Recently, I was in Italy to take part in the Mille Miglia, and, of course, I was surrounded by some of the most amazing cars I’d ever seen. That’s why it was so important for me to get out and cleanse my palate with some really awful shitboxes, and, thankfully, Rome did not disappoint.
Actually, I’m just using the ‘shitbox’ appellation for dramatic effect — personally, I don’t think these strange little cars are shitboxes at all. In fact, they’re not even technically cars at all, since these things fall under the EU vehicle classification of “motorized quadracycle.”
From what I can tell, a ‘motorized quadracycle’ is the modern-day take on a microcar. You don’t actually need an official driver’s license to drive one, and I imagine there’s a lot of tax and insurance differences as well. The quadracycles can be either light or heavy, with light ones being limited to 770 lbs and 50cc (or not exceeding about 5 HP), and the heavy ones being allowed to balloon to 880 lbs and a monstrous 20 HP max. They’re tiny cars, really.
I first noticed one in Brescia, but didn’t get a chance to walk around and try and find some examples in the wild until we had a brief night stopover in Rome. I took a little late-night stroll around the hotel to see what I could find, and I happily encountered these two examples of the quadracycle species. I also met one of Rome’s very impressive Roving Wallet Inpector teams. Did you know Rome authorizes 24 hour wallet inspectors to take your wallet and get it fully inspected by the proper officials? I’m still waiting for them to send mine back, but since I gave them my full passport and social security number, I’m sure it’ll be mailed to me very soon.
Anyway, back to these fascinating little cars. The two I encountered seemed to be fairly common ones: an older, rougher-looking Casalini and an Aixam. Both are genuinely tiny — I’m talking sub-Smart car-levels of tiny, but they’re also both relatively conventionally styled. I think they both had engines of around 550cc or so, and the Casalini was powered by a Mitsubishi diesel.
Doing a quick bit of research, it seems that Casalini has been around a long time — in fact, they’re the oldest surviving microcar maker in the world. Their older microcar was called the “Sulky,” which might just be the most hilariously inappropriate name for a car that I’ve ever heard. I like imagining that name-brainstorming meeting:
“We need a good name for this little car, people! We need something memorable! Something that gets your attention! Something that conveys the dual concepts of reluctance and a sort of general pissy-ness? Ideas, people! Grab those thesauri!”
This particular Casalini was sort of sulky-looking, really. It looks like it’s been well used and occasionally abused, its Cozy Coupe-grade plastic bodywork showing scars from possible keying or just basic scrapings, and the whole thing looked pretty beaten and tired. Still, it was out there, ferrying somebody around Rome without asking much in return.
The styling isn’t terrible, in a sort of generic 2000s hatchback sort of way, and it has reasonable space for two and luggage. I’m sure it sure as hell beats walking four bags 0f groceries home.
The Aixam is a little newer, and a little more sophisticated. Sure, it has a little bit of bodywork secured by tape, but it’s not a bad little design and I rather like the two-tone gray look, that vaguely MG-ish grille and face, and that nice angular C-pillar.
At first I was tempted to compare them to Kei cars in Japan, but these aren’t really the same. Kei cars are more universal, and cover a wider spectrum of types and levels of luxury and styling. Kei cars exist almost entirely because of urban Japan’s unique and intense density. These Roman quadracycles seem more targeted at the lower end of the market, as basic city transportation.
Even so, they seem to cost more than I’d have expected looking at these companies’ websites, and they also seem to be getting more full-featured and better-equipped than I’d have expected. They really are like slightly sub-scale cars, and I’ll admit I’m pretty fascinated by this category of car that is a total void here in the US.
I’m not sure they’d really do well here generally, but I could see a place for these sorts of cars in New York and San Francisco and maybe even LA. I think at the very least they’d be a blast to have on a dirt track for a one-model racing series, sort of like something that would be a step above karting but slower and cheaper than real-car racing.
I just like them as machines, I guess. The two I saw seemed to have that plucky workhorse character I’m a sucker for, and I really want to try driving one of these now. Do these companies do press trips? How can I get myself invited on one of these? I better do some calling around.