Our more cosmopolitan readers are no doubt aware that “S/M” can be shorthand for sadomasochism (the enjoyment of inflicting and receiving pain). That alternate meaning makes the designation of the Citroën SM all the more piquant, for although the goal of this ne plus ultra of Citroëns was high-speed comfort, its design was every bit as adventuresome (and as kinky) as the name implies. And, as we’ll see, it also involved more than a little pain for everyone involved.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
If you’ve read our histories of the Traction Avant and DS, you already have a picture of Citroën in its heyday: daring engineering, take-no-prisoners design, and a fearless contempt for popular opinion. The engineers and designers of Automobiles Citroën routinely took chances that would’ve left even the most maverick of U.S. auto executives quavering in mortal terror. To say that Citroëns were iconoclastic is like saying a Top Fuel dragster is quick — certainly true, but lacking an appropriate sense of proportion.
The surest evidence of just how advanced the DS really was back in 1955 is that 15 years later, when Citroën launched a new model with most of the same features and hardware, it was still hailed as revolutionary. Even more remarkably, the Déesse was originally intended not as an exotic sports car or an executive limousine, but as a family sedan. The “Goddess” had disc brakes and fully independent suspension at a time when Ferraris and Rolls-Royces still had drum brakes and live axles. (In fact, Rolls-Royce later licensed Citroën’s self-leveling system for their own use.) By the conservative standards of conventional automotive product planning, Citroën’s approach was utter madness and it undoubtedly limited their products’ appeal to more timid shoppers.
If the DS was a family car, what would Citroën concoct if it really did try to build a luxury GT? Buyers shopping in that rarefied but profitable class tend to be more intrigued than offended by the unusual — or even the outright bizarre — if it seems like it will wow the neighbors. Such customers are also more willing to pay a premium for exotic specification, an important point given that extravagant specifications tend to push the price tag well beyond the level of proletarian transportation. That affluent market was the target for the SM, one of the last and certainly the mightiest of classic Citroëns.
THE SPORTING LIFE
The DS was many things, but it was not quick. Outright speed had never been a Citroën priority, but critics generally agreed that the engine was the DS’s weakest link and more than a few observers pined for a smoother, stronger engine. British race builder Connaught had already offered a number of souped-up conversions of Déesses and Idées, so it’s surprising that the factory was so slow to follow suit. Indeed, Citroën chief engineer Jacques Né had been lobbying for a more powerful DS for some time before the SM project was launched.
The big priority at Citroën in the mid-sixties was not on enhancing existing models, but on expansion. Chairman Pierre Bercot was confident in the continued viability of the DS and the 2CV minicar, but there was a yawning chasm between them in price that unfortunately represented the meatiest part of the European market. The Déesse, meanwhile, was a viable competitor for cars like BMW and Jaguar in terms of luxury and roadability, but it didn’t have the performance to qualify as a true prestige car.
To address this shortfall, Né’s concepts of a more powerful DS evolved into a new model: a top-of-the-line flagship, the ultimate Citroën. There was a certain amount of national prestige in the offing; France hadn’t really had a credible offering in the grande routière class since Delage, Delahaye, and Bugatti faded away after the war, leaving the field to the British, the Italians, and the Germans. Not only would such a car be a feather in Citroën’s cap, it would restore a measure of honor to the French auto industry.
The plan was for the SM to use much of the hardware already developed for the Déesse, but the new car would need a new engine. Citroën engineer Walter Becchia had continued to work on six-cylinder designs since the failure of the flat-six originally planned for the DS, but those designs had come to naught. Pierre Bercot turned instead to the source of many fine GT engines: Italy.
AN ITALIAN JOB
In March 1968, Citroën purchased the Italian sports car manufacturer Maserati. The acquisition followed Citroën’s absorption of the French automaker Panhard and the truck manufacturer Berliet, all of which was financed by selling a 26% stake in Citroën to Fiat. In short order, Bercot set Maserati to work designing a V6 engine for the SM. The engine project was a daunting endeavor because of its stringent requirements: the new engine had to be exceptionally compact and lightweight, it could displace no more than 2.8 liters (170 cu. in.) — a threshold beyond which French tax laws became too onerous even for a luxury car — and it needed to be ready in only six months.
Adding to those pressures was friction between the French and Italian engineers. Although M. DeBladis, Citroën’s head of engine development told the press that he was pleased with the collaboration, tensions between the Italians and their new French masters led several long-time Maserati engineers to jump ship soon after the Citroën acquisition. Despite those obstacles, Maserati chief engineer Giulio Alfieri had a complete design ready in a matter of weeks, although it involved some compromises that later proved troublesome.
Most of the rest of the car’s engineering was familiar, at least to Citroën engineers. Suspension was largely the same as the DS, refined to eliminate a few of the Déesse’s foibles and to suit the SM’s more sporting intent. Brakes, too, were similar to the DS, although the SM got discs at all four wheels, reflecting its greater speed potential. Front-wheel drive was likewise carried over, as was the high-pressure central hydraulic system, which no other automaker other than Mercedes had dared to imitate. As before, the hydraulics powered suspension, brakes, and steering. The latter — dubbed DIRAVI in France, VariPower elsewhere — was now provided with a much quicker variable ratio (as fast as 9.4:1), a novel speed-variable system that reduced steering assist at higher speeds, and self-centering action: If you cranked the wheel around with the engine running, it would return to the center by itself.
The Citroën SM was a big car for a contemporary European coupe. It was a bit longer overall than the DS, although its wheelbase was some 7 inches (175 mm) shorter and it was about 300 pounds (135 kg) heavier. Like its sedan predecessor, the SM used unitary construction, although Citroën omitted the Déesse’s unusual bolt-on fenders in favor of fully stressed steel body panels. In the Citroën fashion, the SM was designed for aerodynamic efficiency, the company claiming that its drag was 25% lower than the already-slick Déesse. That seems unlikely (the most plausible figure we’ve found for its coefficient of drag was 0.336, still a highly creditable figure), but the SM was still among the most streamlined cars on the road.
PROVOCATEUR: THE CITROEN SM DEBUTS
When the Citroën SM made its debut at the Geneva Auto Show in 1970, the motoring press was once again stunned. The SM’s hydropneumatic suspension, though not much changed from the original DS in principle, was still a wonder. Front-wheel drive remained novel in those days, particularly for a car of this size and power. The uncanny self-centering, variable-assist steering, with only two turns from lock to lock, almost twice as quick as most contemporaries, met even greater amazement. Added to the cachet of its Italian engine — with the Maserati trident proudly adorning each valve cover — the SM emerged as an impressive achievement.
Even if it had been as conventional as a ’55 Chevy under the skin, the Citroën SM would have knocked ’em dead in Geneva based on its looks alone. Primarily the work of Citroën styling chief Robert Opron with significant contributions from consultant Henri Lauve (amazingly enough, a former Buick designer), it was as visually confrontational as running through the Republican National Convention in full leather-fetish gear. The SM’s only vaguely orthodox aspect was its long-nose/short-deck proportions, dictated more by the front-drive layout — which still placed the transmission ahead of the engine, like the Traction Avant — than any concern for contemporary fashion.
That the SM was sleek, bold, and imposing, no one could argue; whether it was attractive was another matter entirely. Many contemporary observers liked the imposing nose of the European car, which had no less than six Cibié halogen headlights, the inner pair swiveling with the front wheels. The angular, chopped-off tail, an aerodynamic feature known as a Kamm tail, was less favorably received, some critics calling it busy and awkward. Two things were beyond question: first, that the SM was as provocative as any of the edgy show cars then emerging from Italy; and second, that it could be nothing other than a Citroën.
The SM was quite an expensive car, starting around 52,000 FF in France (around $9,500 at contemporary exchange rates). In the U.S., its price started at a sizable $11,800, which was about $2,000 more than a well-equipped Cadillac Eldorado. British buyers were soaked for £5,200 with purchase tax (equivalent to around $13,000) for a fully loaded example and Citroën did not even deign to offer a right-hand-drive model. Such prices put the Citroën SM in the realm of the BMW 3.0 CS, Mercedes 350SLC, Porsche 911, and even Ferrari’s V6 Dino 246 — heady company indeed.
A GENTEEL GT
Even by the standards of its time, the Citroën SM’s objective performance statistics were merely adequate. Although the 2,675 cc (163 cu. in.) Maserati V6 bristled with features like dual overhead camshafts, cross-flow cylinder heads with hemispherical combustion chambers, and a trio of two-throat Weber carburetors, output was an unexceptional 170 hp DIN (125 kW), against which was levied the big coupe’s all-up weight of more than 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg). The 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) run took around 8.5 seconds, which was certainly not bad, but was hardly a threat to American muscle cars or Italian exotica. Top speed was more impressive; thanks to the aerodynamic profile, the SM could approach 140 mph (225 km/h). Its brakes were strong enough, but not dazzlingly powerful, nor did its modest Michelin 195/70R-15 radial tires (upgraded to 205/70R-15 on fuel-injected cars) offer overwhelming levels of grip.
The point of the SM, however, was neither blazing speed nor Fangio-like cornering antics. Its métier was effortless, high-speed cruising for four, with the imperious disregard for rough roads that had become a Citroën hallmark. Although the SM’s hydropneumatic suspension was set firmer than that of the DS, its ability to smooth out choppy pavement remained uncanny. The German and Italian GTs may have had more composure over 100 mph (161 km/h), but they were far less comfortable at saner velocities than was the Citroën. Only Jaguar’s XJ6 sedan truly rivaled the SM’s unique combination of poise and plushness.
The SM’s handling was almost as controversial as the looks. Some sports cars of this era, particularly Ferraris, thrived on a certain well-placed aggression at the controls, but manhandling an SM was sheer folly. The VariPower system and self-centering action did at least keep you from careening into the weeds if you sneezed at highway speeds, but the lightning-fast steering ratio and total lack of feedback required your full attention in any hasty maneuver. The brakes, operated not by a conventional pedal, but by the Déesse’s peculiar, mushroom-shaped rubber button, also demanded a careful touch. Once you got used to it, you could cover ground at a tremendous pace, but driving an SM well meant mastering a new, more delicate set of driving techniques.
FEELING THE PAIN
Despite all those caveats, the Citroën SM’s initial sales were encouraging, particularly given the substantial price tag. It took a few months after the Geneva debut to get the SM in full production, but close to 5,000 were sold in 1971 and more than 4,000 the following year. Alas, the SM soon developed a reputation for reliability problems, owing not so much to the complex suspension (which was reliable enough if well maintained, although expensive to repair), but its Italian engine.
As we mentioned earlier, the SM’s 2,675 cc (164 cu. in.) V6, known as the C114, was a very sophisticated engine for its time, with its all-aluminum construction and DOHC heads. It was admirably light, too, weighing only 308 lb (140 kg), less than some contemporary OHV fours. However, it was compromised somewhat by its hasty development and by its unusual 90-degree cylinder bank angle, which gave it uneven firing intervals and a somewhat lumpy idle, not unlike the early Buick V6. The C114 was not exactly rough, but it lacked the sort of pinkie-in-the-air refinement the SM’s demeanor demanded and it had some worrisome flaws.
(In the original version of this article, we reported — as has often been claimed — that the C114 engine was derived from Maserati’s existing 4,136 cc (252 cu. in.) Indy V8. Some sources suggest that the V6 shared some of the earlier engine’s basic tooling, but according to Maserati historians like Andy Heywood and Marc Sonnery, the V6 was a new design with more compact dimensions and significantly different architecture. In fact, in 1974, the Maserati plant in Modena actually developed a new 3,953 cc (241 cu. in.) V8 by grafting two extra cylinders onto the V6; a prototype of that engine still survives today.)
Indeed, the V6 soon became the SM’s albatross. Period reviewers were widely varied in their descriptions of the engine’s sound quality; some found it quiet, others noted a decidedly raucous character and some alarming noises under hood. Those worrisome sounds were a forewarning of one of the engine’s biggest potential problems: weakness in the complex timing chains that drove the V6’s overhead camshafts. Some owners found, to their great cost, that ignoring those noises could have expensive consequences. The oil pump and ignition system also proved troublesome, particularly in cold weather. On U.S. cars, with their EPA-required air-injection pumps, the exhaust manifolds could become red hot, resulting in a number of under-hood fires. Modern owners will tell you that few of these problems were insuperable, but buyer confidence was shaken, something the company’s characteristically French attitude did little to help, and SM sales slumped.
THE WRONG PLACE, THE WRONG TIME
In the winter of 1973, OPEC pulled the rug out from under the whole market. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Middle East oil producers embargoed deliveries to the West, resulting in widespread shortages and a brief return of fuel rationing schemes in some areas. The crisis had a severe impact on the sales of big, thirsty cars; the rich traditionally care little for the cost of fuel, but when it can’t be had at any price, even affluent buyers exercise restraint. Ironically, the Citroën SM was considered frugal by American standards, but Citroën left the U.S. market after 1973, concluding that American sales were too low to justify the growing cost of federalization. SM sales tumbled from 2,619 in 1973 to only 294 for 1974.
Citroën, meanwhile, was bleeding money. The company had lost more than $110 million between 1968 and 1970, most of it attributable to the costs of developing the SM and the ill-fated Birotor version of the new compact GS. The SM had been an expensive project whose investment was never going to result in high-volume sales. (Citroën did have plans for a four-door version, but it never materialized, although the coachbuilder Henri Chapron did build two four-door Présidentielle convertibles for government use as well as about eight four-door Opéra sedans and seven Mylord two-door convertibles.) To make matters worse, Citroën’s latest technical leap, the Wankel rotary engine developed by Comotor for the GS Birotor, had proven to be a costly debacle. Fiat, perhaps smelling catastrophe on the wind, soon relinquished its stake in the French company. By the end of 1974, Citroën was bankrupt, leading to a government-imposed merger with rival Peugeot that was completed in 1976.
One of the first casualties of Citroën’s bankruptcy was Maserati, of which Citroën divested itself in May 1975. Another was Robert Opron, the SM’s designer, whose tastes, we suspect, were a little too outré for the new management; Opron went on to Renault and eventually to Fiat. The slow-selling SM was canceled, although its V6 engine and transmission survived in the Maserati Merak. Only 115 1975 SMs were sold before the curtain came down, bringing total production to 12,920. Citroën’s sale of Maserati also stymied plans for an SM-derived Quattroporte II, although seven of the Bertone-styled sedans were built for well-heeled European customers.
The demise of the SM — and the Déesse, which also ended production in the spring of 1975 — marked the end of an era. Subsequent Citroëns, like the CX, BX, and Xantia, were still quite eccentric and in some ways very bold, but they became progressively more vanilla as Peugeot asserted its control.
More than almost any other car — and even more than any other Citroën — the SM remains an acquired taste, and a demanding one at that. A modern Honda Civic sedan would beat it like a gong in almost any objective measurement except top speed and perhaps stability at very high speeds, but such comparisons miss the point; the SM is not so much a car as an alternative lifestyle. Nearly every aspect of owning and driving one, from tire-changing to driving over wet, slippery roads, requires a different approach and a different way of thinking than an ordinary car. Whether the Citroën way is better is a matter of preference, not statistics. In a certain sense, it’s not unlike contemporary Ferraris, even though the character of the cars themselves could hardly be more different. As with classic Ferraris, owners of classic Citroëns must adjust to the unique demands of the car, not the other way around; if that’s a problem, you might as well give up and buy a Toyota.
Like any walk on the wild side, the SM could be both rewarding and risky, but it was certainly not bland — and whatever else, you could never call it square.
In 2010, we licensed a version of this article to Jalopnik. However, Jalopnik had no connection with the original article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Julian Marsh’s superb SM pages (1996–2002, Citroënët, www.citroenet. org.uk, accessed 27 August 2008); Malcolm Bobbit, “Chapter Eleven: SM Supercar,” Citroën DS (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing, 2005), pp. 148-154; Wiljan Cats’ Citroën page (www.cats-citroen. net, accessed 30 July 2008); Ian Fraser, “The complete Citroën SM story” (c. 1996, Niels Heilberg’s The Citroën Source, reocities. com/ MadisonAvenue/4430/ smstory.html, accessed 1 August 2008); Niels Heilberg, “Citroën Faces” (n.d., The Citroën Source, reocities. com/ MadisonAvenue/4430/ bluebook.html, accessed 1 August 2008); Richard Heseltine, “Berths, deaths & marriages,” Classic & Sports Car August 1999, reprinted in Citroen SM 1970-1975 Limited Edition Extra, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 2001), pp. 132-136; Denis Sargent Jenkinson, “The Citroen SM: The best of two worlds,” Motor Sport December 1972, reprinted in Citroen SM 1970-1975, pp. 101-103; “Superguide: Citroën SM,” Classic Cars June 1999, reprinted in Citroen SM 1970-1975, pp. 130-131; and “The men and the ideas behind the Car of the Year,” Motor Trend February 1972, reprinted in R.M. Clarke, Citroen SM 1970-1975, pp. 77-81.
We also consulted the following period road tests: L.J.K. Setright, “Toujours L’audace,” CAR March 1970; Ron Wakefield, “Technical Analysis: Citroen SM,” Road & Track July 1970; “Motor Road Test No. 55/70: Citroen SM,” Motor 26 December 1970; John Lamm, “Citroën’s Super Machine,” Motor Trend October 1971; “A Totally New Driving Experience,” Road Test April 1972; John Ethridge, “Citroen SM Technical Report,” Road Test April 1972; “Citroen SM,” Road & Track November 1971; “Car of the Year: Citroën SM,” Motor Trend February 1972; and “Citroën SM,” Car and Driver June 1972, all of which are reprinted in Citroen SM 1970-1975 Limited Edition Extra.
We made some revisions to this article in December 2011 based on the following sources: “1974 Maserati Quattroporte II Bertone Prototype (26 October 2011, Bring a Trailer, bringatrailer. com, accessed 19 December 2011); Robert Coucher, “Citroën SM V8: The lost prototype reborn,” Octane March 2011, www.classicandperformancecar. com, accessed 19 December 2011; “Engines – Citroen SM C114-1” (10 October 2011, The Car Hobby, thecarhobby.blogspot. com, accessed 19 December 2011); Andy Heywood, “The French Connection,” Trident Winter 2005, www.maseraticlub. co.uk, accessed 12 December 2011; Johnny Lieberman, “The Greatest Car in all of Recorded History is… French and Double Italian” (12 March 2010, Hooniverse.com, hooniverse. com/2010/ 03/12/ the-greatest-car-in-all-of-recorded- history-is-french-and-double-italian/, accessed 19 December 2011); “quattroporte II” (20 November 2005, Quattroporte.info, quattroporte. online.fr, accessed 19 December 2011); Marc Sonnery, “1974 Citroën SM V8: A Mystery No More,” AutoWeek 28 September 2010, www.autoweek. com, accessed 12 December 2011; SMOnline, users.skynet. be, accessed 19 December 2011; “The Maserati Merak” (2005, Enrico’s Maserati Pages, www.maserati-alfieri. co.uk, accessed 19 December 2011). Several of these articles make reference to Sonnery’s book Maserati: The Citroën Years 1968-1975 (Minneapolis, MN: Parker House Publishing Inc., 2011), which we have not yet read. Special thanks to reader ‘cs’ for bringing this to our attention.
The exchange rate of the dollar to the franc during this period was estimated based on figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (research.stlouisfed. org/fred2/data/EXFRUS.txt, accessed 3 August 2008); the dollar-to-sterling rate was estimated based on data from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 U.S. Dollar, 1948-2009” (2009, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder. ubc.ca). All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
64 CommentsAdd a Comment
Yellow lights used to be a regulation in France, they would not blind drivers coming from the other direction.
Actually the reason for yellow lights was not to avoid blinding other drivers. The yellow is at the peak of the sensitivity curve of the human eye. Therefore it was logical to filter other colors. It is evident when driving under the rain on black asphalt: White lights do not perform as well as the yellow ones in this condition.
I remember moving to the US in 1985 driving with white lights and not seeing as well…
the reason for yellow headlamps in france dates back to before ww11 Knowing that the germans had white lights seeing a convoy of white lights comeing would mean an invasion.
driving around in the late 1930s with white lights could get you shot at. do not know why they kept it up to 1980 through.
as far as I remember the reason should be better vision with fog, and wikipedia seems to confirm.
All these comments on the engine problems are really rather an exaggeration, the French did not consider them bad when new. However, time flies and it was not a low stressed low performance unit like US cars of the time, and nowadays (which always tends to be the comparator) engines are almost fault free and we forget this.
The engine is actually very robust, and nowadays the minor problems it had are all cheaply fixable. Many have done very high mileage without more than scheduled maintenance.
And I would like to stress that there is simply nothing that feels as comfortable and fast across country as an SM, it is still in a class of its own. And there are quite a few coming out of the wood work and proving it in competition.
“Rolls was later forced to license Citroën’s self-leveling suspension…”
Rolls-Royce did not use the full “hydro[i]pneumatic[/i]” suspension of the Citroën. R-R used only the self-leveling part – hydraulic cylinders over the coil springs. At first these were used on all four springs: 1″ rise on the front and 2″ (I think) on the rear. Soon the front jacks were deleted as unnecessary.
That’s an important distinction, yes — amended.
To bad Citroën did not use a more reasonable engine. Perhaps the P-R-V Douvrin V6? It can be tuned to lots more power than as applied to staid Peugeots, Renaults and Volvos. The Maserati engine was part of the excessive price of the SM. Though expensive, the Douvrin engine might have allowed the SM to have a lower price. Unfortunately for that idea, the PRV was not available until late 1974 near the end of the SM. Also, Citroën was not part of PSA until late 1973, so the PRV V6 would have been an outside sourced component though at least French.
The engine was tuned for a relatively flat torque graph. Its top speed was limited by the engine going off the “mesa” of the torque graph at just over 140 mph. Though, that was near the beginning of valve float, especially in an engine with age and relaxed valve springs. Due to the close valve-piston clearance, float easily resulted in disaster.
The hollow-stem sodium filled exhaust valves were unnecessary in what was essentially a highway cruiser. They can cause another valve disaster, broken valve stems. Rebuilders commonly use solid stem stainless exhaust valves.
Any more speed would also be passing the limit of human judgment of stopping distance, which appears to be around 150 mph. We are just not able to determine the need for emergency stopping far enough ahead for higher speeds. And, even the SM’s superb brakes and tires, which Motor Trend found to provide a stopping distance of 106 feet at 60 mph, cannot provide a short enough stopping distance for safety at high speeds (106 feet at 60 mph is more like 400-500 feet at 120 even with no brake fade – in real road conditions this is more like 800-1000 feet at 120). We just cannot see and judge far enough ahead to stop if the road is suddenly blocked. Don’t imagine ABS helps, either, as ABS has been shown to increase stopping distances. It helps maintain control so that your car hits the obstacle with the front end rather than with the side or rear. Seat belts and air bags work best in frontal collisions.
I’m not convinced the PRV engine would have been a particular improvement, at least in stock form — witness the DeLorean DMC-12, which used that engine. It would have been cheaper, but in that class, that isn’t necessarily a recommendation.
In retrospect, Citroën might have been better off investing the money spent on Maserati into developing a modern inline engine in the 2-liter class. They needed a new four, and an OHC inline six probably would have better suited the character of the SM.
“I had the cursed occasion to own a Citroen CX back in the ‘80‘s.”
The first CX I saw was when walking out of the railway station in Frankfort am Main in 1984. It refused to start. I helped its driver to push it off – fortunately it was a manual.
I drove a CX Prestige for a while in the late ’80s. The engine, the thumping I4 of the D, was unfitted to a supposed luxury limo. It shook the car at an idle. Though I drove it up to 115 mph, the engine was always prominent at all speeds. I can’t imagine anyone but a committed Citrophile ever wanting an upper-level CX. At the bottom of the range perhaps it compares favorably with other cars in its market segment. Except for unreliability and rust. The CX I drove belonged to the contractor who built Wal-marts and Sam’s Clubs. She also had a M-B 560SL. As time went by, she left the CX in the garage and drove the highly refined SL.
“The company had lost $110 million between 1968 and 1970, mostly of which was attributable to the costs of developing the SM and the new, compact GS.”
Essentially the SM was Citroen’s suicide act. It had no potential of ever being profitable. It was based on a chassis that was near its end, having been developed in the early ’50s for the D and discontinued in 1975. The engine was a glaring mistake, being totally out of character for a Citroen. People who were attracted to a Maserati wanted a real Mas, not a bastard child of a French family car maker and an Italian racing heritage builders. If not for the SM, Citroen might have been able to keep out of PSA and remain closer to the Citroen heritage. Nevertheless, I loved the SMs I owned.
I don’t know if I would go that far — suicide implies a level of deliberation. The decision to buy Maserati was, I suspect, based more on hubris than sense (not unlike Chrysler’s ill-fated purchase of Lamborghini 20 years later), certainly, but in the long run, I think the GS Birotor was a bigger mistake. The SM was never intended to be a big-volume car, but the GS was, so the latter’s failure was more serious. Citroën really needed a volume seller in the family car market, where the DS and even the ID were too expensive.
If not for the OPEC embargo, which Citroën had no way of foreseeing when the SM was conceived, it probably could have sold at something close to its initial volume for much of its life. That wouldn’t have been a huge moneymaker, but they probably would have broken even, and if things had gone differently, it would have set the style for future sedans.
As for the chassis being dated, that’s a trickier issue. Even by the early seventies, there were few cars at any price that could match the SM’s technology. There were areas where it could have used more detail refinement than it got, but this was an era when even many luxury cars had cart-sprung live axles. There were some things about the chassis that were questionable, but many of them were the result of iconoclastic design decisions, rather than being out of date or lacking sophistication.
It’s hairsplitting, I suppose, because if the SM didn’t drive Citroën into the arms of PSA, it certainly didn’t help.
A lot of factors drove Citroen to bankruptcy.
The SM and the Maserati buyout, the Comotor JV with NSU and the GS Birotor were costly mistakes, certainly once the oil crisis happened. SM sales went down 60%, GS sales down by half, and 2CV sales up by 50% (but demand could not be met: the 2CV was only built in one factory, the old Levallois plant, which could not increase its capacity).
But Citroen had been in a pretty bad shape for years. Throughout the 60s, they had the strangest range in the world: 600cc and 2 litre, with literally nothing in between. Panhards were hardly a stopgap. Citroen’s boss, Pierre Bercot, was not convinced that the marque needed a 1100-1500cc car and was contemptuous of anything like product planning or market research. That is not to say that Citroen’s engineers didn’t see the opportunity for a mid-range car, but their boss was not encouraging them.
The prototypes developed by Citroen in the 60s (the C60 and the F) were trying to fill that gap, but work was too slow. The F was very close to production (Ambi-Budd had been paid for the dies, etc.) but was cancelled at the last minute in April 1967 when Citroen realised that Renault had patented certain innovations for the R16 that meant Citroen would have to pay royalties to Renault. Essentially, Renault was quicker in developing its car than Citroen, whose apologists and former employees claim that was industrial espionage.
Be that as it may, Citroen still had a massive gap in its range and now had wasted several years and much money on a stillborn car. The decision was then to start afresh, third time lucky, with the G (which became the GS in 1970).
Another solution could have been to develop Panhard. Their models, especially the 24, could have been diversified and Panhard’s military division was working on a X-4 (i.e. two flat-twins) engine that might have been just the ticket.
Instead, Bercot killed off Panhard and the F collapsed. He resigned in 1970, but by then, Citroen was headed for financial disaster. OPEC was the proverbial straw that broke the Camel’s back. The CX, which was developed during these trying times, is a good example of a once-great car-maker “coasting” — no real innovations, gadgetry replacing engineering, quality issues…
The SM was a folly. Bercot thought he would produce 350 per day! He also thought the Dyane would replace the 2CV (the Dyane never outsold the 2CV and was out of production by 1983). He thought he could buy Fiat from Agnelli and could make a profit out of Maserati. Clearly, something wasn’t right at the top of Citroen in the 60s.
I can understand the reluctance to wade into the most competitive of the European marketplace, which is a good way for smaller companies to get squashed. Also, in all fairness, the political developments of the ’70s took many manufacturers by surprise — the general presumption even at Ford was that the European economy and market would continue to expand at a rapid pace and create more upscale buyers, so while the idea of relying on a growing prestige car market for sustainable profits was overly optimistic (to put it mildly), that attitude didn’t seem quite as ludicrous at the time as it does in retrospect. Also, Citroën was definitely not the only one to bet and lose on the rotary engine. Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) nearly collapsed because they’d put most of their chips on the rotary and while GM did not, they spent $50 million just on license fees, not including whatever they spent on the GMRCE that never made it to production. So, all this is true, but to some extent it was a matter of Citroën not having deep enough pockets (or a sufficiently profitable big-volume product) to weather these sorts of misjudgments.
At last someone who knows something about Citroën and french cars in general. American are so sure that french aren’t able to sell anything else than cheese and perfume that they are ready to say the most stupid things when it’s about a french car or anything else wich is french. Just take a look at the technical level of your car production at that time and ask yourselves why you were not able to sell cars outside your grande nation.
For your information, automobile has been invented in Europe, thanks to the french who have been the first to understand that it was the transportation of the years to come, the first car races have been started…in France, you only have been able to built cars in great numbers, and with the technology you used until the japanese showed you how to built a good car…
Looking at Citroën’s history, much since the intro of the TA in 1934 has been financially disastrous for the company. Only Michelin’s bank accounts and credit kept Citroën alive. Now that C. is part of PSA, I suspect it will gradually become just a form of Peugeot. Other car companies that have tried to advance technology far past the rest of the market have suffered similar problems.
The more expensive models, but not the very highest priced, are where the profits have been historically. The lower end of the market does well to break even, benefiting the company by getting young people started on the marque, hopefully moving into the more profitable models as their finances improve. Also producing a large quantity of break-even models allows the purchase of vast quantities of materials and parts, giving a volume discount advantage.
The purchase of Maserati by Citroën resulted in the largest contract for engines or anything Maserati had ever had. Maserati also assembled the transaxles for the SM, shipping the engine-transaxle assembly complete to the Citroën assembly plant.
The SM could not survive the discontinuance of the D as it was composed largely of D parts and assemblies, some only slightly modified. A perusal of the SM parts manual shows many D part numbers of both individual parts and of major assemblies. The transaxle was only slightly modified from the 5-speed DSuper, etc. box. The front brake calipers were identical to the D ones except for the front mount “ears.” The front suspension bearing castings were identical except that one had a hole drilled in it for the manual height control rod. The front arms were almost the same except for larger roller bearing cones. The steering knuckle/bearing assemblies were the same except for the RH-LH threaded hollow spindles and lock rings being reversed. The rear suspension arms were almost alike except that the SM’s had no drum brake backplates and had caliper mount brackets welded on. Spheres were almost the same except for the damper settings. The platform frame was of closely related design and construction. Most hydraulic system components were the same or were composed of the same bits.
“Suicide” (“self-kill”) merely means that one did something that resulted in one’s death. Homicide (“man-kill”) does not imply intent. If I was yakking on my cellphone and absentmindedly stepped out in front of a speeding bus, one’s comment might be that I was suicidally negligent without implying that I did it intentionally.
A long string of bad choices finally did Citroën in as an independent automaker. Some of the choices were bad only in hindsight but were bad nonetheless.
Yes, the Comotor venture was ill-fated. The world’s first Wankel-engined car put its maker, NSU (Audi) on the rocks. Mazda, the only current maker of Wankel-engined autos, makes only one prestige model using the rotary. The Wankel just is too difficult to get to pass emission standards, which are stiffened year by year. It offers no significant advantages over the reciprocating piston engine, at least not that justify its expense.
The SM’s frame structure was composed of a large number of small pieces, spot-welded together. It was not adapted to automated assembly. One-piece underpans spot-welded to other large pressings are the modern way of construction except for really high-end specialty cars, which may use tube construction. The manufacture of the successors to the D, the CX and especially the XM, were much more adapted to automation.
I forgot to say in my first message how interesting your site is. I like it. Your articles are very informative as well as often funny. Continue with the good job!
I read that the DS actually frustrated Citroën’s natural customer base, the 11CV owners who liked that one for being simple and rugged, in spite of being more modern than most of its competitors, even in the 50’s. The hydraulic gizmos of the DS put off many Citroënists.
OTOH one of the rationales for the ID was that the DS sales were much lower than expected. The ID was just for the sake of making volumes for the body and at least part of the hydraulic system, the suspension. But selling a car for the not-so-rich that looked so much like the car for the rich, while looking so dull, wasn’t probably such a great idea.
Citroën’s traditional strategy was called the ‘economic segments’, which means producing one model for the poor and one for the rich. The 2CV was not only economical, it also looked devastatingly so. They never completely realized what it meant creating a car for the intermediate classes that looked as good as possible whereas Simca and Peugeot succeeded so well in this turf. The model they eventually created, the AMI6, was a bastard.
The idea behind the SM comes certainly from the incredible arrogance of the management. They were absolutely certain that technology and advertisement were the keys for success and, like with all arrogant people, they didn’t learn from experience.
I disagree that 2CV buyers represented Citroën’s “natural customer base.” Citroën wasn’t in that market at all before the 2CV debuted in 1948, and it represented a represented a fairly substantial departure. Naturally, it sold better than the Traction, but it was aimed at a completely different market. I really doubt that anyone at Citroën during the development of the DS19 expected that 2CV buyers would somehow trade up to a DS — any more than anybody at Tata expects Nano buyers to be in the market for a Jaguar XF.
The DS was intended as a successor to the Traction, which had never been cheap, common, or simple; although its styling was dated by the fifties, a lot of its mechanical design was still quite far out, even discounting the early hydraulic suspension that was eventually offered. (André Citroën would have been proud — he said on a number of occasions that he hoped that he could develop a car so advanced that it wouldn’t have to be regularly updated.)
I don’t doubt that some of the buyers who could afford a car like the DS19 were intimidated by the hydraulic system (and for very good reason!). In that respect, Citroën might have been better off offering something like the SM [i]first[/i], because even upscale family-car buyers tend to be wary of novelty. On the other hand, I suspect that if Citroën had been seriously concerned with buyer reaction, the DS19 wouldn’t have been built at all. It was a remarkably arrogant product, in that sense — very much the opposite of the marketing-driven product philosophy that came to dominate Detroit in the sixties and seventies.
I get the impression that the ID was a very reluctant afterthought, created out of a grudging admission that the DS was too expensive. As you said originally, it felt like a hasty cost-cutting exercise, rather than a solid product concept. The idea of offering a less-complex model to avoid intimidating buyers would have been an entirely reasonable one, but it doesn’t seem like Pierre Bercot was ever very worried about intimidating people or polarizing buyer opinion…
I wonder if that post went through. If you already got it, trash that one.
You misread me ;-). I was not talking about the 2CV, of course, but about the 11CV, its official name, aka “la onze”, aka “la traction avant”, aka “la traction”.
After WW II, the 11CV didn’t have direct competitors, besides the Peugeot 203 and 403 which were a little lower ranges. The premium car of that time was the Salmson which had a very traditional pre WW II body with a cutting edge DHOC engine and a Cotal gear box. That was fun to drive! The company went bankrupt in the mid 50’s after its coupé version won Le Mans in its category. The 15CV (aka “la quinze”) was not as prestigious, it was just a 11CV on steroids. By then the 11CV was the no-nonsense thing.
Of course the DS was to succeed the traction.
I shouldn’t have hinted it put off its whole costumer base but a significant part of it. Anyway the DS was a sensation when it was first unveiled but it didn’t make enough volumes, particularly compared to its initial ambitions: “Véhicule de Grande Diffusion” (hence the ‘D’). Citroën had always had a blind faith in technology as a marketing tool. Pretty much like fins for Harley Earl: the more the better.
Although it was common that the owners of a new model would spend a lot of time at the garage during the first years to fix bits and pieces, like it had been with the 11CV, the DS was a case especially with its hydraulic gimmicks. The fact the dealers had not been trained for it before made things worse.
The SM inherited a pretty reliable hydraulic system (after 15 years of tuning on the DS) but the engine was far from being tuned. Conversely, while the DS had inherited the fairly reliable Traction’s engine, it was the hydraulic system that was a mess.
I think the main issue with the SM was that Citroën, with its brand image, couldn’t sell a premium model. The DS was the car of the bourgeois, the lawyer, the doctor, the executive (as the not-yet-big-cats’ typical company car), the small town’s noteworthy citizen. It was de Gaulle’s favorite. Government agencies had fleets of DSs. There was a special line with the so called “Government finish” that was not distributed through the normal dealerships: an all black, DS looking, exterior and a rather ID interior. Official motorcades were made of those.
No artist, no star, no success guy had one. They probably “would not be caught dead in a Citroën showroom”. For the young it was the car of the old farts.
Citroën’s engineers and designers had no clue about what should be a car that’s involving and fun to drive. Creating the SM was like taking an exam for a subject whereas you didn’t attend the class. It was lacking the flair of a GT, what makes it desirable.
If I may tell my experience. I was born in 1944. My father had ’37 or ’38 11CV Légère he kept until the mid 50’s. He was the paragon of Citroën’s customer base and remained a Citroënist all his life. He was an engineer in the aircraft industry. He had his first DS when I was a teen so my first impressions was as a rear passenger. Compared to his previous cars: fabulous riding comfort on the still rather bumpy roads of the time, excellent rear seat, long leg room (I was getting tall), rear heating vent (the Traction had no heating at all), good silence, better view and the rear windows would completely collapse into the doors. Traveling was no more a torture.
Then I got my driving license and what a disappointment! The engine was asthmatic, shifting gears was slow, the steering was precise but with no feedback at all, the mushroom-like break pedal was terrible, the weight of your shoe could send you into the windshield. Its driving was not involving at all. You had no feeling whatsoever. Absolute boring.
I always had the feeling it was heavy. It looks heavy. Its driving feels heavy. Its reactions were slow. It had no anti-roll bar so, with the very soft suspension, it would sway a lot in curves. It made some people sick. And yet it was incredibly light, at least to modern standards: 1,170kg.
Bottom line: I concur with de Gaulle. You are best at the rear seat, next to the heater and letting yourself be chauffeured.
[quote=Administrator] I suspect that if Citroën had been seriously concerned with buyer reaction, the DS19 wouldn’t have been built at all. It was a remarkably arrogant product, in that sense — very much the opposite of the marketing-driven product philosophy that came to dominate Detroit in the sixties and seventies.[/quote]
Right. It’s certainly the issue for all marques. Some of them get caught into their customers’ demand. It was a bold move from Porsche to shift from air to water cooling. Changing the engine position is just a no-no.
[quote=Administrator]I get the impression that the ID was a very reluctant afterthought, created out of a grudging admission that the DS was too expensive. As you said originally, it felt like a hasty cost-cutting exercise, rather than a solid product concept.[/quote]
It just consisted in making an affordable, detuned model to make volumes. Everything on the ID was cheap and looked cheap.
The DS was too smooth to be involving. The ID was hard as a truck: steering, shifting gears, breaking was a real workout and the engine was even worse than the DS’s.
Okay, I had assumed you were writing IICV (which I’ve seen people do, although it’s not correct), rather than meaning the Onze/Traction. That, I won’t disagree with.
A [i]Car and Driver[/i] article in the nineties (on a Mercedes, as I recall) declared, “At some point, you have to shoot the engineers.” The DS is kind of a case in point; it was driven by engineering and by a sort of conceptual arrogance, rather than by any sense of who was going to buy it.
[quote=Administrator]Okay, I had assumed you were writing IICV (which I’ve seen people do, although it’s not correct)[/quote]
It was never spelled that way in France. I also saw it called the ‘avant’.
Citroën was driven by engineers but it’s not the only reason for its demise. They were extremely short sighted. What’s the point of making a car with such good road handling and breaking if you don’t give it the engine that goes with it? How can you pretend taking the executive market with such lousy workmanship?
There was also the (alas) traditional French lack of commitment to quality and service. In the 70’s when German imports increased the comparison was devastating for Citroën as well as for some others.
If they had been German engineers things would have been different ;-)
I wouldn’t assume anyone who’d lived in France would write IICV for 2CV, but I have seen Americans do it, albeit incorrectly. On the other hand, it’s rare these days to hear the Traction Avant described as 11CV, as well — just as it’s rare to hear someone describe a Buick Super as a Model 50, even though Buick catalogued it as such until the fifties.
I entirely agree about the build quality. That eventually became a problem for makes like Cadillac, as well — why spend the extra money for something that’s built no better than the average Chevrolet?
The 2CV had a very long career and you see one now and then in the streets whereas the Traction is rather forgotten today.
Citroën’s communication department is currently trying to create a myth: the 2CV was a big success and it was a cult like the Mini was and like the new Mini is. It’s absolutely wrong. It missed both its targets: the red necks and the blue collars. It was the car people bought if they couldn’t afford anything else or if they didn’t give a damn about their image. It was the country priest’s car, the nun’s. It was the car presented to the middle-class teenager who just got his/her driving license. It was the family second car. My mother had several over the years. Its only virtue was being the cheapest. So people may have good memories associated with their first car: their first dates, their first vacation on their own, etc. No one will tell you they hated and were ashamed of the car they owned, but nobody would keep it and everybody would shift to anything else as soon as they could afford it. That’s what my mother did.
Yet the 2CV was outsold by practically all the other low end models: the Renault 4CV, the Dauphine and especially the R4, as well as the R8. I think it probably boosted the R4 sales because buying an R4 meant you could afford better than the cheapest. You were not that poor.
It’s the same logic at both ends of the food chain. Well… all along the food chain. ;-)
I was appalled by the perceived quality of the Cadillacs. How could they dare put faux wood and cheap leather, not to mention the shoddy plastics?
Even though my tastes are usually different from everybody else’s, I tend to think ugliness is something objective. Didn’t Cadillac give bad taste a bad name? Isn’t the brand definitely associated with its 50’s and 60’s extravaganzas? How come people go for Mercedes and Lexus?
Cadillac is currently having the hangover from its excesses.
This also is a good point. George Romney of AMC said of the Kaiser Henry J (an American compact that was, in its way, nearly as downmarket as the 2CV), that it became known as a poor person’s car, and thus even poor people didn’t want to be seen in it.
The 2CV does have one virtue when it comes to manufactured nostalgia, which is that it doesn’t look dated in the same way the Traction does. Partially that was because it was made for so many years with minimal changes, partially that it was obviously designed to be minimalist and cheap; you can tell immediately that it’s not a new car, but it doesn’t exactly belong to any era. The Traction is a much better-looking car, but it looks like a ’34 Ford (which was probably not coincidental), so it feels like a product of the mid-thirties.
Cadillac’s fifties and sixties boats were, in the main, reasonably well assembled, with materials better than the American norm. They were not lavish by British standards (U.S. manufacturers eschewed real wood quite early, and vinyl was overtaking leather by the mid-fifties), but they were a clear step up from other American cars in trim. By the seventies and eighties, cost cutting had dragged that down to a rather poor standard, and the assembly quality was becoming grim, as well. It became, at the risk of sounding like a terrible snob, a luxury car designed by and for grocers and butchers, rather than connoisseurs. Its trappings were impressive to people who’d never owned a luxury car before (and indeed, many of its customers were of very modest income), but many customers who had the money and opportunity to compare tended to go German, instead.
If you put aside strictly aesthetic opinions, the SM didn’t look good either: the interior looked cheap, the body shape was flabby, it looked heavy. It had lots of the typically Critroën, supposedly cutting edge but dubiously useful, gimmickry like the triple headlights, the one-spoke steering wheel, the mushroom break pedal. The hatchback line was not a good cue either at that time. OTOH it lacked what makes it desirable, what will make the owner feel his neighbors are jealous for, something exclusive.
It didn’t look like a performance car at all.
Anyway, whatever the look, to gain credibility a performance car needs to do well in competition. It was the case with Bentley, Jaguar, Mercedes, Audi, a bunch of prewar French makers and so on. The XK120’s success at Le Mans was the key to the MKII success. The Jaguar brand went gradually downhill after it stopped competition.
You probably know about Facel Vega, a marque which started from scratch in the 50’s and proved extremely profitable. It was outrageously expensive. It was the car that really stated “I succeeded” to the masses. Yet it was not technologically advanced at all and never entered any competition. Yet it did look like a performance car and it was really luxurious.
It had something odd. They wanted a wood dashboard like the British marques but didn’t find the way to manufacture it. An employee knew how to do it so it was hand painted faux veneer! It did look good but what if, as a customer, I chipped it and found out the fraud!
The SM dashboard was real plastic that really looked like plastic! Plastic had gained a noble material status by then (like concrete in architecture) but I’m not certain the actual feel was really right. Yet I’m always surprised how cheap the Ferraris interior looked at that time too. But a Ferrari is a Ferrari.
I think the 2CV look is not important. It was the car nobody wanted so it’s OK if its style is completely outdated. I think the engineers not only designed it to be cheap but also to look cheap, hence not desirable.
I rode in a 2CV once and was NOT impressed. The owner/driver was the former president of the Central Citroen Club, so being a total Citromaniac it was excusable.
The car was by then old, but it was obvious that it was unrefined and cheep…cheeeeep when new.
Its strong points were all in the strong, reliable chassis/drivetrain – the body radiated sardine-can quality. Noisy. I would prefer a golf-car.
The French president’s comment when the 2CV was revealed: “Quelle horreur” – “What a horrible thing” – was appropriate. A Panhard Dyna X was refined by comparison.
The DS/ID (I owned 5 of them) was flimsy above its platform chassis. The doors were barely hung on the hinge pins. How they managed to get them past safety codes until 1976 (last ambulances, last of the D line) with such door hinges and latches is beyond understanding. One I had was sideswiped, which tore the left rear door off by jerking the hinges out of the B pillar. The pillars were so flimsy that a rollover was practically as bad as in a convertible.
The SM was built to not much better standards of design, construction and build quality than the D. Lots of cheap plastic in the interior despite all USA cars being upholstered in leather. The dash and steering wheel were of a semirigid foam molded with a solid skin of the same material.
The engines of both the D and the SM shook the cars at idle. The standards of the bottom end Ds were what the entire line was built to.
I rode in a 2CV more than twice and I was consistently impressed: it’s a torture if you have to travel more than ten or twenty miles. The noise first. It was deafening. Unrefined is a euphemism. ;-)
It has a strong point: it would work always, badly but it would work.
I had a very long career: 32 years with very little changes but didn’t sell that well. Many Citroën models sold better.
I’m almost certain it hurt the sales of the SM and the other high end models.
You are right, Citroën workmanship had always been terrible.
In the 70’s German imports were getting momentum and Japanese started being seen. Customers begun realizing that they could be treated with better quality. Renault almost got killed but realized in the 80’s that if it was to recover it was by making cars the German way. It took them years to improve. Peugeot was traditionally the best among the French auto makers but it followed the course. Citroën was very slow. Most of their cars of the 80’s were still terrible.
Something about the front end of the SM with round headlights makes me think of the 05-09 Mustang GT.
maybe a bit off topic but does anyone know the difference between the SM engine/trans and the Maserati Merak? Basically the same but one had the engine ahead of the trans, the other behind. How did they get them to both go in the right direction?
Both the SM and Merak engines turn in the same direction relative to their flywheel ends. From personal inspection of a junked Merak with its crank lying in a pool of water in the cabin floor, the Merak crank throws were oiled from the oil pump/timing sprocket end of the crank via drilling through the crankpins zig-zag through the crank while the SM engine has each throw oiled from adjacent main bearings. The Merak main journal at the oil pump end is deeply grooved to pass oil to the first of the zig-zag drillings.
The Merak crank appeared to be a billet crank – machined from a huge bar of steel large enough to accommodate the throws. Sources confirmed this. The SM crank is of conventional forged make.
Many good SMs died from having their engines snatched to replace blown or smashed Merak engines as they were interchangeable. “Smashed” as neglect of the engine in a Merak had the same results as neglect of one in an SM. To lose its engine a Merak had to either break it or be wrecked beyond repair. A few Merak SS 220 HP engines found their way into SMs.
The Merak gearbox during Citroën ownership was a Citroën 5 speed of similar design to that of the SM (and the DS 5 speed), Citroën brake calipers and all. As the whole power pack is turned around 180° the pinion is on the opposite side of the ring gear from the way it is in the SM gearbox. After Citroën dumped Maserati, once De Tomaso resumed production the ZF transaxle (from the Bora?) was substituted. The rest of the Citroën parts were also eliminated rapidly as stocks were exhausted.
It’s been 40 years since the introduction of the SM and I will never forget how life changed for me when I first laid eyes on the brand new one I discovered in the showroom of Masterson Motors, a VW dealership in Ventura California. For me, at 14 it was the holy grail. I found it to be the most sensual, exotic, refined hot rod ever conceived. It is madness, no, folly, but I am eager to seek out a survivor of the just over 12000 made to live the dream once and for all. Of course, good sense not being one of my strong suits, marriage ( a very good indicator for my lack of good sense), and a serious lack of expendable income have always kept me away from the reality of slipping this anachronism of French engineering folly sled into 5th gear and forcing the pedal to the metal down some lonely freshly resurfaced highway with no cops in sight and the tuned Maserati exhaust expelling sheer extocy, my extocy in its wake. Of course to do this with confidence, blindly hoping against all reasonable hope that it could be done without major catastrophic mechanical failure is the rub. After all when contemplating stewardship of any Citroen, life’s short and there’s so little joy in the world. C’est la gar, (such is war)!
Another interesting article. Keep the good work !
One thing about the road manners of the SM : this car was conceived as the ultimate express. In 1970, car was still the preferred travelling tool, and in France the TGV wasn’t here. So the SM was truly conceived as a big GT, purposely-built to travel effortlessly at 120 mph for hours (even if its engine wasn’t always strong enough), in any case, regardless of weather conditions.
I have a CX GTI as a daily driver, which use the Varipower steering and hydropneumatic suspension and braking, and it is still quite exceptional today, especially if the road is bad. The Varipower is an artificial steering, which lock the front wheels with 180 bars of pressure in every position you’ve choose (unless you let go the steering wheel, because it is self-centering). With that incredibly clever and bold design, you have an absolutely astonishing indifference to the most violent and vicious crosswinds ! It is really extraordinary to drive one of those things in these conditions, when even the heaviest cars are still sensitive to sudden crosswinds. You really feel that you’re driving on rails, indeed…
On snow, a good hydropneumatic Citroën is a class of its own, too, with a very soft suspension, big wheel travel and almost free of friction. In fact, only 4WD can follow it in the worst grip conditions.
I work in the french motoring press, and some older mates (french or not !) has confirmed that the SM was absolutely untouchable for high speed cruising during its short career. Every Porsche, Ferrari or even Merc felt very clumsy by comparison.
But, it’s true, to achieve that you really had to get along with that strange, ultra-quick and artifical steering…
In fact, this was probably the biggest problem, on commercial side : the Citroën dealers were absolutely not ready to buy back big Mercs, Corvette or whatever, and the prospects often found the SM too weird and difficult to drive properly. This car was quite in the middle of nowhere : quite big but nowhere as pratical or space efficient as a saloon, extremely efficient on every kind of roads but a bit underpowered…
All in all, the SM seated quite unconfortably between luxury saloons and sportscar. And it wasn’t mannish enough to attract sportsman, with soft suspension, effortless controls and its FWD, not-so-powerful engine.
Still, it wasn’t already the end of success for Citroën on the european big car market, contrary to what Nicolas Daum has said…
The CX was a real big success, with 1 million units sold, quite good for an average-size european brand like Citroën. Even with its traditional shortcomings on fit and finish and some reliability problems (electricity and accessories)… The Peugeot 505 has done quite well in our countries too !
And don’t forget that ‘thick plastic dashboard’ doesn’t make everything : the lightweights AX and BX were quite successfull too (2,5 millions built each). And, as badly finished they were, both were quite reliable, given the average reliability of the time.
I can understand why american people find the 2CV horrible to drive, as spartan and quirky as it is. But don’t forget the astonishing cleverness of the overall design. But I guess its appeal is easier to understand from a french point of view, as it was perfectly suited to our countryside roads, quite as the Ford T was in its time.
Finally, I do not believe that the boldness of the Michelin-era Citroëns was a mistake. In the end, it is the reason for the lost of their independence, but in fact most of the boldest Citroën were quite successfull.
Two academics have made a very interesting book on it, called “Citroën 80 ans d’antistratégie”. It is a study of the brand, with a impartial look on the sales and results of Citroën, before and after the Peugeot takeover.
The verdict is quite clear : opposite to a common belief, the brand was no less profitable between 1945 and 1975 than under Peugeot leadership ! The strategy was truly unusual but not necessary unwise : building very advanced cars, and using that technological advance to built them for a very long run without big changes. And with a very strong brand loyalty from 10 to 15 % of the customers, a cast of true geeks !
In fact, it worked quite well with the Traction, the 2CV, the Ami 6 (best seller in France in 1966 !), the DS and later the GS and CX…
Still, I assume it is a very unusual way of thinking, probably difficult to understand from an american point a view and quite unique on the automotive market…
Citroën will probably last as the biggest innovator ever, even if it wasn’t the only ones. Lancia, Saab, Tatra to name a few were also quite daring in their times.
[quote]Two academics have made a very interesting book on it, called “Citroën 80 ans d’antistratégie”. It is a study of the brand, with a impartial look on the sales and results of Citroën, before and after the Peugeot takeover.[/quote]
Very interesting. Do you know if that book was ever printed in English? I can read Spanish, as well, but as you may have gathered, I’m not so good with French..!
Unfortunately, this book was only published in french ! Even here, it’s not very well known, but it is one of the best of the numerous books I’ve read about Citroën !
Anyway, the end of my previous message was cut…
… The strategy behind all these very advanced design produced under André Citroën and Michelin ownership was to built a short range for a very long run, without need of major evolutions.
And to build a very strong loyalty from a minority of buyers : first the ones who cares about innovation, and then spreading a bit with the help of these customers who would be Citroën’s best advocates !
For almost 60 years, it worked quite well for most of these cars…
But it is really an abnormality in the car industry, and something that would terrify any GM exec !
Nowadays, Citroën are building quite decent cars, and, yes, in fact the last ten years were commercially the best for the Double Chevron… But bold times are really over, and the actual range is just made with Peugeot platforms, engines, everything ! Only the big C6 and the upmarket versions of the last C5 still features the Hydractive suspension…
But everyone can all but agree that Citroën will stay as the biggest innovator ever in the history of motorcars… Of course, there were others, like Lancia, Saab, Voisin, Tatra, Cord… But not a single brand has had such consistency to reinvent the motorcar !
Sorry about the truncated comment — the comment system’s limit is 4,000 characters, so anything longer than that is automatically trimmed.
I read that part of André Citroën’s rationale for innovation was that he figured it would obviate the need for the annual model change shuffle — offering a car so advanced that it could be maintained for years with few changes, without ever falling behind the times. (Something Citroën managed quite well with the Traction, the 2CV, and the DS, if not the SM.)
The reference is Broustail, Joël & Greggio, Rodolphe, [i]Citroën : Essai sur 80 ans d’antistratégie[/i].
A very interesting book that considers Citroën as a textbook case of a company that found an innovative strategy and eventually failed.
Their diagnosis is that the strategy unconsciously developed by André Citroën and his successors in the 50’s and 60’s was potentially quite sound, targeting a niche, the technology nerds, and creating a base of loyal customers, but they failed in its implementation. My father was a “Citroëniste“ who owned Citroëns only during his lifetime, including the worst of them. The issue was that there was not enough people like him ready to buy a Citroën whatever.
Citroën never focused on quality and reliability like corrosion and ease of maintenance for example. As German cars were more and more imported in France the French customers got to know the difference between attention to details and botched up work.
Releasing not completely tested and tuned products was a rule of thumb, especially in France, but Citroën was a specialist. The authors say that in a way the company was using its customers as testers. It took years before the DS started being reasonably reliable. The release of the GS was a disaster, as well as the CX later on. It’s doubtful that taking on one’s loyal followers’ patience may be productive in the long run.
At the end of the 60’s the new social hero, the so-called “dynamic executive“, who prided himself of speaking American, who had studied in “the States“ or at least had been there for a while, who had no particular loyalty for his company or for his auto maker, needed something with more punch to show his stamina. He would go for an Alfa Romeo or a BMW. And he was the opinion leader.
The DS, with its stately manners and its asthmatic engine was no longer the thing. For younger people it became the car of the old farts. And the SM was just a DS on steroids with its shortcomings and without its fabulous assets like leg room.
Nicolas’ comment: “If tin chevrons are displayed on 2CVs, whose statement is “I’m poor”, and on corrugated iron vans, whose statement is “I earn my living by the sweat on my brow”, it’ll a definitely put him off”
How about the Daimler-Benz star, which is seen on vehicles from W168 A-class minis, delivery vans, trucks and buses to super-luxury sedans? Seeing the star on old 190 taxis doesn’t seem to put off the buyers of the M-B SLS AMG.
Perhaps the difference is that the 190 taxi is constructed and finished to similar quality standards as the big guys. When the traveling exec rides in a M-B taxi he feels the same quality as in his limo or roadster. The taxi upholstery, while a naugahyde like material, is a high quality just as the cloth or leather in the limo is high quality cloth or leather.
The SM, on the other hand, exhibited similar lack of attention to quality as the low-end Citroëns. So-so paint (good on one, sloppy on the next), cheap-looking plastic with fake molded stitching on the console, seat adjuster levers that break off, power windows that quit (split plastic gear), tacky plastichrome badges at the ends of the gutters, seat back frames that break, door handles that pinch the finger, sharp corners on the door window frames, cheap plastic shift knob (I had to make myself a new one out of aluminum barstock), cheap, flimsy feeling auto tranny selector lever cover, cheap, flimsy plastic steering wheel pod (though the CX turn signal foo-foo had it beat for flimsiness), shall I go on? All explained by the picture of a SM in between DSs on the assembly line at Quai de Javel. You’d think the same people designed and built the SM as the 2CV. Loved mine anyway. Still miss the nasty things. And the DSs I had. Like flying low.
The idea that the engine of the SM was a cut down Maserati V8 is a myth – I remember reading a rather indignant denial of this by its designer, Alifieri. He stated that if it had been, it would have been as reliable as the V8s. It was unreliable because it was a (relatively) clean-sheet design with too little development time.
Interesting. Do you have a source for that?
Either way, I don’t see that one necessarily follows the other. A V6, especially a 90-degree V6 without a split-pin crank, is a different kettle of fish than a V8 in terms of loads, vibration, and so forth.
I don’t remember where I read it, but there’s a reference to the story here:
"There is an old wives tale that persists in which Maserati told its chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, to build the new engine within six weeks and so Alfieri chopped two cylinders off an existing V8. This is only true in as much as Alfieri did work quickly and the only physical similarity between the new V6 and the old V8 is really the angle of the V, which at 90 degrees is unusual for a V6."
Okay, I will investigate further. Thanks!
Two reasons for a 90 V instead of a 60 : 1) Lower overall height 2) Machine the blocks on the same production line as the V8s.
The Mas V8s DON’T have a central intermediate timing shaft.
The V8s have different right and left heads – the V6 heads are identical. Making twice as many of the same head is cheaper than making the same number of different R & L heads. Also both of the intake and both of the exhaust camshafts are identical along with a number of parts.
There is no V8 similar in design to the V6. While a prototype might be cobbled up from a V8 the production ones were definitely not V8s less 2 cylinders. Someone says something he read in a magazine and it gets repeated for years, like that the engine is only 12¼” long when the heads are longer than that. I couldn’t find anything about the engine that was 12¼” long!
Originally the cylinders were going to be 88mm bore but that put the displacement over the French tax threshold. So they were reduced to 87. I have read that 88mm pistons were used in other Mas engines but I don’t find any in lists of Mas engines.
Much of the design of the V6 was common with the V8 but not the parts other than bits and pieces.
Thanks for the information. As I mentioned in response to the comment from cs some months ago, on further investigation the idea that the V6 was derived from an existing V8 didn’t hold up, which is why I amended the text.
The SM/Merak V6 was later turned into a V8 with the idea that it would be used in the stillborn Quattroporte II (based on the SM), as the V6 wasn’t powerful enough. The test mule, an SM, was apparently crushed, but the engine survived:
They wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of turning the V6 into a V8 if the latter had existed to begin with.
I’ve looked at the sources you’ve mentioned and done some other investigation, and I’ve amended the text.
I found at least one reference that claimed the V6 was based on an idea Alfieri had for an all-new V8 around 1965, although if Alfieri was as skeptical of the idea of the 4.0-liter V8 as Sonnery’s account indicates, that seems unlikely. Another source suggests the V6 was intended to share some tooling with the older V8 (allowing it to be built on existing lines), but nonetheless had quite different architecture. Whether that or packaging was the primary reason for the 90-degree bank angle isn’t clear — it may well have been both.
I’m now very curious to know what the 4,136 cc Indy V8 weighed. That ended up being one of the biggest clues on a similar question as to whether the Volvo B18 engine was derived from the earlier B36 truck engine; the latter was just too heavy for that to be plausible.
Thanks again for bringing it to my attention. If you happen to recall where you saw the interview with Alfieri, please let me know.
Dear Mr. Severson I have been working on the SM for a long time and have become quite good at tuning them. Any time you can come by my shop I can let you ride and/ or drive a number of SMs that idle and RPM as smooth as any V8. I have been trying to get Chuck to bring his SM to my shop for a tune for years!!!!
I know it can be made to run acceptably smoothly if it’s sorted properly, and if the engine mounts are in good shape. One interesting factor is that despite the 90-degree layout’s uneven firing intervals and the greater magnitude of its shaking forces, the shaking is primarily vertical, so properly tuned engine mounts can soak up a great deal of it — something Buick figured out for the old Fireball engine.
May I first correct a mistake in French language: the SM was not a ‘grand routier’ (a ‘routier’ is a truck driver), but a ‘grande routière’ (‘voiture’ and ‘automobile’ are feminine nouns). ;-)
To me the SM history highlights the issue with Citroën’s philosophy, as well probably as with the other French automakers’: their rationality and their misunderstanding of what a brand is all about.
They believe that designing a car with a rather potent engine, lots of cutting edge technology, capable of high performance and fairly comfortable makes it a desirable GT or a premium sedan. Renault, Peugeot and Citroën consistently produced high end models until some years ago that consistently flopped. AFAIK Peugeot and Citroën decided they would develop no more.
In the early 70’s France was busy building its speedways network. It was viewed as the modern age Grail. In his time de Gaulle would personally open any newly completed stretch with a grandiose speech (the press would dub them “mégots d’autoroute” or “speedway butts”). No one would think there would be speed limits one day. The SM was to be the queen of the autoroute: it seemed rational people would routinely travel from Paris to Lyon at 100mph.
Of course the SM was plagued with the French new models usual shortcomings: incomplete development, poor workmanship and a strange mixture of cutting edge technology and low end solutions. It had taken several years before the DS became fairly reliable. Besides with the German makers, this issue was rather usual in Europe, including with Ferrari.
I think their biggest mistake was that they never realized you can’t sell in the same dealership a GT and
that [2CV], that: [Azu], or that: [Ami]
The target customer of a GT expects the badge on his car is not also found on such disgraces as that
The wannabe prestigious SM did not help selling more 2CVs but the proletarian 2CV did certainly stop prospects for the SM from pushing the door. As you say in your article about the Lexus, the standard Mercedes or Ferrari owner would rather die than be caught in a Citroën dealership. He expects the badge on his new car will proclaim to the masses “I succeeded”. If tin chevrons are displayed on 2CVs, whose statement is “I’m poor”, and on corrugated iron vans, whose statement is “I earn my living by the sweat on my brow”, it’ll a definitely put him off.
The ID certainly helped amortize the DS investments but I wonder to what point the ID (the poor’s DS) hurt the DS sales. Every single detail on the ID would proclaim “I am not rich enough to afford a DS”: the chevrons on the DS trunk were gilded and they were aluminum on the ID. Many IDs were customized to make them look like DSs, including like the high end Pallas. The only obvious difference was the shift. Pallasized IDs are scorned by today’s DS collectors. It’s during the 60’s that Mercedes and BMW established themselves in France as the preferred premium brands… necessarily at the expense of the only French premium car maker, Citroën.
The development of the SM was rational, just like the Ford Falcon by McNamara, but they should have known it was not their turf.
Thanks for correcting my French; I’ve amended the text. (I speak Spanish, but while I can puzzle out a bit of written French, it’s not my best suit…)
I think you make a good point regarding the relationship between the 2CV and SM. To some extent, it’s the same issue Volkswagen faced with the Phaeton; it didn’t matter that it was a good car (if not an exceptional one), just that they had the arrogance to charge Mercedes money for a VW badge.
My understanding with the ID is that it was a half measure to assuage dealer complaints that the Déesse was too expensive. From a marketing standpoint, Citroën needed something for the middle-class family market — a sort of French answer to the Ford Cortina and Taunus, perhaps — and the DS was too costly for that, while the 2CV was too cheap and too downmarket. The SM was a fascinating effort, but it was both a branding challenge and the answer to a question no one was really asking…
Strange that this reasoning is applied to Citroen but not to Mercedes-Benz, which applies the tristar to everything from S-Class to A-Class to Sprinter vans to heavy trucks. Perhaps some of the difference is that M-B has a reputation for quality engineering and build across its entire range, while Citroen does not?
Well, the distinction is also that Mercedes-Benz’s brand expansion has been perceived mostly as essentially top down. For many years, the company worked very studiously to foster the idea that the senior S-Class models were Mercedes’ *standard* cars and the cheaper models were slightly shrunken versions of same, the W201 190D/190E being probably the most acute example. Daimler also didn’t make the mistake Packard did of abandoning or deemphasizing the senior cars to chase the higher-volume models; the S-Class remains the one to beat in that segment. (Toyota came really, really close with the original LS400, but the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble I think deprived them of the necessary momentum.)
It’s worth noting, though, that Daimler’s efforts to move further upmarket haven’t been especially successful either. The Maybach didn’t really work out and the 600, while a spectacular technical achievement, remained a curiosity in terms of image. And it remains to be seen exactly how far both Mercedes and BMW can stretch their respective brand images without seriously damaging them.
I don’t know if the commercial vehicles have any particularly impact one way or another, though, simply because I don’t think most people pay that much to big trucks.
I had the opportunity to have the free use of a CX Prestige back in the mid ’80s. I was impressed by the cheap fitting, the cheap, flimsy “pods” – the turn signal switch and the headlight switch. The left one was especially bad for flying apart if bumped by the knee, which had been the case twice already.
The engine, a reissued DS thumper, shook the car at idle, vibrated the whole car at higher speeds, and had the same “about to jump out of the car” feeling at speed. I ran it up to 115 mph, a serious risk here (jail possible). It was not fun due to the engine – worse than a DS – though the car felt very stable. Great chassis but totally unsuitable engine for a supposedly high grade car.
In discussing the role of the GS in Citroen’s downfall, you have to distinguish between the GS Birotor and the piston-engined GS and GSA.
The GS Birotor with its poor fuel economy walked into the 1973 oil crisis and sold poorly. Citroen pulled the plug after building only 847 Birotors. French law requires automakers to support cars with spare parts for 20 years, so Citroen bought most Birotors back from their owners and sent them to the crusher. The few that have escaped are highly collectible. The car simply never got to establish a reputation for reliability, good or bad.
I don’t have production figures handy for the GS and GSA, but they were in production from 1970 to 1986, so the car was hardly a failure.
Citroen had to eat the cost of developing the GS Birotor and buying the cars back. But IMO, at the time of the Peugeot takeover, Citroen was dying the death of several cuts. The Birotor didn’t single-handedly kill the company as the Ro80 did NSU and the Jet did Hudson.
BTW, some of the panels in the front apron structure differ between the GS/GSA and the Birotor. So if you have a GS/GSA and a spare Birotor drivetrain, visions of an easy engine swap shouldn’t start dancing in your head.
That’s a reasonable point — Julian Marsh’s figures are 1.9 million for the GS and just under 577,000 for the GSA, which makes for an average of about 165,000 units per year, hardly bad except perhaps by old-school GM standards. I’ve amended the text here and in the Ro 80 article to specify “the Birotor version of the GS.”
I am now very curious how much the Birotor impacted NSU financially. Citroën and NSU shared the development of the KKM 622/624 engine through the Comotor JV, originally hoping to sell engines to other automakers (DeLorean considered it, in fact, although by then Comotor was on the way out). Of course, sorting that out would require access to the financial records of both companies and the ability to make sense of French and German contract law in ways that are probably a little beyond my ken.
very interesting thread.
first comment on the SM, as brilliant as it was (and putting the incredible yet flawed engine to one side which for me is central to its charm) the CX was the successful spinoff from the SM with all its great qualities (including comments re german engineering), beautifully summed up by LJK Setright.
of course like all earlier citroens (and many other makes) the development period to get it right took longer than it should have. So it was really the end of the series 1 CX production that finally produced an awesome vehicle with the reliability, performance and quality of ride that the SM originally promised. I currently daily drive a 1984 GTI (naturally aspirated – the turbo is completely unnecessary). Even current day cars struggle to keep up with its precise, smooth, high performance. (i’m not referring to autobarns, but rather to real roads, where citroens excel, and many current day high performance cars still struggle, and can’t compete with a 1980’s CX – that should be a big shock to not only german car makers but also japanese. They still fall well short, especially if you enjoy driving).
In contrast to this, there is no doubt in my mind that the opposite end of citroen’s brilliance which is still completely unique in automobile history is the 2CV. Since it is not a mini, VW beetle or Fiat 500, rather it is a swiss army knife… its utility is extraordinary, as tractor, utility vehicle (or what we in New Zealand call a Ute)… and then there is the 4WD 2CV still in a class of its own…
interesting thread… I wonder if the question of the need to realise an inexpensive DS, through the offering of the ID while perhaps not an ideal answer to the market needs between DS and 2CV, was the very catalyst that created the need for the GS perhaps one of Citroen’s most original and extraordinary offerings. Incredibly minimal (in that sense a true update of earlier 2CV intensions, esp the break) yet arguably as aesthetically beautiful and radical in its own way as the 1955 DS, yet with the fully fledged DS qualities of a by now fully mature hydropneumatic suspension / breaking system. In this sense it absolutely deserved its status as ‘european car of the year’.
That would certainly make sense. In any event, when it came time to replace the DS it made sense to bracket it, rather than directly replace it, with a cheaper C-segment car on one end and perhaps a SM-derived sedan for the executive segment. Even before the OPEC embargo, the real growth in the European market was in the B- and C-segments, and for a lot of automakers, the C-segment was a more attractive proposition economically, particularly since creating an effective supermini was not cheap.
This is what SM was designed for and it still fulfils the brief today. My car has SS engine and can keep up with or beat nearly all long distance autoroute traffic. Most of its miles today are on such trips. In May 2013 we drove from Cannes to Calais and thence to Gloucestershire for the SM International Rally. Overall 3500kms travelled in 5 days, both long French runs achieved nonstop, ex fuel and pee. Calais Cannes on return was >9.5 hours. We were overtaken by very little (couple of Audis probably not long distance). Defy anyone to beat that by much without prison.
After 40+ years SM is still a modern high-speed transcontinental tourer. Speed, comfort ride are all there. Only surrender to modern cars is road and wind noise.
Vive Sa Majeste
I have owned an SM since 2005, there is no other GT car u can ping to Monaco and back in such looks, comfort, speed, and stability, as the saying goes it was Darwin who told us where we came from, but is was the SM who drove us to where we want to go, & in style.
Every car has its faults, the V6 engine is future proofed and sounds as growly as an angry mother-in-law….I love it.
I have had Citroens in my life all of my life They all are great my dad helped bring the cx in the states they where great cars and just like any car The SM,DS,CX,BX 2CV and others need money in order to keep up I have owned benz& beamer porsche and us cars and they all got problems but in A Citroen its worth it the car makes you feel good they are great cars I love them all and I miss my 72 sm I had to sell it but looking for a new one I took it 2600 miles round trip not any problem the car never left me stranded even when the fuel pump broke I still limped it home =)
Some very interesting comments. I have had my Euro model SM [bought it in Canads] for 42 years and it now has 42k miles and never any major issues.
A great going out for dinner car and will miss it for sure when it’s time to go.
Hope you’re keeping up with all of the regular maintenance matters plus the old car maintenance. Wiring is ancient and a fire risk. “Rubber” fuel lines deteriorate from age, heat, exposure to fuel. The sharply bent return hose from the pressure regulator click-clack valve is known to crack and spew highly flammable LHM mist into the alternator, with expected results. The HP pump/alternator/A/C compressor/emission air pump drive shaft flex joints were changed several times.
“The fuel pump broke.” Heh! The original was a Bendix, apparently USA made. Mine died from rust, so I replaced it with a generic little squarish one that was rated the same pressure – 3psi if I recall. No more problem.