It’s funny how, when returning to a familiar place after a long while, you notice the little changes. Such a shop is no longer there, some invariably awful new building has sprouted up, the majority of new cars on the streets are exotic… But there is still one car I’ve seen since birth that thrives in the part of the world I’m currently in (and from): the decidedly non-biodegradable Citroën Méhari.
Production stopped in 1987, but these little things are still around, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time. The Citroën Méhari has been fleetingly featured here before, but perhaps a bit of historical background could be added. In the ‘60s, Citroën’s flat-twin cars (the 2CV, 2CV van and Ami 6) were still successful, despite the concept’s advancing age (the 2CV as we know it came out in 1948). Yet it seems Citroën ran out of ideas on how to use their platform. The only major product they had in the works was a modernized 2CV, the Dyane.
The 2CV platform’s characteristics – simplicity, ruggedness, relatively high ground clearance and soft suspension – made it a good candidate for a Jeep-alike vehicle, chiefly aimed at the African and Asian markets. Citroën’s initial effort, the double-twin-engined (one in the front, one in the back) 2CV Sahara was competent, but far too complex and expensive, even in Europe. Fewer than 700 were made from 1959 to 1966. Citroën were unable to find the cheap, all-purpose vehicle that the 2CV could become.
Leaving Citroën in their hydropneumatically-suspended ivory tower, two Frenchmen living in the Ivory Coast created the Baby-Brousse in 1963, using the Ami 6 platform. The locally-made metal body was entirely built without the use of presses or welding. This was a purely private initiative, but Citroën took notice. There was a market for a small, bare-bones FWD utility vehicle based on the flat-twin car.
Enter Roland de la Poype, a French aristocrat whose successful plastics business, Société d’études et d’application des brevets (SEAB), had revolutionized packaging in post-war France. De la Poype figured that a purely plastic body (not fiberglass) might be developed for a new type of car he saw puttering about. The car was the Mini Moke, which was a minor hit in France when launched in 1964. The Moke soon became Brigitte Bardot’s default ride on the Riviera, which gave it a huge amount of publicity. The car became a fashion sensation. But the way De la Poype saw it, the Moke’s tiny wheels, low ground clearance, hard suspension and rust-prone body were its main failings, limiting its market to the leisure niche.
SEAB hired industrial designer Jean-Louis Barrault to design the envisioned vehicle. The mechanical base was soon selected: the Renault 4’s longitudinal water-cooled 4-cyl. dictated too high a bonnet line, so a used 2CV van was de-bodied instead. The injection-molded body panels, which were riveted to a simple metal frame, were made of ABS (also used in Lego bricks), a relatively tough type of recyclable plastic. The body weighed a total of 35kg (77 lbs). A cleverly-designed fabric roof and removable B-pillars could protect just the front seats, or the whole car, turning it into a convertible wagon – or a four-seat roadster, with the windshield down. The 2CV and Dyane parts bin donated various bits, such as headlamps, door handles, steering wheel, instruments, windshield wipers, etc.
In 1967, De la Poype presented the finished concept, dubbed ‘Donkey”, to Citroën CEO Pierre Bercot, who immediately green-lighted production, using the new 602cc Dyane 6 platform with the van’s sturdier suspension. This was probably the single best decision Bercot ever made as Citroën CEO, given his pretty bad track record. Bercot’s condition was that the new car would be billed as a pure Citroën effort, though SEAB would produce the bodies. Also, the car was given the name “Méhari”, a type of dromedary – another wise move from Citroën. From the get-go, the Méhari was conceived to be a cross between a beach car, a pick-up truck and an off-roader. Citroën even figured they could punt off a few to the armed forces and security services, as evidenced from the photo above, taken during the Méhari’s seemingly inauspicious launch in 1968.
Why inauspicious? Because if took place slap-bang during the May 1968 “revolution” – at a time when almost the whole country was on strike. Few covered the Méhari’s launch. Peugeot had planned to present their new 504 that month as well, but ended up rescheduling. This didn’t hurt the Méhari’s career though, as many of the folks who took part in the May 1968 uprising ended up using the little Citroën, which became something of a hippie-mobile – even as the police, the army, small entrepreneurs and farmers also espoused it for its intrinsic qualities.
The Méhari could be sold as a four-seater or a two-seater “commerciale” pick-up, which meant a much lower purchase tax. It wasn’t exactly difficult to finagle a rear bench seat and turn it into an occasional four-seater. The rear fabric roof and side rain covers, as well as the doors, were an extra cost option. For those who really fancied staying dry, Citroën proposed the ENAC solid roof and side panel kit, colour-coded to the rest of the car.
Early Méharis (the correct Arabic plural, “Méhara”, is seldom heard) came in three colours – a dark “Montana” green, a bright “Hopi” red and a light “Kalahari” beige, as found on our feature car. In 1970, a bright “Kirghiz” orange was added to the mix. Very early models (1968-69) had a single tail-lamp and turn signals placed on the sides of the car. In 1970, the turn signals were repositioned, causing a mild restyle of both the front and the rear. In 1978, the Méhari got another facelift, as well as front disc brakes.
In 1979, a genuine four-wheel-drive Méhari was introduced (albeit with only one 29 BHP engine). But it cost double the standard car and sold poorly; it was only produced for four years. The Méhari’s sales began to dwindle by the mid-‘80s and Citroën decided to kill it off in 1987, after about 145,000 units had been made.
The main competitors, aside from the mighty Mini Moke, were the VW Typ 181 “Thing”, the Savio-built Fiat 600 Jungla (1965-1974) and the Renault 4-based cars “Plein Air” and “Rodéo”. The rear-engined cars were completely outclassed in terms of modular usage and cargo space. The Renault 4 Plein Air was actually launched the day before the Méhari in 1968, but was a complete bomb, with its neither-fish-nor-fowl saloon-derived body and awkward top-hinged hatch. By 1970, Renault replaced it with the ACL-built Rodéo, a carbon-copy of the Méhari; in France, the Citroën always maintained its lead in terms of popularity.
There were countless variations of the Méhari made around the world. CKD kits were shipped from France to Argentina, Belgium, Spain and Yugoslavia, but the real success lay in the Baby-Brousse’s descendants. Citroën had bought out the Ivorian concept in 1969 and relaunched it as two models: a completely revamped Baby-Brousse and the FAF (the acronym of “facile à fabriquer / facile à financer”, easy to build / easy to finance). The Baby-Brousse was basically a Méhari with a crude metal body. The FAF was slightly more elaborate, with pick-up and wagon variants, and was uniquely designed to be made locally: its body was delivered to the local partner as sheetmetal with markings and numbers, which one simply read to know how to fold what and where, until this elaborate origami (with a touch of spot-welding) produced a finished car body. These were built in several African countries (Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal), Asia (Indonesia, Iran, South Vietnam), as well as Chile, Greece and Portugal. Each Baby-Brousse and FAF version was slightly different from one country to the next, often with different names. The Greek version of the Baby-Brousse was the Namco Pony – it was even exported to several European countries; the Vietnamese version was “La Dalat”; the Iranians called theirs the “Jian”; in Chile, it was sold as the Yagán.
Germany famously opted out of the Méhari – alleging that the ABS body was flammable (which it is, at 400°C) and therefore dangerous (which it isn’t). A few grey-market cars were sold in 1972, but the German authorities shut the importer down. In 1975, fiberglass kit car specialist Fiberfab developed the Sherpa to fill the niche; Citroën eventually agreed to deliver some flat-twin platforms for the Sherpa to be sold fully built-up. But the Sherpa was a dismal failure, with only 250 sold in seven years. The FAF was only made in about 1800 units, but over 30,000 of the various Baby-Brousses were built – half of them in Greece, a third in Iran and the rest in six other countries. Maybe I should have filed this post under “CC Global”…
Our feature car is a good representative of the species. It was built in 1974, the high-water mark for the Méhari (13,910 made in France during the calendar year). It is reasonably scruffy, as befits a utility vehicle, though the owner told me he’s contemplating replacing the whole body. After all, spare panels are easy to come by and the work involved is not rocket science. And this Méhari’s in its fourth decade of existence, but certainly won’t mind carrying on in this vale of tears for another four, if the law allows it to.
Up close, there is a multitude of cool little details on this car. The step built into the bottom of the side panel to hop into the back seat, for example. Or the little belt buckles holding the bonnet shut. Or the little crank starter hole in the chevron-patterned grille. It’s no oil painting, but it’s as quirky and purposeful as anything else on the road.
The Citroën suspension, which can feel unnervingly elastic in a 2CV, must feel downright scary in a car with optional doors and roof. But if you can hold your nerve, a Méhari can probably get you from point A to point B through snow, sand or mud just as well as a Land Rover for a fraction of the price. No wonder they sold these for so long: Citroën knew they had nothing to replace the Méhari with.
And indeed, it took 30 years for the Méhari name to be reborn, this time as the e-Méhari. No points for guessing if that one has a flat-twin. Will that one equal its ancestor, which was produced for almost 20 years on four continents and whose longevity is measured in decades? The question remains open.
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