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!