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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

SM: When The Future Was Too Good To Last

The Citroën SM has often been called "the Concorde for the road," and I believe that's a very fitting analogy.

Like the legendary supersonic jetliner, the Citroën SM was conceived in unrepeatable circumstances and express the boundless optimism and ambition of the 1960s, when people looked at the future with optimism rather than suspicion.

Contrary to almost every automobile designed after it, the SM wasn't made to respond to any specific market demand but rather to chase an engineering ideal. With the SM, a confident, proud Citroën sought to celebrate itself and its "savoir-faire." Again, much like Concorde, it was about redefining what was possible in their respective field, a demonstration of technological supremacy that would sadly prove rather vain. The SM soon became a victim of the changing times, leaving enthusiasts wondering what could have been.

By the late 1950s, with the ground-breaking DS into full series production, the Bureau D'Etudes Citroën started to experiment on how far they could take the DS as an engineering platform, aiming to develop a yet more advanced automobile concept. Such experiments, made using shortened, two-door DS mules equipped with souped-up engines, went under the name of "Project S" or "DS Sport."

By 1966, the project took the direction of a "grand touring" car with its own unique body design, developed under Robert Opron, the Marque's chief stylist, and he and his staff did a truly outstanding job on the SM.

The long bodyside is very nicely sculpted with two main character lines drawing a section that accentuates the SM's dart-like profile. Like the DS is mostly based on, the SM's rear track is considerably narrower than the front one, giving the body a lovely taper towards the rear that disguises the vehicle's length when viewed from most angles.

But even more special, at least to my eyes, is the SM's interior, whose shapely dashboard molding and anodized aluminum inserts would look cool and contemporary even today, over fifty years on.

This lovely survivor is equipped with the optional leather upholstery, which significantly contributes to the overall luxury feel.

The rear seats are, admittedly, not the best place to enjoy the car, but can be used for short journeys or, even better, for luggage, to supplement the not exactly huge trunk.

the French managers were stunned when Alfieri delivered a prototype engine in just three weeks

But what the SM is perhaps most famous for is its Italian engine, which led to Citroën's takeover of Maserati.

Pierre Bercot, then Citroën's Managing Director, looked outside the company for a solution. Bercot admired high-end Italian engines, and contact with the Orsi family, who controlled Maserati, was made at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show.

Buying the Modenese company outright wasn't originally part of Citroën's plans, though. The Orsi family actually wanted to sell their small and undercapitalized company, and Citroën looked like a safe bet for Maserati's future. On the other hand, bringing Maserati under Citroën's full control ensured the planned supply of thousands of engines per year for the future SM, so by January of 1968, the deal was done.

Citroën demanded Maserati's technical director, Giulio Alfieri, to design a compact vee engine under 2.8 liters of displacement to stay below a punitive French tax bracket. Not accustomed to Italian resourcefulness, the French managers were stunned when Alfieri delivered a prototype engine in just three weeks, and testing began in Spring of 1968.

The "C114" V6 engine's basic design was derived from Maserati's existing V8 and retained its 90° vee angle, which allowed a lower bonnet line.

The four-cam, all-aluminum power unit was very compact (310mm) and light (140kg). Its block was machined from a single casting, with the iron cylinder liners directly in contact with the coolant.

The crank rested on four large main bearings, with the connecting rods paired up on three crankpins. Interestingly, the two cylinder heads were interchangeable, thanks to their cross-flow design.

The examples built until the Summer of '72 are, like this one, equipped with three Weber 42 DCNF carburetors. The claimed horsepower figure was a healthy 170 at 5500 Rpm, transmitted to the front wheels via a Citroën-designed five-speed manual gearbox.

Traveling on the SM feels exactly as you'd expect: like a DS, but better.

The SM debuted at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show and listed at a hefty 46.000 Francs. That was roughly double the price of a DS21 and about as much as a Mercedes 280S or a Jaguar XJ6. But that wasn't wishful thinking on Citroën's part because the SM's specification was second to none. The 2.7 liters V6 engine sat longitudinally in a body structure derived from the DS, whose self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension was complemented on the SM by the unique DIRAVI power steering system, which adapted its assistance to vehicle speed and was also self-centering.

Traveling on the SM feels exactly as you'd expect: like a DS, but better.

The more ergonomic and firmer seats let you enjoy a more comfortable, less upright position, while the suspension soaks up every road imperfection. Outward visibility is very nearly as good as on the DS, thanks to the thin windscreen pillars. Wind noise is quite noticeable, again, much like the DS. The Maserati V6 ticks away unobtrusively, revealing its Modenese origin only under hard acceleration.

I believe "majestic" is the word that better sums up the way you travel on the SM, a car that feels much more modern than it actually is.

Citroën predicted it could sell between 20 and 30 SM a day during the model's planning stage, and the initial market reaction seemed to reflect that, as public and critics alike were smitten by the SM's unique combination of avant-garde style with performance and comfort.

A market for which Citroën 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 six square Cibié lamps of the European SM, of which the innermost ones turned with the steering, were replaced by four exposed sealed-beam round units.

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 carburetors' place. Despite the high retail price, and a dealer network often unable to properly market such a luxurious vehicle, SM sales matched expectations at around 4000 units per year.

Until everything changed.

In October 1973, the OPEC countries sent oil prices skyrocketing, plunging Western economies into recession as retaliation against Israel's allies during the Yom Kippur war.

The oil crisis shook the automotive industry to its core and tipped the financial situation of Citroën over the edge, leading to a government-backed Peugeot takeover in late '74.

With fuel prices quadrupled over a few weeks, sales of high-end cars like the SM all but collapsed. Moreover, the model could no longer be sold in the USA due to the new bumper standards in force for the 1974 model year. As a result, Citroën built only 294 SMs that year, but that was now the least of the company's problems.

As Maserati's losses for 1974 surpassed the market value of the company itself, the new management in charge at Peugeot-Citroën placed the Modenese company into liquidation in May 1975, effectively spelling the end of the SM, which ultimately disappeared from the Marque's catalog in Summer 1975, after a total of 12.920 cars made.



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