Citroen: Electric Mehari – Spark of genius. A Mehari is the perfect summer accessory, but they’re ageing now. So why not buy a brand-new one – with electric power? Words Matthew Hayward. Photography Catherine Dubuisson.
100 YEARS OF CITROEN: EDEN MEHARI
Brand-new green version of the 2CV jeep
Spark of genius
Tyre squeal is a peculiar sound when heard in isolation. Thats something I first noticed at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, when Jaguar ran the course with its Formula E racer.
It s normally associated with a thundering V8 running at full throttle, but on its own it seems particularly strange. But, given the silence and high torque of electric motors, its something we’ll all be hearing more in the future.
It still wasn’t something I expected to hear today, though. We’ve just stopped on the steepest section of twisting rocky road up to the impressively high sea cliffs close to Cassis, just a few miles along the coast from Marseille in France. The setting is perfect for our car, a fully electric Citroen Mehari in lime green.
‘Because you’ve stopped, we’re going to need first gear.’ In response to an over-enthusiastic prod of the accelerator, this silent Citroen lights up its skinny front tyres. ‘That’s what five times the torque of an original Mehari does!’ bellows my co-pilot Darren Arthur of the 2CV Shop, with a huge grin on his face. We’re a few miles down the road from the French 2CV Mehari Clubs headquarters, where Darren has brought Drive-My to drive this electric car called eDen. It looks like a classic Mehari and is built using many of the same parts, but it’s an all-new car.
‘We’ve been having too much fun and the battery charge is below 10%. Fortunately the way back is downhill’
A club building a car? When I arrived at the Mehari Club HQ a couple of hours earlier, the scale of the facility was impressive but not wholly surprising. Not only does this club cater for thousands of owners in France, it also supports many more around the globe. The cult of the 2CV transcends the normal classic car world; more than a mere classic, the 2CV is a proper French icon. The facility here is geared up to store, distribute and reproduce almost every part unique to the 2CV and Mehari. It can do full restorations and it now produces brand-new cars.
With prices for original Meharis rising, even for those needing a complete restoration, there has been much demand from customers to build new ones. The club has all the parts needed to build all-new Meharis but there is no way to register such a car in France. It would need to conform to current regulations to be registered as a new vehicle, which is simply not possible. There is, however, a minor loophole, allowing cars below a certain power output to be registered without the need for full homologation and vehicle testing. This is where the eDen slips in. Known as voitures sans permis, such little cars can be driven from the age of 14 with no licence. The only restriction is that they cant be used on the motorway. Which seems a fair trade.
While showing us around the car, eDen’s chief engineer, Maxime Cabanel, stresses that the aim was to keep the eDen as close to the Mehari in spirit as possible. ‘For the automatic version we were able to have paddles behind the steering wheel like a sports car, but the idea of the eDen is to keep as close as possible to the original Mehari. It’s fully electric, but the only visual difference is the rollcage.’
Integration of the electric motor with the Mehari is quite simple. A US-sourced 30kw DC brushless motor, shared with the Zero motorcycle, bolts directly onto the end of the original gearbox in place of the engine. Its restricted to just under 15kW (20bhp) to gain CE certification, but with roughly 98Nm [72lb ft] of torque available from a standstill theres enough thrust. Although possible, a more powerful version is not on the cards. In five minutes we have twice the power if we want it,’ says Maxime, ‘but you’re going to destroy the gearbox. It’s not made to take ten times the torque of the original car. And we can’t do an unleashed version of the car because we need to be in agreement with the CE certification. But it’s fun, trust me!’
Its range is short at around 100km (62 miles), but the eDen was designed to be charged via any regular domestic socket rather than relying on a dedicated charging network. Maxime says that most owners will cover no more than 60-70km in a day. ‘That’s why we wanted something you can plug in wherever you stop. In an hour of charging you can earn 10-30%, depending on battery temperature, and it’s enough to do what you want. We know it’s not the standard automotive plug, but you drive the car, stop at a restaurant, you show them the car and they will give you a cable for you to charge it up.’
From the gearbox back, the rest of the suspension and drivetrain is standard Mehari. This has greatly reduced development costs and also means the eDen retains a huge amount of Mehari DNA and character. The rear of the chassis, though, has been adapted in two ways. A new carriage below the rear deck houses the battery pack, handily helping to give a 50/50 weight distribution, and a roll cage provides mounting points for seatbelts.
‘The motor has around 98Nm of torque, making it almost five times torquier than the first 2CV engine’
Retaining the original gearbox means you can use all four forward gears, although Maxime tells us that most of the time you can simply leave the car in third. ‘You’ve got a motor that’s got around 98Nm of torque, which means it’s almost five times torquier than the first classic 2CV engine, so of course if you select first gear it’s like driving your Porsche and dropping the clutch very fast!
‘That’s why we’re working on the eDen Easy automatic. It doesn’t have a clutch pedal, and there’s an electronic shifter to switch between forward and reverse. It’s always the same gear, but because it’s an electric motor we can make it run in reverse.’
The body is made from ABS plastic using original moulds. But instead of simply being impregnated with the desired colour as original Meharis were, it can be painted in any colour for a better finish. Otherwise, aside from the extra roll bar, there’s very little to separate the eDen from the original car visually.
It’s a small production operation for now, but Maxime explains that eDen has sensible plans to ramp up production. ‘2CV Mehari Club Cassis is moving pretty fast. We are building a new workshop, about 600m from here, to centralise what we have scattered around. Because of this, we hope to move production into a bigger area, with a full assembly line and a bigger electric laboratory. At the moment we are building two cars per month, but we’re looking to grow the team with new electricians and mechanics. With this bigger team, we should be able to build three or four cars a month here, but we are limited by the space. With more space, we could build four, five, six cars per month. It really depends on demand at that point.’
Undoubtedly, the demand for an electric Mehari is even more limited in the UK, but Darren Arthur hopes to import a few into the country each year and sell them though the 2CV Shop. It’s certainly perfectly suited to cruising around the sleepy French villages along the Cote d’Azur, and is aimed at people who might leave it at a second home and use it during the summer months. Darren also hinted that there could be an electric conversion kit in the future for 2CVs and Meharis.
Now, stepping over the high sill, I fold my legs around the steering column into the eDen’s tight cabin. The driving position is authentically uncomfortable and the only things not pure-Mehari are the slightly smaller steering wheel, a subtle digital battery gauge in the instrument cluster, and a finish and quality clearly superior to an originals. You can get leather seats, and this one also features the optional fabric top.
With the charger disconnected from the mains, we switch the ignition on and see that its registering less than 50% charge. We decide that it should be fine. Probably.
Darren knows the local roads and offers to take us up to that cliff road. The way the eDen pulls off the line is surprising, even when starting off in third gear as advised. Having a clutch pedal but not needing to use it feels strange to begin with, but once we get out onto the open road it all starts to make sense.
There are some significant differences to the way it drives compared to a modern electric car. For one, there’s no regenerative braking, although the natural friction and inertia of the motor do simulate engine braking when you decelerate. In a way it feels more natural, like a conventional drivetrain, and you need to use the brake pedal in the normal way.
Much work is done when developing modern electric cars to improve NVH and refinement, but in the eDen you feel and hear absolutely everything. It’s part of its charm, and it helps you to appreciate its unconventional drivetrain all the more. With no sound- deadening to soak it up, the whine from the motor is very distinctive, and the clonks and rattles from the drivetrain, body and roof are far more noticeable without the buzzy two-cylinder soundtrack of a regular Mehari.
The beauty of this electric one is that, much like an original, it’s enjoyable at any speed. It’s a very open-air experience, though, and I can’t imagine it being too much fun in anything but a warm climate. You can potter around without a care in the world, the torque from that motor making light work of these hills when an old Mehari would be struggling.
That’s not to say it can’t go quickly. The fun on these windy roads is maintaining speed, which can be a challenge. Go into a bend too adventurously and you’ll scrub it off. Losing momentum is simply not an option, which means you must learn to trust the roly-poly but resolutely stable chassis.
Darren reckons that if we maintain enough speed going into the next section, a 30% uphill incline, we won’t need to change down a gear. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I select first, and after a momentary lapse of serenity and some tyre smoke we get going again. Up to this point I have shied away from using the gearbox too much, but once I’ve got used to the unconventional dash-mounted shifter it proves to be good fun. Second gear certainly makes the eDen friskier out of the tighter hairpins.
As we reach the top of the Cassis cliffs, my right leg is beginning to cramp up. My longer-than-average legs are contorted at an impressive angle to operate the pedals, but both Darren and I are grinning broadly. We’ve been having a little bit too much fun, and we’ve failed to notice that the battery has crept below the 10% mark. There’s quite a way back to base, but fortunately it’s mostly downhill.
As we roll back down, using gravity to conserve the battery, I almost forget that I’m driving an electric car. I start to enjoy the eDen for what it is: not only a brand-new Mehari, but also a huge amount of entertainment.
This page, clockwise from top: Cabin is similar to Citroen’s original apart from a slightly smaller steering wheel; welding-up seat frames – cloth trim is standard, leather optional; production is set to expand at a new, bigger facility.