Collection in action: Citroën Méhari

‘Built for a purpose’ is perhaps too simplistic a phrase to describe what the Citroën Méhari represents but its bare-bones persona is, in reality, full of character.

If ever there was a vehicle that epitomised the adjective ‘utilitarian’, the Citroën Méhari is it. It was the brainchild of an ace French World War II pilot Count Roland de la Poype, who was a member of the Normandie-Niemen fighter group that fought on the Soviet front. He was also a plastic industry pioneer, and after the war in May 1947 he formed the Société d’Etudes et d’Applications des Plastiques (SEAP), having had the vision that plastics and disposable packaging would become very important… Already a supplier to Citroën, SEAP developed the Méhari concept and presented it to the French car maker for approval, who launched it in May 1968 and it was to stay in production for 20 years. The vehicle was named after a fast-running dromedary camel the likes of which were ridden by cavalrymen (méhariste) of the French Armée d’Afrique and Army of the Levant.

Not surprisingly, SEAP moulded the open-top body in a light but durable plastic called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and the colour was mixed in with the material, so for customers the range was limited. The colours were given quirky desert region names: green was called Montana (the only colour offered throughout the car’s lifespan), with Hopi (red) offered between 1968-75, Kalahari (beige) from 1968-77, Kirghiz (orange) 1969-87, Tibesti (light green) from 1976-79, Hoggar (beige) from 1978-87, Atacama (yellow) from 1980-87. Bucking the trend, a limited-edition model was made from 1983-87 and was painted a rather boringly titled Azur blue.

The body was mounted on a tubular frame underpinned by the long-travel, all-independent suspension and running gear of the 2CV6. The Deux Chevaux’s engine was also utilised, the 602 cm3 flat-twin delivering 22 kW at 5 750 r/min and 39 N.m of torque at 3 500. Transmission was the customary four-speed manual with Citroën’s oddball pull-push gear shift protruding straight out of the facia – first opposite reverse, second and third in a single plane, and fourth out on a dogleg right. To the unfamiliar, the shift technique takes a while to get the hang of, but eventually becomes less of a challenge.

Despite its humble powertrain, following an initiative of the French Ministry of Youth and Sports, 25 Méharis took part in Liége-Dakar-Liège Rally in 1969, where 100 youngsters crewed the vehicles from Liége to Dakar, and another 100 brought them back. Similar exercises were carried out on the Paris-Kabul-Paris Rally in 1970 and the Paris-Persepolis-Paris Rally in 1971. Méharis also provided medical support assistance in the gruelling 1980 Paris-Dakar.

In 1979 a four-wheel drive version was introduced for a limited period. The normal transmission was supplemented with a three-speed transfer gearbox “for crossing slopes up to 60%”. At the time, the all-wheel drive Méhari was one of the few 4x4s with four-wheel independent suspension, and it also boasted disc brakes all round.

This particular Hoggar Beige example is in superb condition for a near-40-year-old off-roader. The elaborately-hinged shallow doors give access to a spacious cockpit housing a pair of bucket seats. Like all Méharis, it is left-hand drive and the trademark Citroën single-spoke steering wheel is noticeably near-horizontal. The pedals are offset towards the middle of the vehicle – the brake and accelerator are virtually in the centre, to the right of the steering column – so the driving position is far from ideal, but such is the character of the car that it does not become an issue.

Measuring 3 520 mm long, 1 530 mm wide and riding on a 2 400 mm wheelbase, the compact Méhari is rectangular in plan view. With the fabric roof and sides in place it stands 1 640 mm high, but with everything removed and the windscreen folded flat, the Méhari is no more than waist high. It is highly manoeuvrable, with a usefully small turning circle.

Despite its modest power output, because its curb weight is around 570 kg the Méhari is still relatively lively, a sensation accentuated by the minimalist weather protection that affords the ‘wind in the hair’ pleasures of al fresco motoring. Mind you, on the day of my drive, having the fabric roof erect was a blessing in the middle of a 38-degree day in the grounds of FMM. The open cockpit sides contributed to a superb view out. Just as well, as the plastic in the removable side windows is almost opaque.

On the open road it is easy enough to keep the Méhari at a steady cruising pace, but off the beaten track you have to keep the flat-twin’s revs up to avoid getting bogged down. The ride is, as one would expect, pleasantly supple and over rough ground the body rattles and squeaks a bit, but again no more than one would expect. You would have to be young to drive from Liége to Dakar and back without complaint, but it is all part of the adventure that the youngsters who undertook those rally-raids must have enjoyed.

A total of 144 953 Méharis were made, the best year being 1974 when 13 910 were produced. Apart from France, it was built in factories in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Uruguay and Argentina, where the body was made from glass fibre. Today, they make fun restoration projects with engine and suspension parts all still readily available. However, 4×4 transmission components are practically unobtainable. Replacement bodies can be ordered, in any colour as long as it is white…

With its basic construction, the Méhari has proven to be amazingly versatile, capable and durable. This is one camel that does not give its rider the hump…