I Can’t Drive 55

The Citroen Ami

“Go on and write me up for 125,
Post my face, wanted dead or alive.
Take my license, all that jive.
I can’t drive 55”
– Sammy Hagar

This past March, we finally said goodbye to our trusty 2007 Toyota Yaris. The no-frills little car, which still had hand-crank roll-down back windows, was starting to give up the ghost on journeys anywhere longer than around town. I got a little emotional handing over the Yaris to Peter, our mechanic. That car did us right. A year and a half ago it carried us over 4,000 kilometers on a two-week road trip through northern Spain, over the Pyrenees, into France, including the French Alps, and throughout Belgium. It was The Little Engine that Could, always chugging along in its down-to-earth way, something our Mercedes couldn’t ever handle. Peter offered us a grand for it, and now uses it as a courtesy car. We spot it from time to time on the streets of Jávea and are happy that Peter kept our American bumper stickers on the back: the Appalachian Trail one that says “Get Lost;” the one from Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Gorge Hostel in Erwin, Tennessee, and Tom’s University of North Carolina Tar Heel alumni sticker. In its stead, we bought a 2016 Renault Clio. It’s the newest car we’ve ever had. It’s also the first French car we’ve owned, a fact about which we are continually reminded given the to-go espresso-size cup holder between the two front seats. The Clio is a solid car, zippy, reliable and well-designed. We even have Bluetooth. We have no complaints. 

Well, except one. The Clio isn’t exactly Mr. Personality. 

I’m not a car person per se. Big, sleek SUVs leave me cold. Modern, ultra-fast sports cars intimidate me. And please don’t get me started on the new style of that matte blackish gray color now trending on luxury brands. They remind me of stealth bombers. As my brother says, when did cars become tactical? 

Going shopping

I like cars with personality. I like them, for want of a better word, “huggable.” My first car was a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle in a cheerful shade of orange. You could hear it coming before you could see it; it had that distinctive putt-putt sound. The trunk was in the front, the engine was in the back. By the time my dad handed it down to me on the day I turned 16, the heater was perpetually on and only one vent worked. This was pointed at the driver’s lower leg, and felt, as my brother put it, “like a gerbil wheezing on your ankle.” 

The Beetle and I went everywhere. I taught all my friends to drive stick on it. We’d skip school and pile in, driving to Roy Rogers and smoking Virginia Slims Menthol Light 120s that Wendy would swipe from her mom’s purse. The guys at my high school called it “The Pumpkin Mobile.” Each time I got another little dent in it, my dad would shrug and paint Ach! over it in that Germanic, Heavy Metal-type font. One time I banged up the front end so that the right headlight pointed up towards the treetops. My dad said it looked like I was trying to hunt squirrels. I drove it until it couldn’t go anymore. When it became a struggle just to make it to the parking lot of my high school – barely three miles from our house – my parents made the decision to donate it to the Salvation Army. I still vividly remember them following me in the “good car” to the drop-off, where I parked the Beetle and said my goodbyes. I climbed into the back seat of my parents’ Oldsmobile and cried the whole way home while my mom reached behind her from the front seat and patted my knee. To this day, orange is my favorite color. 

Charging up: 2 hours and 18 minutes to go!

While I go for personality, Tom goes for sustainability. Several months ago, my brother told him about a new little electric car, called the Citroen Ami. Tom was intrigued. A few days later, while on a bike ride, he and his friend, Michael stopped by our local dealership. It was love at first sight, at least for Tom. Michael, on the other hand, was unimpressed to the point of refusing to sit in the car, much less pose for a photo so Tom could capture the scale. He proclaimed it the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. A photo of him would have diluted his brand. 

But Tom was undeterred. He had been wanting a fully electric car for some time, particularly since we installed solar panels on our roof. But thus far our options seemed limited to two extremes. On the one end, were the Teslas and what I call “more normal looking” cars, which sold for more than we were prepared to pay. On the other were options so odd-looking they seemed almost alien. The Renault Twizzy, for example, reminds me of the Mars Rover. And I had no interest in sitting “fighter pilot style” with the passenger behind the driver. Even Smart Cars were a little too goofy. But the Ami hit the sweet spot, and a few weeks later, Tom walked back into the dealership and plunked down the 1,000 euro deposit, one-seventh of the total cost, and his name was added to the waitlist. It’s a steal at 7,000 euros, not counting the automatic rebate the Spanish government reimburses as a reward for buying electric. Although for an extra grand, we could have opted for the spoiler, which, I have to say, was tempting. In my opinion, no car except maybe an F1 is more deserving of one.

Solar charging

Finally, in late March, the Citroen representative called. Our Ami was ready. We drove the Clio to the dealership and there it was, sitting placidly out front in the sunshine. There was at least a foot and a half of space on all sides of the parking lines. It looked like a cross between a golf cart and the PopeMobile. Yet in spite of its small stature, it exuded a quiet dignity, a solid dependability in its no-nonsense design that almost dares you to laugh. The dealer walked Tom around, pointing out the car’s various features, while I took pictures. He showed Tom the plug, which fits into a regular electrical socket without a special adaptor; no different from how you plug in a lamp or a vacuum cleaner. Throughout it all, Tom was grinning from ear to ear like a proud new father. 

Meeting for the first time

The Ami is brilliant in its simplicity. There are three gears: drive, neutral, and reverse. The driver’s seat is adjustable in that you can move it forward or backward (no raising or reclining features), but the passenger’s seat is fixed as far back as it can go. In front of the passenger’s seat there’s more leg room than you’d expect and we were pleasantly surprised at how many grocery bags we can fit, even if the passenger sometimes has to contort their limbs into odd positions. The floor space even has the outline of a suitcase etched into the plastic to show the hauling capacity. On the driver’s side, there’s a big plus sign and a minus sign at the foot of the accelerator pedal and the brake pedal, respectively — in case you need a cheat sheet. The dashboard is basically two biggish bins. There is a USB outlet. There is one windshield wiper that doesn’t fully extend all the way to the passenger’s right side of the windscreen. There’s a fan. There’s a little tank that holds wiper fluid. The seatbelts are strong and secure. The two windows open by unclipping the bottom and folding the bottom half out and up, which allows for surprisingly efficient cross-ventilation.There are two tiny, round side mirrors similar to a Vespa.They’re easy to knock out of alignment if you brush up against the Ami’s sides, but they do the trick. The headlights are bright and turn on automatically when the ignition is on. 

The entire inside is molded plastic so the sound of the motor reverberates throughout, ricocheting off the hard surfaces. The same with the sound of one’s voice, which tends to echo as if the speaker were talking from inside a sewer. But from the outside, when driving, the car is silent, and I learned early on to approach both pedestrians and street cats cautiously. The brakes are basically what you have on a bicycle, but you hardly need them; the car slows quickly to a full stop just by taking your foot off the accelerator. In doing so, it draws power to recharge the battery. 

What the Ami doesn’t have is a trunk, an engine, a rearview mirror, a glove compartment, a radio, heating, air-conditioning, visors, or a way to cover up the un-tinted sunroof. We keep hats and sunglasses tucked in the space behind the seats for when the sun is shining. There is no fan belt, alternator belt, timing belt, or serpentine belt. There is no motor oil, no coolant, no transmission fluid, no brake fluid, no differential fluid, no power steering fluid, and no hydraulic clutch fluid. It requires no maintenance or fuel, except that provided by the sun. It operates carbon free, smog free, and euro free. As one reviewer put it, “It’s either the most simple, elegant car ever made, or the most elaborate umbrella.”

You don’t even need a regular driver’s license. My 15 year-old nephew is legal to drive it with just his motorbike license. He refers to Amis as “toasters,” and knows a few other kids his age who drive them to his school. I’m pretty sure that the moment we bought ours, we skewed the median age of ownership by about 30 years. 

“Michael’s Dream”

There’s one more thing we don’t have: the ability to drive 55. Literally. In fact we can’t drive 46. And I’m talking kilometers per hour. The Ami maxes out at 45 kpm. And that’s on the flats. The laws of physics make it possible to exceed the speed limit under certain circumstances. In our case this involves the precise coming together of elements including going downhill with a full-sized adult in the passenger seat, and an extra large bag of Brekkies cat food plus a hefty-sized watermelon. At times like this, we sometimes hit 48, even 49 kpm. Uphill however, is slower, depending on the grade. When I first test drove the car the Citroen dealer suggested I drive it up a steep hill. I had it floored and it topped out at 17. We just barely dropped a cyclist, who, startled by the lack of noise, stared in puzzlement as we eked by, standing up in the saddle to get a better look. There aren’t too many of these around. 


But we’re hoping that changes. Driving through the streets, people point. A lot of them wave. Little kids jump up and down, clapping. Our friends call us to say they saw us out on the road. I come out of shops to find people in the parking lot, standing beside the car and bending down to peek inside. Some take pictures. Almost all have questions, which we gladly answer. We take our unofficial Ami ambassadorships seriously. We consider it in service to the larger issue of car-based emissions. But in the more immediate sense, it is the perfect vehicle for zipping around town, especially on narrow European city streets, many of which were built before cars, and certainly before SUVs. And parking’s a breeze. The Ami takes all the guilt out of driving a car and replaces it with all of the fun. 

We contracted with our good friend, Salvatore Ferro, who, together with his wife, Dorothy, owns a graphic design company, Ferro + Ferro. Ferro + Ferro’s aesthetic has always appealed to us: colorful, slightly quirky, a bit midcentury modern, and with a little bit of The Jetsons thrown into the mix. Sal mocked up a brilliant set of graphics that we had made into stickers thanks to SR Print. We now call the car “Rocket 88.” 

Rocket 88

Who knows? Maybe one day even Michael will come around. Right after we took possession of the car, he and his wife invited us to their place for dinner. We taped a handwritten sign on the front that read “Michael Walsh rides in me” and drove to their house. We think he’s starting to warm to the Ami, even if he doesn’t want to admit it just yet. 

Sportin’ with me riding all around town with joy
Step in my Rocket. Don’t be late’
Cause we’re pulling out about half past eight
Go around the corner gonna get a fill
Everybody in my car’s gonna take a little nip
Move on out. Movin’ and cruisin’ along We gone y’all, we gone!
– “Rocket 88”, Ike Turner

We send our sincere gratitude to Ferro + Ferro Graphic Communication, Autology Motors, and SR Print. You guys make life a lot more colorful and exciting. 


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