In May 1968, Citroen surprised the world by launching the Mehari, an open air vehicle technically based on the Dyane, that would be a statement of freedom and new ideas, just like the social revolution that swept away France that same month.

Now, almost 50 years later, the concept Cactus M shows how a modern, not just electric but also plug-in hybrid Mehari could come to life. Citroen has already registered the e-Mehari name, but that is used for a different, electric-only car.

The World War II French ace pilot, Roland de la Poype, is credited with the design of the Mehari, which was first presented to the world on the exclusive sands of the Deauville Gulf. He took the chassis of a 2 CV furgonnette and transformed it into an open vehicle with the ability to be driven over sand, either for utilitarian or leisure purposes. He intended to build the vehicle inside his small company – the planned name was "Donkey" – but he caught Citroen´s attention, and the negotiations led to the production of the vehicle in the same small manufacturing plant where the 2 CV furgonnette was being assembled until, finally, Citroen got hold of the production, due to the high demand that had to be met. 144,953 units were built in the following 19 years, with only one year in which the model changed, with only a new radiator grille added in 1977.

From the vehicle named after the Dromedary (a camel with only one hump on its back), used by the Touareg tribe, the new concept takes the open air idea, the plastic finish of the seats (which make it possible to wash them with plain water), some all-road abilities (a 4x4 Mehari was launched in 1979), and also the Azure body color of the last generation of the Mehari (1983-1987), which is now called Jaws Blue. But gone are all the anachronistic traits, such as the massive horizontal steering wheel, the high mounted pedals, the hard accelerator, the virile and imprecise gearshift lever, the unassisted brakes and, naturally, the two-cylinder petrol engine, which is very loud but not really going anywhere fast.

When side-by-side, the two vehicles convey that sense of commonality that you get by looking at a grandmother and her granddaughter, but also the same perception of obvious differences between them. This became self-evident when we met the Mehari and the Cactus M Concept in sunny Cascais, west of Lisbon (Portugal), for a short drive and some photo-shooting with the past and the non-confirmed future of Citroen´s simplistic approach to an open air crossover vehicle—-but also a possible evolution of the plug-in hybrid strategy for Citroen, which seems to be caught between two minds: the importance of diesel in the French market, and the dark clouds which hang over this engine technology, after the French government declared its intention to heavily tax it (and also due to the VW diesel scandal). A plug-in hybrid version of the Cactus M would be technologically exactly in line with the character of the car: fun for those who want to feel part of nature. Adding a plug-in hybrid drivertain to the 110 hp PureTech petrol engine that curretly resides under the Cactus M hood would be ideal - and Citroen wouldn't have to worry about big batteries, as the electric version of Mehari already exists: the Bollore Bluecar-based e-Mehari.

The starting point for the Concept M was the Cactus, of course. The ground clearance is a couple of centimeters higher, due to the "Tall & Narrow" tires and the bolder wheel arches, the 60º rake of the windscreen, and the thickness of the A pillar all help to add a strong overall road stance. The M promises to be able to go through different types of terrain, thanks to the Grip Control function, which optimizes traction. During our brief drive with this unique piece, we were emphatically advised not to go on any stretches of rough road since, as with any motor-show-destined concept vehicle, this car is hand-made, and assembled in a very fragile way. This, despite the use of the series production Cactus, which gives it a satisfactory ride and handling performance, especially considering what we had just experienced behind the wheel of the Mehari...

Each of the two long doors is made out of one-piece parts in moulded plastic, which makes them easy to use, while also reducing overall vehicle weight. They are designed with an Airbump, and use the same concept with their thermoformed coating, a sort of second skin, which is also used on the bumper protection, which resists knocks and scratches as well as salt water. The opening panels are designed with visible hinges, just like the Méhari, which also had ABS plastic bodywork. Inspired by the surfing spirit, the Cactus M Concept has no roof or front pillar, meaning it is completely open to the outside. The wood plating over the trunk arch and on the windscreen pillars brings to mind the way surfboard manufacturers customise their boards, and the cheerful seat and dash surface patterns (in neoprene fabric) resemble the floral pattern of surfer´s swimwear.

With the perforated foot wells and the seats in salt-resistant fabric, designed to drain off water, occupants can get into the car without even drying or rinsing themselves. The whole cabin can even be hosed out. At the same time, the headrests are designed to resemble boat fenders, bringing to mind the marine environment associated with open-air vehicles.

Despite being a design study on wheels, the Cactus M also manages to be practical: the rear sides are hollowed out, to enable passengers to get in by stepping over the waist line. This solution makes for easier access, while also creating a sense of freedom for passengers in the rear, who do not need to open the door or fold the driver's backrest. The trunk is accessed from the outside, and two surfboards (like the ones created on purpose in the colors of the concept car) can be attached to the roof, using specific lashing systems.

It´s true that this unique Citroen was designed as an open-air vehicle, but it is a convertible, able to adapt to any type of weather. Located in the double trunk floor, a flexible top can be installed by hand, and stretched around the vehicle, using an innovative inflation system (air flow activated by a compressor in the rear of the vehicle inflates three tubes that hold the top in the correct position).

But the claim for freedom on wheels could not be complete without the car´s capability to morph into a bivouac for two people, making it possible to extend the outdoor experience. A tilting mechanism makes it possible for the rear seat to become an extension of the trunk, which opens downwards, to create a couchette for two. Now you can either sleep in the open or under cover, using the inflation function to turn the top into a freestanding tent, enabling two people, measuring 1.80 m in height, to stand upright.

No more limits stand in the way of your quest for discovery. Alors enfants de la patrie, les jours de gloire sont arrivés...

April 10, 2016 Driving photo: Citroen

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