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.
Related CC posts:
CC Outtake: Greetings From Venice – Citroën Méhari, by PN
Let’s Celebrate The Citroen Mehari’s 45th Birthday With Some Vintage Publicity Shots, by PN
Cohort Outtake: Citroen Mehari – Minimalist Motoring, Or The Anti-1959 Cadillac, by PN
Great article. I remember seeing a few Meharis around the Florida space coast in the early 1970s. The US importer used this cute cartoon camel in its magazine advertising.
This car will always be associated with French comedian Louis de Funès.
Love plastic cars. That binnacle on the dash looks like a soap dish from a shower stall !
I think it’s the ashtray.
The Mehari is cool. I rode shotgun on a parts run in one of those for Citroen Auto Sales in Cleveland. This was about 1984, a clear summer day. This Mehari was faded red, maybe a ’72. Not knowing a thing about it other than it was plastic and the engine sounded like it directly was mounted to the back of the dashboard, I braced myself for a kidney pounding ride. The little chain in lieu of a door had me looking for some kind of grip, just in case.
The street was in the middle of being repaved, complete with ruts here and raised castings there. We hit the first raised manhole cover and – plip plip. Practically nothing. How could something that weighs so little ride like my 504? Maybe better? It impressed. But then, it was noisy and left a distinct awareness of the vulnerability of such a vehicle compared to the big Domestic Iron that surrounded us at the time.
And a Cleveland winter in one? Yikes! But if I lived in a nice Pacific climate away from heavy road traffic, or summer season near a resort park system, I would surely consider it. Actually, it’d be a blast.
Instead, I soon thereafter went totally mundane and practical. A DS21 summer car, a Peugeot 504 (then 604) for winter. 🙂
Did you mean to say 1974 instead of 1984? It would be nice to ride in a Mehari in beach towns like Marseilles or Manhattan Beach in the summer but I would be afraid to drive it on the motorway.
1984 was when I had the ride. Citroen Auto sales was an interesting place, remaining in business for nearly 20 years after Citroen left the US market. At that point they were also known as Cleveland Alfa Romeo. They also once sold Jensen. And Maserati when the BiTurbo was available. And CXA (Citroen CX’s brought in and federalized by independent CX automotive). Interestingly, they shunned other French brands. They wouldn’t touch a Peugeot or Renault.
The back lot was littered with rusted DS’s, the occasional SM engine fire, and gray market Panhard, Citroen CX, and a 72 GS that managed to remain in the USA after a publicity photo shoot for possible US distribution of the GS (which never happened).
The Mehari was 10 or 12 years old at the time. And there was more than one!
You are so right about where a Mehari is right at home, and where not!
This is the best article written on the Mehari I think I’ve seen.
Thanks for the compliment! I approve of your choice of cars – any pics of the 604 you could share?
T87, there were two 604’s in reality. The earlier was a ’77 v6SL with an interim period with a couple 505’s and a 504D wagon that met its fate with poor timing, a sudden storm, and a Very Large Oak tree 🙁
604 v6 photos are on film. Have to dig them up.
The later era 604 is an early ’82 Turbo Diesel (pictured) that was sold to me as a parts car. Flew to the US east coast with a small tool kit and supplies and drove it back. This was about 10 years ago. Drove it daily for 7, and occasionally in the last 3. Needs a head, really. Odo/speedo broken at 559K miles. Before I bought it. Estimated current miles about 650K miles minimum. Rough when I got it, rougher now. Runs great still.
604 #1 is the car I had that generated a question if Peugeot at one time made a 603 that looked like a big fish. And that turn events got me a ride in a ’63 Tatra 603. Right here in Cleveland of all places!
The Mehari I rode in (and drove another at one point) was definitely a US market car. It had the sealed beam headlights, etc. Must have been ’68-’70 then.
What I’m driving these days. Another survivor. A ’67 front end because a tornado (not Toronado!) dropped Dorothy’s porch on the front end. Actually a ’70 ID.
A rather brilliant vehicle. Love its simplicity and capability. I’d be very happy to have one for running errands in the summer. I bet they’re getting scarce and pricey now.
And of course an equally great write-up. I did not know its origins, or that there was a 4WD version.
In France, they’re not as pricey as 2CVs and less scarce than, say, a DS or a 504. A lot of them still work for a living.
Though it seems the Méhari was a (relative) sales success in other countries, apparently only about 215 were sold in the United States, in 1969-70. While VW Things are still a fairly common sight in the LA area, this Méhari is the only one I’ve managed to find.
I’ve always loved the idea of finding a Renault Rodeo and importing it to the US, but economics make that a dream. I don’t think the Rodeo has any real advantage over the Mehari, but for odd/strange factor it has an edge.
My mom and her husband bought one new in Anchorage (!!) and used it as their year-around car (!!!!!) for several years. When they decided to move down to Missouri they had every intention of towing it behind the motorhome, but the AlCan was still a dust bowl for long stretches and the poor dear would have had to be hosed down inside and out every night … and they also got a good offer for it.
Closer to here and now, the guy who co-owns the Autobooks store in Burbank has a very tidy beige one that hits a lot of the car shows with its big store logo, not to mention Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade.
Thanx for this well written and extremely informative article ! .
Chuck and Tina own Auto Books and have an amazing collection of French cars .
They also put on ” The Best of France And Italy ” in Woodley Park every November….
ex 1959 2CV AZ owner
The Mehari co-stars in this German VW commercial —
A wonderful post as always from Tatra87. And thanks for mentioning that they were officially imported to the US, as I remember seeing enough of them that they couldn’t have all been gray market, more common than Mokes, though certainly not as common as the VW Thing. From today’s perspective, the body sides remind me of a pickup truck bed liner… without the bed. And Citroen’s “hydro-pneumatically suspended ivory tower”. Brilliant!
Awesome vehicle. I’ve always conidered owning one of these because they can’t rust, are very simple and reliable, and the best of all, they are (sort of) cabriolet.
In Argentina it was launched in 1971 and had some popularity, specially with the young crowd. In 1979 Citroën decides to flee the country and sells all of its assets to Eduardo Sal Lari (who owned the Daher Boge company that made all the suspension parts for Citroën Argentina). The deal said the new local owners would continue to manufacture the pieces for reposition of existing vehicles and import some French Citroëns until 1982.
In 1983, due to importing restrictions and a fairly complicated economic situation, Eduardo Sal Lari decides to cut all ties with Citroën and starts producing cars. This was not authorized by Citroën of France, so the “new” cars were branded IES (Industrias Eduardo Sal Lari).
IES catalogue included the already known 3CV and its commercial version (Carga), but also the venerable Mehari, now renamed Safari.
The IES Safari was identical to the vehicle featured in this article, except for the relocation of the spare tire en the hood (like the AWD version), and, of course, the replacement of the double chevron by the circle of the IES brand.
It lasted throughout 1985, and IIRC only about a thousand were produced.
But this vehicle won’t end here and will be the inspiration for a unique project that IES managed to carry out in 1988: the Gringa.
Very interesting – I wasn’t aware of this IES variant. The 1983 date is also interesting because that’s when Citroën stopped the 4×4 version. They had a pile of leftover parts for those (they thought they would sell about 1000-2000 per year but only sold about 1200 in 3 years), including the famous bonnet with the spare wheel. They probably shifted those to Argentina – or IES got them to ship those down to Buenos Aires. Some French Méhari received 4×4-specific body panels in ’83/’84 for the same reason, but those were rear panels, not the famous bonnets…
I think you may have discovered something here because I doubt the Mehari body was made in Argentina, but rather imported and assembled here. I know for sure that the steel bodies were locally made because the América line had a specific sheetmetal design that was different form the original Citroën design.
My guess is that they assembled the remaining stock and then relied on fiberglass bodies made by other workshops such as Lodi for aftermarket conversions.
I did not care for these as a kid when I would occasionally see one, but now I absolutely love the. Another great post by you.
I can just see Inspector Clouseau driving the ‘gendarme’ version in a ‘Pink Panther’ movie.Peter Sellers, of course!
Thanks for writing this story!! I have never seen much, any, coverage on this vechicle in english publications. I have seen and photographed one in Cape Town central, the owner deserves a medal going forth in our thick fast aggressive traffic in that ..cat basket..
Very interesting – this is a car I would love to drive someday.
In reading this article, several aspects of the Mehari’s development reminds me of the Jeep Scrambler — a car that I happen to be writing a CC about now. Like the Mehari, the Scrambler was also “a cross between a beach car, a pick-up truck and an off-roader,” but it never found much of a market looking for such a combination. Part of the Scrambler’s problem was price (I suspect the Mehari was much cheaper), but another aspect was that it was just an oddball combination of things.
I’ve read in recent years that a Wrangler pickup would be a sure-thing if Chrysler can make a CAFE case for it. Of course I never thought the best selling CJ descendant would be a four door with the break over angles of a Ford Pinto either.
I saw an ad for the Mehari in the New York Times ca. 1967. Headline: “Most cars cost you a dime a mile. Mehari costs you a nickel a mile.”
No wonder what’ s over the skin, let’ s be comfident whatever Citroen bodywork mounted over the same 602cc / 652cc engine combined with their long excursion suspension and peculiar Citroen chassis are a real pleasure to be driven. It started with the 2CV name and it was followed in different styles with the various trooners Ami 6 , Ami 8 club, Dyane 6 , AK400, Acadiane, LN & LNA , Visa, then smart Meharis was not the exception to this great two-cylinders boxers that have even such a personality in their roaring mid level noise who seems to be another trademark just all to their own . Possibly the original Mehari survived a couple of years ahead of the official 1987′ s final act. To those who are maniac with the hidden and never imagined automobilia bibliography, perhaps you ought search about the name of an Argentinean extincted factory plant who produced ‘ til 1989 or so the ” ies” Safari, a loyalty sibling of the Citroen Mehari of the 1st series, offered only in a light green tint . Then you may seek to know the ” ies” Gringa, which was a sort of very efficiently restyled Mehari , a quite attractive evolution with real side doors and real mini pickup settings . That “ies” Gringa was another success, assembly plant hasn’ t capacity enough to achieve with so many unexpected purchase orders. Then nobody knows what could happen maybe a disagreement between Citroen France who franchised the local Industrias Eduardo Sal-Lari ( ” ies ” initials for the domestic brand ) , then the licensed assembly plant was abruptedly ceased .
All said, these lattest 602cc Citroens ( ies Safari, ies Gringa and even the silly restyled 2CV called ” ies America ” ) are still targets of automobile cult over here at the South American pampas. The mint new Citroen E.Mehari is a cool design as well, it’ ll be another success so early or later, but being electric loses all the mystique that joins to all those still surviving
Citroen Meharis of the indestructible 602cc 2cyl boxers .
Fantastic write up. I always learn a few new things from your articles. Makes me want a Mehari.
I love the Mehari and it is fitting that the esteemed Professeur T87 brings us such a great history of the vehicle. The thing that has always bugged me about the shape is that bump on top of the front fender just ahead of the front wheel. Though the bonnet has been shaped to marry with it, it still seems a clumsy effort on an otherwise superbly simple and desirable shape.
I’d have one of these ahead of a Moke or a Jolly. That Savio Jungla reminds me of the only plein-air crate I’d have ahead of a Mehari – the oz steel-bodied VW Country Buggy.
Similar VW efforts were made in NZ some survivors have recently surfaced of the VW Terra steel ute body on a Beetle floor pan the easily rolled over Beetles often went on to have long afterlives and Terras could be had with air cooled four or water cooled V4 Ford Transit motors, I donr remember ever seeing a Mehari live but I’d definitely like to cool write up T87.
Just found a pic of a Terra feast yer eyes