We were sitting in the SCM Citroën Méhari, watching a Land Rover Discovery make several attempts to climb a wet, grassy hill. The Rover would get halfway up, its wheels would lose traction and back down it would come.
“Watch this!” said Bill Lonseth, caretaker of the Méhari. He revved up the mighty 600-cc twin-cylinder, air-cooled engine, and we attacked the hill — and cruised right up and over, to the applause of those watching.
This was the 2015 Portland Urban Safari. There were about 25 vehicles, ranging from the ordinary (a Ford Courier pickup, albeit hauling a box that read “Live Animals”) to the bizarre (a Halflinger, Unimog and Pinzgauer).
Representing SCM were the Méhari and 1984 Land Rover D90 turbodiesel.
We met up in industrial North Portland at the intersection of North Bruce Avenue and North Lombard Street. According to the organizers, our starting point was the finish line of a transcontinental race from New York City to Portland in 1905. (The two participants, both curved-dash Oldsmobiles, took 44 days to arrive.)
The vehicles were festooned with safari-esque creatures, either stuffed or inflated, and the drivers and passengers had on appropriate jungle-themed clothing. The coiled anaconda perched on the hood of the Méhari did its own little dance as we drove.
Our route took us through narrow alleys with gravel road surfaces, across the St. Johns Bridge, and to a midpoint coffee stop at Ristretto Roasters in the Schoolhouse Electric building.
It was raining heavily by that point, and as the Méhari has no doors or side windows, we got wet. Soaking wet.
We passed through downtown Portland, attracting stares and cheers. One onlooker shouted, “What are you doing and what the heck are you driving?” I said we heard that Hurricane Patricia had crossed the Mexican border and was headed north, so we were getting out of town. That seemed to satisfy him.
The back alleys of Ladd’s Addition in inner Southeast were next, and then it was back to North Portland for our final destination, the burger shop Tilt. I ordered the “Urban Safari Special” — a bacon cheeseburger and bucket of fries for $10.
The D90 had no trouble with any of the obstacles in its way. The Méhari was equally competent, although it did manage to discard its grille while cutting donuts in a parking lot. A couple of tie-wraps solved that problem.
In all, it was a satisfying day. Once again, these vehicles became the magic keys that let us have entry into a unique event. No, it wasn’t the Colorado Grand or the California Mille, but it was only $35 instead of $6,000. And I got to watch the Méhari humble a Land Rover off-road. That has to be worth something.