Citroen SM: The Future 50 Years Ago

Updated: 6 days ago

The Citroen SM has often been called "The Concorde For The Road," and I believe that's an excellent analogy.



Much like Concorde, the Citroen SM was the product of a collaboration between two different European countries. Both projects weren't driven by specific market demand, but by the aim to redefine the boundaries of what was technically possible in their respective fields.

Both embody the optimism and ambition of a decade, the 1960s, in which people had faith in progress, still believed the promise that tomorrow was going to be better than today. And both projects then became victims of the changing times, leaving enthusiasts wondering what could have been.

Maserati's chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, took the French managers by surprise, delivering a prototype engine in just three weeks!

In the early 1960s, the Bureau D'Etudes Citroen was using the DS as a platform to develop a yet more advanced automobile concept, under the name "Project S" or "DS Sport": a shortened, two-door derivative of the DS equipped with a more exotic engine. By 1966, the project took the direction of a grand touring car with new, specific body design. Still, the question of which powerplant to use led Citroen's Managing Director, Pierre Bercot, to look outside the company, and, at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show, Bercot approached the Orsi family, the owners of Maserati.

Bercot demanded to the Italian company a compact vee engine, whose capacity should not exceed 2.8 liters for French tax reasons. Maserati's chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, took the French managers by surprise, delivering a prototype engine in just three weeks!

the new Citroen's specification was second to none, a true vision for the future of motoring.

While that prototype engine was indeed a cut-down Maserati V8, the definitive production "C114" engine was extensively redesigned, while retaining its peculiar 90° vee angle. Albeit buying Maserati wasn't originally part of Citroen's plans, the Orsi family were keen to sell, as they could see that the Modenese company was too small and undercapitalized to stay competitive long-term anyways. As Maserati was a small company, Bercot saw it as a low price to pay to ensure the planned supply of thousands of engines per year, so by January of 1968, Citroen took full control of Maserati.

The SM debuted at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show and went on sale at around 46.000 Francs, roughly double the price of a DS21 and about as much as a Mercedes 280S or a Jaguar XJ6. After all, the new Citroen's specification was second to none, a true vision for the future of motoring.

as public and critics alike were blown away by the SM's unique combination of avant-garde style, performance, and comfort.

The Maserati 2.7 liter V6 sat longitudinally in a body structure derived from the one of the DS, transmitting its 170 HP to the front wheels via a five-speed gearbox.

The self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension from the DS was complemented on the SM by the unique DIRAVI power steering system, which not only adapted its assistance to vehicle speed but was also self-centering. This system, unique to Citroen, would go on the CX and into the V6-engined versions of the XM, only to be quietly dropped in the mid-90s.

Citroen predicted it could sell between 20 and 30 SM a day, and the market reaction seemed to reflect that, as public and critics alike were blown away by the SM's unique combination of avant-garde style, performance, and comfort.

In October 1973, the OPEC countries sent oil prices skyrocketing, plunging Western economies into recession as retaliation to the American support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war.

One market for which Citroen had high hopes was the United States, which received its own version of the SM, sadly disfigured by the local law requirements regarding illumination. The set of six Cibié lamps under glass of the European SM, of which the innermost ones turned with the steering, were replaced by four exposed and fixed sealed-beam units. A three-speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission was also made available. In July 1972, the SM's 2.7 liters V6 became smoother and slightly more powerful thanks to the Bosch electronic fuel-injection system taking the place of the previous Weber carburetors. Strangely enough, the American SM's engine retained the carburetors and became a three-liters from 1973: the same specification of the recently launched Maserati Merak. What Citroen couldn't predict was war.

The oil crisis shook the automotive industry and made the already perilous financial situation of Citroen unsustainable, leading to Peugeot taking control of the company in late '74.

In October 1973, the OPEC countries sent oil prices skyrocketing, plunging Western economies into recession as retaliation to the American support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As a result, sales of the SM and luxury cars in general collapsed: in 1974, Citroen built only 294 SMs.

The oil crisis shook the automotive industry and made the already perilous financial situation of Citroen unsustainable, leading to Peugeot taking control of the company in late '74. As in-house production of the SM had become uneconomical, Citroen outsourced the assembly to Ligier... But given that Maserati's losses for 1974 surpassed the market value of the company, adding onto an already difficult situation at Citroen, the new management placed the Modenese company into liquidation in May 1975, which in turn spelled the end of the SM, that disappeared from the Marque's catalog in Summer 1975.


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