.
Contrary to popular belief, these little things are not all driven by oldtimers – at least in France. Half of French LFC drivers are aged 32 or less. The reasons for this are manifold: some folks get their license pulled or otherwise nullified (about 20% of owners). The others never learned to drive – some because of age, others because of cost. A driver’s license is a very expensive piece of paper in most European countries, France included: not everyone has €2000 set aside for weeks of driver’s ed. When they were oddly-shaped and/or cheaply-made in the ‘70s, LFCs attracted people who used them as a tool. But what happens if you put a dab of style and exclusivity in one of these?
You get the rather handsome and well-proportioned Châtenet CH 32 Break, launched in 2010 and derived from a less-pretty two-door CH 26 saloon (a pick-up is also available). Its €15,000 price may cause you to balk a bit. There are plenty of “normal” city cars, which one can drive on highways and such, available for much less money. Yes, but you need a driver’s license. In a world where that’s not such an easy option for whatever reason, but money is less of an issue, a deluxe LFC like the Châtenet sort of makes sense.
Hidden by a rather torturously-designed snout, the Chatenet’s twin-cylinder Diesel engine, made by Yanmar, produces (quite loudly) a valiant 5.4 hp (DIN) thanks to its 523cc displacement. For the past couple of decades, the Diesel twin and electric motors have completely overtaken the 50cc gasoline engines, which are no longer used – at least in European four-wheelers – on anything other than quad bikes. Modern goodies from larger cars have made their way to this lowest level of motorized carriage: A/C, electric windows, ABS, alloy wheels and CVT are all part of the package, which may be accompanied by all manner of spoilers and flared wheelarches.
The cabin has been designed like a mini sports car, with more flair than one would expect to find in such a vehicle. The space inside is far from ridiculous and the overall impression is one of quality. This is not necessarily what cars in this niche were renowned for, but that’s the difference Chatenet have targeted. Other than that, with their FWD transverse layout, aluminium chassis, 2-cyl. engine and plastic bodywork, Chatenets are very close to their competitors.
Aiming at a niche within a niche will axiomatically result in small-scale production. With about 1500-2000 units made per year, Chatenet is perennially well behind market leaders Aixam (around 12,000 units) and Ligier-Microcar (15,000 units, together with Mega). France is a big market in itself for these of course: it is estimated that 140,000 privately-owned LFCs are crawling about on French roads. But over 60% of French-made LFCs are exported to various European countries, such as Benelux, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy. The 2008 financial crisis did claim two competitors (JDM and Grecav) fairly recently, which can only be good news for those still in the game.
LFCs exist because people need them, but they are usually regarded as the bane of other road users’ existence. A majority of these cars are used in rural areas (at least in France), picking up the baton from the 400cc Citroën 2CV, albeit with fewer doors and more creature comforts. At close to US$20,000 a pop, the latter is expected and the Chatenet seems to deliver. With production numbers below Rolls-Royce levels, it might also become a classic someday. In its own slow way.