French micro-car maker Ligier is looking for a rich buyer so it can meet what it sees as growing demand for small urban vehicles.
Ligier needs a partner with development capital and a distribution network, said Chairman Philippe Ligier.
'It would be an illusion to believe that in five or 10 years' time we can continue to go it alone,' he said at the company's Vichy headquarters in central France.
'In the medium term, I would not mind getting close to a large car manufacturer,' said Ligier, the 47-year-old son of the company's founder. 'It would bring us its research and development capacity and a distribution network.'
Ligier, formerly a maker of Formula One racecars, currently builds the Nova and Be Up quadricycles. The Nova and Be Up can be used in many urban areas but not on motorways. Ligier is preparing to launch a third model called the Due next year. It will debut at September's Paris auto show.
In appearance and name, the Due - Italian for 'two' - conjures up an image of Citroen's legendary people's car, the Deux Chevaux. The name (pronounced 'DOO-ay') also means 'gifted' in French.
Ligier believes two- or three-seat urban vehicles have a great future while remaining distinct from normal cars.
'I could see the car market focusing on tall, large cars for reasons of comfort and very small, urban cars like our models, or the Smart,' he said. 'With the Smart, Mercedes-Benz gave credibility to a two-seat, 2.5-meter-long city car. They created a new market.'
Ligier positions its models below the Smart, which qualifies as a conventional passenger car. But French coachbuilder Matra's expected launch of its M72 quadricycle also lends credibility to the small urban vehicle market, Ligier added.
Ligier sees scope for a vehicle such as the Be Up in the sunny parts of the USA. Italdesign-Giugiaro designed the Be Up with an open back end and two aluminum slats instead of doors.
'The US market is potentially very important for us,' Ligier said. 'But you can't really sell there if you don't manufacture there.'
Eastern Europe is another emerging market for microcars, says Ligier, who is also president of the European association of quadricycle manufacturers. A growing number of manufacturers are locating in former Soviet Union countries, he said.
Ligier said it is No. 2 in quadricycles, after French builder Aixam. Ligier estimates total European sales for the quadricycle segment at 60,000 units this year.
In France, the Be Up sells for 7,000, the same price as premium-brand scooters. The Be Up cost about 3 million to develop, the same as the Due. Lombardini makes the Be Up engines near Bologna, Italy.
Ligier is one of 14 quadricycle manufacturers in western Europe. France has six, as national driving-license legislation favors quadricycles. In France, quadricycles may be driven on most public roads but not on autoroutes, limited-access highways comparable to a German autobahn. Quadricycle drivers generally require only a full motorcycle license.
The French rules were extended throughout the European Union by directive in 1996, although many EU states including Germany and the UK have not yet written enabling legislation.
But the EU directive has broadened Ligier's market. Ligier said its revenue reached 46 million last year, with a net profit margin of 8 percent.
There are two types of quadricycle. The light version weighs up to 350kg and runs at a maximum speed of 45kph. The heavy version weighs up to 400kg and runs at up to 90kph. The heavy version requires a full driving license, although in some countries the license is less stringent than for standard cars.