What It’s Like To Drive A Tiny Car Designed For Drunk French Kids

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I think one of the most shocking things about the Acoma Mini Comtesse is that if you were to call it “a ridiculous cheap tiny shitbox,” you’d be wrong. It’s actually a “ridiculous, overpriced tiny shitbox,” because one of these new in 1975 actually cost almost twice as much as a new Volkswagen Beetle. There’s a reason why, but it’s not a good one.

This 1975 Acoma Mini Comtesse is part of a category of cars known as “voiture sans permis,” which is French for “car without a license.” This was a category of French vehicular law, started in the 1970s, that specified a set of specs for a vehicle that could be driven without any license or insurance or anything.

The specs, as you can guess, were extremely restrictive: 50cc engine maximum, no more than three horsepower, and the vehicle had to be operable with pedals. The people who made the laws were thinking that this had to mean mopeds, right? What the hell else could you build with those requirements?

Those lawmakers severely underestimated the creativity of French engineers who really wanted to make cars. Cars were built that met every requirement of the law to the letter, even the pedal-power, with the unspoken stipulation that you’d need a leg transplant from the Hulk to actually pedal one of these things up any kind of hill, or, really, anywhere beyond a few feet.

These cars are triumphs of loophole-finding. They’re cars that pretty much anyone can drive: 14-year-olds, drunks, severe narcoleptics, people who normally nobody would insure, two dogs in an overcoat and a hat pretending to be a person, anyone.

And that’s why this car was so expensive: Acoma knew that they had whoever was considering one of these over a barrel. This car was literally the last and only option for some people to have a car, and Acoma made them pay for it.

What they got for their money is about as minimum an expression of car as you can imagine: a body that’s built almost exactly like a Porta Potty, a tiny, one-cylinder two-stroke engine mounted to the front wheel—the whole assembly pivots to steer, a barely-usable ratcheting foot pedal, and not a hell of a lot else.

The design of the Mini Comtesse is actually clever, for what it is. Because you can cram it into such insanely small parking places, one side has a gullwing-ish door, so you can open it even if you’re almost against a wall.

Also a nice touch are the two little extra fourth and fifth wheels in the front, which are there to keep the car from rolling over, which it’s pretty much always about to do. That’s like airbag-level safety equipment, right there.

On modern American roads, this thing is terrifying. It’s a tiny, slow, stifling porta-potty/probable coffin, and it barely qualifies as driving.

But, compared to never driving anything again, I’d happily take a Mini Comtesse.

As always, thanks to the Lane Motor Museum!