Curbside Classic: 1974 Citroën SM Automatique – Franco-Italian Sado-Masochism

It’s Frenchie time again, hon hon hon! We had a gaggle of coupés last time, so let’s continue in that vein, shall we? The term “French GT” is not one that is overused, as there are not many cars could be classified as such. But if there is one that would fit the term perfectly, it would have to be the 1970-75 Citroën SM.

With its space-age styling, Maserati engine, sophisticated chassis and superb handling, the big Citroën has reached icon status, fifty years after the fact. But with under 13,000 units made in five years, not to mention the bankruptcy of both Citroën and Maserati putatively on its conscience, was the SM the ultimate Deadly Sin, or just a case of Franco-Italian sado-masochism?

Even when they were designing the DS, in the early ’50s, Citroën had ideas slightly above their station. This led them to try out a 1.8 litre flat-six, which turned out to be too heavy, thirsty and difficult to cool, so the Traction’s 2-litre 4-cyl. was roped back in instead. With such an engine, any notion of sportiness went out the window, but Citroën kept dreaming of a truly fast DS derivative, given that the engineers figured the rest of the car should be able to handle 200hp with few modifications.

Unable to realize an engine that would satisfy their ambition, Citroën did the next best thing and bought out Maserati in January 1968. The Modenese firm had just developed a 4.1 litre quad-cam V8 for their Indy; Citroën tasked Maserati engineer Giulio Alfieri to lob off a couple of cylinders and reduce total displacement to something in the more tax-friendly 2.7-litre range, but keep the V’s 90-degree angle.

This engine would be mated to a new 5-speed manual gearbox, developed in-house by Citroën. Like the DS, the new Citroën flagship would feature front-wheel drive, all independent self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension, a pair of swivel headlights to see around corners, power steering, in-board front disc brakes, unit body construction and a narrower rear track.

The SM would only feature one noteworthy innovation: the DIRAVI, marketed in Anglo-Saxon countries as “VARI-power” steering. The SM’s hydropneumatically-assisted steering was lighter when the car was at a standstill or going slow, but it got progressively heavier and more direct as speed increased. It would also self-centre automatically. Like many of Citroën hydro concepts, it takes a little getting used to, but once assimilated, this variable self-centering steering is one of the car’s big positives.

As one of the ultimate ‘70s Autoroute-cruisers, the SM had a lot going for it, dynamically. The suspension was a little harsher than the pillow-soft DS, but still extremely comfortable in all circumstances. The car’s tapered aerodynamic shape was a key part of the equation, as the 2.7 litre Maserati V6 only developed 170hp (DIN) in its initial form and the car was pretty heavy. Nonetheless, a top speed of 220kph was possible, making the SM the fastest FWD production car of its time.

And of course, there was the styling – a major tour de force by Citroën’s in-house team, headed by Robert Opron. The rear end was a little fussy, with that oddly-shaped chrome trim above the taillight clusters, but the rest of the car was simply out of this world.

The year 1970 was to be a busy one for Citroën. In the autumn, at the Paris Motor Show, they would finally launch their mid-size car – the GS, which was to fill the gaping hole between the Ami and the DS. But before that, at the Geneva show in March 1970, the SM was premiered. Production took a few months to get going in earnest, but by the start of MY 1971, the new top-of-the-range coupé was in dealerships everywhere, in both domestic and several overseas markets.

This was the first truly luxurious Citroën in living memory – and the first French GT since Facel-Véga had gone under in the mid-‘60s. On the domestic market, the SM simply had no rival. But the European competition was fierce. Price-wise, the SM was well below exotic blue-bloods like Aston Martin or Ferrari, but it did have to contend with a number of interesting challengers.

The SM was, in its home market, a pretty compelling proposition. Abroad, things were a bit more complicated: the Citroën emblem did not carry the same cachet as, say, the BMW roundel or the Jaguar growler did in their respective home turfs. Italy was an exception to this rule: the SM’s engine was a great selling point, helping the car to do very well there. In all, just over half of the production was exported.

But the ace in the hole was the US market, which Citroën were still active in at the time. And the SM was fêted there as the GT everyone was waiting for. It did mean the dramatic six-light front end had to be defaced with quad (and fixed) sealed beams, but the car still made a triumphal entrance as Motor Trend’s COTY for 1972. Sales were brisk, but brief: the imposition of the dreaded 5mph bumpers, which Citroën were unable to comply with, meant all US exports were cancelled after MY 1973.

The issue with the SM was that Citroën were, by the time of the car’s launch, pretty much bled dry of development cash. They did have the means to develop an EFI system for the Maserati V6, which was implemented at the start of MY 1972 (for EU-spec cars only) and provided an extra 10hp. But there was little else that the French firm could do with the big coupé, especially body-wise. Which is a pity as there was some demand for a 4-door version, and possibly other variants.

A lot of thought went into the SM saloon. Chapron went in several different directions, from line drawings to renderings and 1/5th scale models – each slightly different, but each with a separate trunk. Heuliez (top right) designed a simple stretch that would carry over the coupé’s tail – but this never made it into the third dimension. Many years after the SM’s demise, Georges Regembeau hand-made a single four-door that seemed close to the Heuliez idea, albeit using the coupé’s short wheelbase and Regembeau’s own 2.5 litre turbo-Diesel engine and 6-speed gearbox.

The ”production” Chapron four-door design, as shown in 1972, was the above Opéra berline. It cost a proverbial arm and leg, so only eight were ever made. Chapron also produced a handful of their Mylord cabriolets, but at three times the cost of a factory coupé, demand was somewhat muted.

A strange combination of both designs was made in 1972 for the Elysée Palace. These presidential parade cars were stretched even more than the “normal” Opéras. They remained in service for well over 30 years.

Among the one-off SMs was the Espace T-top; carrosserie Heuliez made two in 1971-72. Pietro Frua also authored a (very Italian) single coupé in 1972, and it could be said that Bertone’s stillborn 1974-77 Maserati Quattroporte II was a Citroën SM in all but name…

Sales were initially pretty good – the big Cit was the toast of the left-hand lane in 1971 and 1972 (and of the right-hand lane too, though Citroën neglected to develop a RHD version). But soon, cracks started to appear. The SM was expensive, but also very, very complex, and Citroën just weren’t set up to take care of the type of clientele that bought these.

The Maserati engine was an expensive Italian diva, whose whims were not well-served by grease-monkeys who were used to fixing 2CVs with hammers. They proved fragile, as did some of the ancillaries used on the SM, such as the A/C system, and it took an inordinate amount of time for the cars to be fixed under warranty. Sales plateaued in 1973 and the Oil Shock happened. France enacted stringent speed limits on their highways, the price of petrol skyrocketed – the SM’s goose was well as truly cooked.

Actually, it was Citroën’s goose that was getting cooked. The carmaker’s main back, Michelin, wanted out and the French government hurriedly arranged a shotgun marriage with Peugeot in late 1974. There had been under 300 SMs built that whole year – over 10 times less than 1973. Production was moved to Guy Ligier’s works for MY 1975, barely 100 additional cars were made and Peugeot called it quits. Abysmal sales were one thing, but Maserati was being sold off as well, so sourcing engines would become an issue in short order.

Our feature car is an interesting one, as it’s both a superb shade of “silvery green” (vert argenté) and a French market car (like the majority of the 13,000 SMs made), but it has the Borg-Warner 3-speed slush box, something found on only about 10% of SMs. This Automatique variant only appeared on the European market in late 1973 – prior to that date, all automatics were destined for the US. The EU-spec automatic version was a little different from the US one, in that it was given a slightly de-tuned 3-litre carburated V6 from the Merak, as opposed to the fuel-injected 2.7 litre found in manual cars. Despite this, the 3-speed auto limits the car’s top speed to about 205kph – a good 20kph less than with the manual / EFI.

There probably was never a world in which the SM experiment was going to end well. Too complex for its maker’s clients and dealership network, too alien for the folks who bought Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars, too expensive for DS owners, it’s a small miracle that it sold as well as it did. But had it debuted in 1967 or 68 and had Citroën been able to make a four-door version, perhaps it could have survived a little longer, instead of being one of the Yom Kippur War’s collateral damage victims.

As such, the SM can be seen as just another failed French entry in the executive car game. But it’s more than just that — more than a mere Peugeot 604 or Renault Vel Satis. The SM is both Sa Majesté, a rare attempt at a blue-blooded GT, and outright Sado-Masochism for the sheer amount of hubris that Citroën displayed in designing and marketing a car that was out of their league.


Related posts:

Curbside Classic: 1972 Citroen SM – Gran Touring, Franco-Italian Style, by Tom Klockau

Car Show Classic: 1972 Citroën SM Opéra – The Final Stretch, by T87

CC Monday Morning Rarities: Citroën SM – A Fleeting Masterpiece, by JohnH875

CCOTY 1972 Nomination: Citroen SM – The Ultimate Brougham Antidote – And It Even Won Motor Trend’s COTY 1972, by PN

Storage Lot Classics: 1973 Citroën DS-23 Pallas, 1974 Citroën SM & 1984 Citroën GSA X3 – A Most Unexpected Ci-Trio-Ën, by T87