Car Show Classic: 1972 Citroën SM Opéra – The Final Stretch

SM_Opera_rome

The Citroën SM has been covered quite a few times on CC (here, here, here and also here), so I won’t bother reinventing the wheel. Still, this is a car I adore, so whenever I’ve attended the International Citroën Car Club Rally (ICCCR) held every four years, I’ve taken a few snapshots of the odd few, as well as a few odd ones.

Sm-coupe

Most here would be familiar with the production SM coupé. So just a reminder: built 1970-75; FWD, 2.7 litre Maserati DOHC V6 (fuel injected from 1972), top speed 140mph, self-levelling suspension, power brakes and windows, self-centering power steering, self-levelling and turning headlights, etc., came as standard.

SM_coupe_front

The options list included a radio, A/C, leather seats, lightweight Michelin RR wheels, Borg-Warner automatic (coupled with a 3 litre triple-carbureted version of the V6) and a special luggage set. The coupé was the only production body available.

“Why don’t we slip into something even more comfortable?...”

“Why don’t we slip into something even more comfortable?…”

 

When it was launched, it was a sensation. But you know how people are, they always want more. And Citroën weren’t going to provide more doors than the two that were already there. They did look into it, but decided that the market for such a car was too small to be worth the trouble.

pompidou-porsche

One such demanding customer happened to be the French President, Georges Pompidou. He was something of a car guy. He owned a Bristol in the ‘50s and a Porsche in the ‘60s. Once elected in 1969, he used the DS limo that his predecessor, General de Gaulle, had ordered from Citroën and Parisian coachbuilder Henri Chapron.

That DS was a tad slow for Pompidou’s taste – not that he drove it himself, but still, now the SM was here. Time to order a new car!

SM_presidentielle_pompidou

In autumn 1971, Chapron presented his first custom-bodied SM, the Mylord two-door convertible. Around that time, a special order came from the Elysée palace: two four-door SM convertible parade cars. They were delivered in May 1972. Chapron had outdone himself on the interior appointments and the quality of the structural work – with help from Citroën of course, who also designed the car.

Just in time for the neighbour to visit, too. Betty “Q.E.2” Windsor seems nonplussed here, perhaps wondering where her consort was (answer: in the other SM behind you, luv.) The presidential SMs were to have a long and distinguished career, and were last seen in official use in 2002.

SM_Opera_period_pic

Now that Henri Chapron had the jigs and expertise, he figured that a four-door SM might appeal to others. So at the 1972 Salon de l’Automobile, he presented the SM Opéra. Compared to the presidential drop-tops, it was a distinct design in that it had a shorter rear overhang (no need to make room for the folded top), a 5cm shorter wheelbase and different rear doors.

DS_leLeman

The carrosserie really needed the work by that point: after 1971, Citroën stopped selling their DS cabriolet, which had been Chapron’s bread and butter for the last decade. Chapron made a few special DS bodies of his own design (such as this 1966 ‘Le Léman’ coupé), but there were fewer clients every year as the price of these spiraled to dizzying heights and the DS became older.

opera_SM_UK

I missed ICCCR 2016 in Holland unfortunately, but I did recover some pics I took in the 2012 (UK) and 2008 (Italy) events. The SM Opéra at ICCCR 2012 in England – I’m almost sure that this is the ’72 Paris Salon car. Still in white, still with the chromed wheel arches; some were made with the coupé’s spats.

SM_opera_side

Of course, it was fully loaded (except for the auto transmission) and Chapron was renowned for outstanding upholstery and attention to detail. But prices were astronomical: the SM Opéra cost over 2.5 coupés – almost Ferrari Daytona money. But what a car, especially when the suspension is “resting” like this.

SM_opera_front

So it’s probably no surprise that only eight of these were made in three years. What is surprising is that half of them went to Spain. Seems the domestic SEATs and Dodge 3700s were not up to snuff for some Iberians.

(Photo: Philippe Losson)

(Photo: Philippe Losson)

 

For a car longer than a DS, rear legroom in the standard SM was lousy. The white Opéra has a black leather interior (and I didn’t take a picture!), with rear seats that look as fantastic as this other Opéra. The extra 29cm in wheelbase were put to good use. Note the faux transmission hump, probably to increase rigidity, as on the CX.

SM_opera_other_rearside

Chapron elected to replace the coupé’s distinctive rear hatch with this flat trunk. Not the car’s strongest design feature, in my opinion. Apparently, according to the owner, if you open it too quickly or enthusiastically, the back of the trunk lid will hit the rear window and shatter it.

SM_Espace

Slightly off-topic: the SM also inspired Heuliez, another French coachbuilder more renowned for their buses, to develop this T-top, dubbed the ‘Espace,’ in 1971. Two were made, but only one had that peculiar rear window. Heuliez also designed a four-door SM that would have retained the coupé’s rear styling, but it was never put in three dimensions.

Maserati-Quattroporte-II-12

Finally (and also slightly off-topic), there was the bizarre case of the Maserati Quattroporte II. Citroën owned Maserati for a few years (1968-74) and the second iteration of the Quattroporte was supposed to be this car. It was entirely based on the SM (same engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, steering, headlights, floorpan, etc.) but designed by Bertone. So in essence, this is a re-skinned and re-badged SM Opéra…

The prototype was presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1974, just as Citroën was declaring bankruptcy and pulling out of Maserati. This led the Italians to halt the homologation process, which meant the car could not be legally sold in the European Community. A dozen were still made in 1975-77 and sold in Spain (again!) and the Middle-East.

ecusson_Chapron

Henri Chapron, who started his craft on war-surplus Model Ts back in 1919, produced fine custom bodies on anything from Dauphines to Cadillacs for half a century. The carrosserie outlived its founder, who died aged 91 in 1978, by seven years. The SM Opéra was one of the last substantial Chapron designs; all eight of them are still with us today.