What seemed like a pipe dream may soon become reality as Frenchman Guy Negre hopes versions of his compressed-air car will be produced in India this year by Tata Motors after a 15-year quest for backers for his invention.

Mr Negre believes the time is right for his design with oil prices at record highs and pressure on carmakers to improve the fuel efficiency of their vehicles.

The former Formula One motor racing engineer's invention depends on pressurised air to move the pistons, which in turn help to compress the air again in a reservoir. The engine also has an electric motor, which needs to be periodically recharged, to top up the air pressure.

Speaking at his firm, Motor Development International, based near Nice, Mr Negre said: "It is clear that with oil at $100 a barrel this will force people to change their use of fuel and pollute less.

"My car is zero pollution in town and almost no pollution on the highways."

He claims the vehicle could travel 100km (62 miles) at a cost of one euro in fuel.

The bottles of compressed air in the car - similar to those used by divers - can be filled up at service stations in several minutes.

The latest versions of the vehicles - MDI made an entire series of prototypes of engines and vehicles - also include a fuel engine option to extend the car's range when not in reach of a special power plug or service station.

Tata, India's largest carmaker with revenue of £3.8 billion in its last financial year, concluded a deal in 2007, investing £15 million. Preproduction in India is set for 2008, Mr Negre said.

Tata's global ambitions were last week under-scored when it was named preferred bidder to buy Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.

The Negre vehicle, protected by some 50 patents, will cost from £2,630 to £3,010. Using composite materials, it will weigh not more than 727.5 lb and its maximum speed is 93.21 mph.

"The lighter the vehicle, the less it consumes and the less its pollutes and the cheaper it is; it's simple," Mr Negre said.

MDI's models which typically have a rounded shape, "a bit like a speech balloon in a cartoon", include the Minicat urban vehicle, the Citycat for longer distances with an added tank for ethanol, diesel or bio-fuel and a taxi version.

Mr Negre said he aimed to set up small factories in regions where the car is used.

"No transport, no parts suppliers. Everything will be made at the place of sale in production units that can make one car per half hour," said Mr Negre.

"That is more profitable, more ecological than the big factories of the large carmakers."