About 2500 year ago, Xerxes the Great ruled over the Achaemenid Empire. Xerxes was also known as Shahanshah, or “King of Kings,” and is known for mounting one of the largest military offensives the world had ever seen against Greece in 480 BCE, as Eva Green explains here. His army rode camels, but don’t be misled by that. These camels were known as the mehara. In other words, super camels. A mehari is conditioned from birth to be the strongest and fastest camel around- faster than a horse even. Xerxes managed to burn Athens to the ground, but died after being assassinated by the commander of his own royal bodyguard in 466 BCE. The mehara lived on, though, and have been used for both racing and military purposes ever since. This is not a racing camel- not even a little bit- but it is a mehari. A 1984 Citroën Méhari, to be precise.
The story of how the car version of the Méhari came to be has a lot less betrayal and disappointingly less Eva Green in it, but it does have a little to do with war. The man who designed for the Méhari was Roland de La Poype, who was (shockingly) a Frenchman. He was a flying ace for France during World War II, after which he became the head of a plastics company called the Société d’Etudes et d’Applications des Plastiques, or SEAP if you have other things to do. SEAP was a major plastics supplier to Citroën, and in the mid-sixties La Poype and his pals presented them with a fully working prototype of the Mehari, which itself was made of plastic. Here’s an actual transcript of that conversation, which has not been doctored at all and was not completely made up by me just now:
Citroën: Sacre Bleu! A plastic car without a roof? Are you crazytown bananapants?
La Poype: Will you build it?
Citroën: Absolutely not! We are a company of rationality and principle!
La Poype: Even if I give you Camembert?
La Poype: And wine?
Citroën: Goddammit, Étienne, hire this man!
But, you know, in French.
Anyway, the Méhari went on sale in 1968. It was actually called the Dyane 6 Méhari at that time, mainly because this little trucklet shared a platform with the recently introduced Dyane, which itself was intended to be a replacement for the aging 2CV and a competitor to the annoyingly competent Renault 4. The Méhari was seen as a sort of beach goer, for fun loving outdoorsy types who didn’t trouble themselves with mindless quibbles such as personal safety or general well being. See, the Méhari could be considered quite dangerous given its lack of a few crucial pieces of safety equipment. Little stuff, really. Anti-lock brakes. Airbags. A roof. And then there was the American Méhari. In the United States, where the Méhari was sold from 1969 to 1970, Citroën decided to classify the Méhari as a truck. This was because, at the time, trucks had to comply with less safety requirements than normal cars, which meant, in the Méhari’s case, no seatbelts. Safe!
Interestingly enough, most people pretty much disregard the Méhari’s complete lack of concern for the lives of its passengers. This was due in large part to the fact that the Méhari was so slow that it was never in danger of getting into a serious accident. When it was launched, it made 28 horsepower. That makes this, I think, the second least powerful car we’ve ever had on Forgotten Metal, behind that Trabant I drove in Berlin. It wasn’t like that for long, however, because the next year, they bumped up the power. To 28.5 horsepower. Like, this is funny after a certain point, right? Well, luckily, people weren’t laughing for long, because the next year Citroën increased the power again. This time they weren’t messing around. This time it made 29 horsepower. I freaking love this car.
All this power was thrust upon you though the four speed manual transmission from a 2CV. The engine is as delightfully weird as the rest of it: a 602cc flat-twin. In 1967, Citroën acquired another French company called Panhard, who popularized their own version of a flat twin. That engine was known for its rather unique unit construction, which meant that the engine block and the cylinder head were made from one piece of metal. The Panhard Flat Twin was exceptionally long-lasting and could be revved as high as 7800 rpm. It also won its class at the 24 hours of Le Mans. The engine was so influential that it actually survived the death of the company that designed it, living on in a whole variety of Citroëns, the Méhari included, well into the 1980s. Anyway, the Méhari was front wheel drive, because the French love front wheel drive, but you could by a four wheel drive version between the years of 1980 and 1983.
So we finish up the story of the Méhari less than 500 miles from where we started. I almost forgot to mention, these pictures were taken in the south of France: in Marseille, to be specific. Marseille is a major Mediterranean port city, and enjoys a heavy Northern African influence as a result. Marseille’s unique fusion of cultures has become so fundamental, in fact, that many people who live here consider themselves Marseillan before they consider themselves French. Remember the mehara-the Persian warrior camels from way back in the intro paragraph? Well, they’re still around today. They’re most prominent in Algeria, which is a former French territory and just a hop, skip and a jump from where these pictures were taken. Two different mehara, separated by a strip of sea and a world of history. If that’s not a poetic way to end I don’t know what is. Au revoir!
- The body of the Méhari is made up of only 11 different pieces, all of which were made out of a plastic composite material called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, or ABS. ABS is also the acronym for Anti-lock Brakes, which the Méhari did not have.
- Four wheel drive Méharis could be identified by the placement of the spare wheel, which was located on the hood.
- The Méhari weighed less than a ton, owing in no small part to its use of a tubular frame. The fact that it was made of plastic didn’t hurt either.
- Both the French Army and the Irish Defense Forces used Méharis for a time. I guess they liked that wind-in-your-hair feeling while charging into battle.
- Only 214 Méharis were sold in the United States, but one managed to find its way into the Charleton Heston film The Omega Man: “Don’t turn, just stand. When I want you to turn I’ll turn you- on or off, up or around I’ll turn you, now cool it!”
- Bill Murray also drives one in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
- American Méharis were popular at the Hawaii branch of Budget Rent-a-Car.
- This ad.
- 63 Méharis were burnt to a crisp by what I can only assume was a very particular arsonist in Paris in the winter of 1973.