Curbside Classic: 1979 Citroën Méhari – Deep Dive In The Car-Pool Lane

Here we go again with the plastic Cit. We’ve seen the Citroën Méhari on CC a few times – I’ve committed a full-length post on the subject myself, but that was a while back. But that was a pretty ripe series 1 car, whereas what we have here is a pristine series 2, which I caught in its natural Western European habitat last month. So I think it’s worth a second look.

Said natural habitat was an Alpine town in Haute-Savoie, not too far from the Swiss border. We think of these as beach cars, but they are also pretty good climbers, if you’re not in a hurry. Not a great winter weather car, of course, but then neither are most 2-cyl. Citroëns, with their fabric roofs and minimal heating. That said, due to their lightness and front-drive, 2CVs and their numerous variants are able to rival many 4x4s in snowy conditions.

But the summer is when these cars really come into their own – the Méhari in particular. Mr Justy Baum, whose musings, opinions and aphorisms are always (sometimes?) a source of mirth for CC readers and contributors, recently compared the Citroën Méhari to a small swimming pool on wheels. (Author’s note: at this point, I might signal for the benefit of those of a dour disposition, impervious to irony, allergic to allegory and/or otherwise zygomatically challenged, that most of the rest of this post is not to be taken absolutely literally. In other words: I’m mostly kidding from here on.)

Here are Justy’s own words on the matter: “It’s got to be just cool to buzz about in an unfenced fiberglass swimming-pool, even if that’s only when it’s hot and not raining, and especially because of this: as motorized pool molds go, it’s also got to be near the top five for sheer style.” I must confess that the idea made me chuckle (Mr Baum’s intent, no doubt), but is as always the case with the best bons mots, there was a kernel of genius in the delirium. Move over, bathtub Nash! Head to port, Amphicar! The Schwimmtroën Méhari is taking the road.

If any car were to be made as a functional self-propelled pool, the Méhari would probably be the best starting point. I remember they did something on Top Gear that was slightly in that ball park: they filled three British Leyland cars up with water and drove them to see which one fared best, i.e. which would leak the least water (the winner was the Princess saloon, if memory serves). But that was done in England and in closed cars. Not exactly what we’re discussing here, then.

Having water just about waist-deep inside a Méhari would be pretty nice, given decent weather conditions. The seats in this particular example would probably not enjoy being immersed for very long – something would need to be done about that. And obviously, despite their high sills, the doors would need to be welded shut. But other than that, I’m not foreseeing too many problems.

Well, perhaps the electrics would require a bit of sorting out – just a modicum of extra protection, to avoid shorting the car (or its occupants). But the rest of the Méhari’s controls lend themselves pretty well to the exercise: the handbrake and gear lever are mounted on the dash. There are a few holes to be plugged if we wanted to fill the car; it was designed to be washable with a water jet, so there are bound to be drains to deal with somewhere. Nothing a few strategically-placed corks can’t address, surely (as the bishop said to the actress).

Of course, one of the issues we are going to run into with this liquid-cooled passenger compartment is going to be centrifugal in nature. The suspension of the Méhari is notoriously soft and can roll a lot when taking turns. So it’ll be interesting to see how much water escapes by sloshing over the edge in tight bends. Like an infinity pool, but without the infinity bit.

(Switching back to something a bit more fact-based now, if only for a couple paragraphs…) The series 2, launched in 1978, is characterized by its revamped grille, which could now be used to access the distributor cap more easily (to do this, series 1 cars required the whole front end to be unscrewed from the structure), as well as front disc brakes. Inside, the 2CV-sourced instrument binnacle was ditched in favour of a more modern-looking set-up hewn from the best-forgotten Citroën LN.

The improbable Méhari 4×4, made in just over 1200 units from 1979 to 1983.

Also in 1979, albeit near the end of the model year, the 4×4 version was launched. Unlike the 2CV Sahara of the early ‘60s, which had an unusual “twin-twin” set-up (i.e. two 2-cyl. engines, one for each axle), the Méhari 4×4 used the regular front-mounted 602cc 29hp engine also found in our feature car, but added a transfer case, a transmission and a rear differential, among many other differences, to turn the peaceful plastic pool into an all-conquering all-terrain Tupperwarrior. The French army did buy a few, but the model failed to catch on.

Citroën’s 1979 flat-twin range, as drawn in the Dutch brochure by French cartoonist J-C Fournier


Perhaps because by this point in time, the Méhari (and the whole Citroën air-cooled twin range) started to feel past its prime. The Méhari’s best year had been 1974. The model plateaued at about 9000 units per year for the rest of the ‘70s, but production numbers really nosedived after 1980. To be fair, the same thing happened to the Renault Rodéo and the Mini Moke. Pool-shaped cars were on the way out. Still, because the Méhari was based on the 2CV van chassis and bits of the Dyane, it lasted as long as said van, i.e. all the way to 1987.

Nowadays, the Méhari is as popular as ever. An outgrowth of the Marseille-based owner’s club even manufactures new plastic body panels now, as well as other bits and pieces necessary for the restoration of your old Méhari, or even the transformation of a 2CV van into one. Given that millions of Citroën flat-twins were made during four decades, the supply of engines and other chassis bits is not a concern for the foreseeable future.

So, what do we reckon about Justy’s notion of a Citrosplash Méta-hari? J’accuzzi the distinguished Mr Baum of putting this seductive yet impossible notion into our CCollective imagination, thereby creating a new aquamobilistic niche that will always remain a pipe dream. Justy, mate, sorry but it just won’t hold water!

But as dry goods, this little thing would be a fantastic way to putter about in the summertime. Sunbathing is this car’s natural function, even as one is melodically lulled by the flat-twin’s distinctive high-pitched buzz and gently rocked by the marshmallow-soft suspension. Keep it a beach car, or pool the other one.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1974 Citroën Méhari – Plastic Frenchtastic, by T87

CC Outtake: Greetings From Venice – Citroën Méhari, by PN

Let’s Celebrate The Citroën Méhari’s 45th Birthday With Some Vintage Publicity Shots, by PN

Cohort Outtake: Citroën Méhari – Minimalist Motoring, Or The Anti-1959 Cadillac, by PN