Once one of the most popular niche vehicles in Europe, open-top beach cars were facing extinction in the late 1980s. The Renault Rodeo was axed in the middle of the decade, the Citroën Mehari’s long production run ended in 1987 and the Mini Moke was quietly living out the last years of its life. A French coachbuilder named Teilhol saw the declining market as an opportunity to make a long-awaited return to building cars.
It helped that Teilhol was no stranger to soft-roaders like the Mehari. In the early 1970s, the company (which at the time was called Ateliers de Construction du Livradois, or ACL) designed and built the very first Renault Rodeo, which was aimed squarely at the Mehari. Several different versions were built including the 4, the 5 and the 6 over the course of the 1970s and the early 1980s, and Teilhol even built a Renault-4-based pickup that was largely aimed at fleet buyers. However, Renault found itself in dire financial straits in the 1980s and it put an end to the partnership.
Teilhol found itself without a car to build almost overnight and it filed for bankruptcy. Determined to get back on its feet, it teamed up with Citroën and assembled a handful of special models including a long-wheelbase version of the C15, a C15-based pickup and two-seater versions of both the AX and the BX. However, Teilhol wanted to return to building its own cars instead of making simple and – for the most part – minor modifications to existing ones.
The opportunity came in early 1987 when Citroën announced that the nearly 20-year old Mehari would axed without a replacement. It wasn’t exactly a high-volume vehicle but it was relatively popular among niche buyers so Teilhol immediately decided to start working on a replacement. Called Tangara, the modern-day Mehari was presented to the public for the first time at the 1987 edition of the Geneva Motor Show.
Visually, the Tangara looked like an evolution of the Mehari – no one would have batted an eyelash had Citroën presented it as the second-gen Citroën. Its overall proportions and dimensions were very similar to the Mehari but it stood out thanks to a more modern-looking design characterized by square headlights, a ten-slat grille and wrap-around plastic bumpers. The rear end featured a simple tailgate hinged right at the bottom of the bumper.
The body was made out of fiberglass, a manufacturing technique that Teilhol had mastered, and a closer look at the Tangara revealed it was fitted with a lot of components sourced from miscellaneous parts bin the coachbuilder had access to. The headlights were sourced from the 2CV, the tail lamps were borrowed from the Peugeot 205, the door mirrors came from the Renault Express and the windshield carried a Citroën C15 parts number.
With room for up to four passengers, the Tangara’s cockpit was fitted with a simple, function-over-form dashboard, while the single-spoke steering wheel, the shift lever, the stalks and the instrument cluster all came from the 2CV. The story was the same under the Tangara’s composite skin. The soft-roader was built on a Citroën 2CV frame and it used the exact same 29-horsepower 602cc air-cooled flat-twin engine. A four-speed manual transmission controlled via a dash-mounted shifter spun the front wheels.
The Tangara generated a favorable response from show-goers in Switzerland, and Citroën immediately announced it would provide Teilhol with as many 2CV frames, engines and transmissions as needed. In retrospect, part of why Citroën liked the idea so much was because selling 2CV components partially helped make up for the fact that sales were dropping annually.
The Tangara went on sale in 1987 with a base price of 53,049 francs, and selecting four-wheel drive added 23,720 francs, bumping the final price to nearly 77,000 francs. In comparison, in late 1986 a 2CV6 cost 34,900 francs, a Mehari started at 49,900, a base-model Volkswagen Golf cost 54,900 and a Mercedes-Benz 190 (w201) stickered for 127,300. The list of extra-cost options included reclining seats, a two-tone paint job, hubcaps and a hard top that could be ordered with or without windows.
With 2CV production slowly winding down, Citroën asked Teilhol to fit the Tangara with an AX-sourced 1.1-liter water-cooled four-cylinder engine. It took a well-trained eye to tell AX-powered cars from their 2CV-powered counterparts but they stood out thanks to different headlights, a longer front overhang, a relocated fuel filler cap and model-specific front fenders. Teilhol also experimented with sub-Tangara model called Theva that rode on an AX platform, but that’s a different story for a different time.
Teilhol had a hard time making ends meet and it filed for bankruptcy one final time in March of 1990, marking the end of the Tangara’s production run. All told, the French automaker built 1,344 examples of the 2CV-powered Tangara (including at least 41 limited-edition Dune models), 47 four-wheel drive Tangaras, 63 AX-powered Tangaras and 88 examples of the Theva.