When we think of manufacturers who have mass-produced a single model of car for a significant length of time, most of us will think of Volkswagen for the Beetle Type 1, or Ford for the Model T. But innovative French car maker Citroën deserves to be on our list, for making the Deux Cheveaux (2CV) from 1948 to 1990, the Traction Avant from 1934 until 1957, and the DS between 1955 and 1975. Ironically, the SM, Citroën’s only high-performance Gran Tourismo and arguably their most interesting car, lasted only from 1970 to 1975 thanks to unfavorable market factors and the company’s financial crisis.
Citroën SM – rapid transit in high style
The Citroën SM was a high-performance Gran Tourismo automobile designed to transport an upscale driver and three of his/her closest friends from the hustle and bustle of Paris to the perfect clime of the French Riviera or the solitude of a country chateau, in the minimum amount of time and in maximum comfort and style. Powered by a Maserati-built V6 engine and sporting Citroën’s patented hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension to absorb the road bumps, the futuristic body cradled its occupants in full leather, contour molded seats, which Automobile Magazine assures us, “are as comfortable as they look.” Très bon!
An upscale GT vehicle was a gleam in Citroën’s eye as far back as 1961 when they began work on Project S, then to be a sports variant of the legendary DS. Over the ensuing years, many concepts were developed, each becoming increasingly more complex and upmarket from the DS. One of the project’s stumbling blocks was France’s system for taxing vehicles according a complex formula taking into account the displacement and horsepower of their engines. Citroën did not have a big engine in their arsenal to make the GT fast enough, and the costs to design and build a special engine were prohibitive. The GT kept being pushed to the back burner.
Citroën buys Maserati
Fate then stepped in to give Citroën a way out of their dilemma. Famous Italian auto and engine maker Maserati was facing a financial crisis and seeking a partner to save the company. Citroën bought Maserati in 1968 and immediately turned to their new partners for an engine to use in the new GT car – they were looking for an engine that could give sufficient power, while at the same time be small enough to avoid exorbitant French taxes.
Citroën ordered a new V6 engine for the now-named SM that could not displace more than 2.8 liters, be exceptionally compact, and be ready in six months. Maserati Chief Engineer Alfieri had a new design ready ahead of schedule. The new design was for an all-aluminum, double overhead cam V6 displacing 2.7 liters, with hemispherical combustion chambers and three two-barrel Weber carburetors, producing 170 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. C’est fantastique!
Stunning Citroën SM
The top-of-the-line flagship SM debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in March of 1970 and stunned the motoring world. The radically tapered body, in which the front wheel track is eight inches wider than the rear track, cheated the wind and gave the SM a drag coefficient of 0.26, absurdly low for the time. Combining the mechanical engineering marvels of Citroën with the power of Maserati, the SM was as provocative as any show car from Italy and the appearance could only be a Citroën. Très belle!
The SM provided a combination of comfort, handling, and braking that simply was not available in any other car at the time and promised to give Jaguar, Lotus, and Aston Martin a run for their money in the marketplace. Popular Science noted that the SM had the shortest stopping distance of any car they had tested. Automobile Magazine loved it, saying, “The Citroën’s most charming characteristic is its incredible ride quality, as the car glides over road imperfections.” The SM was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1972, beating out the Porsche 911S and the BMW Bavaria in the process.
SM has performance and features to bolster dynamic appearance
The Citroën SM went on sale in France in September of 1970. Selling in its home market for 52,000 FF, about $9,500 at contemporary exchange rates, it was ready to take on the competition. The SM wasn’t just a pretty face. With a top speed of 140 mph, higher than the contemporary Mercedes Benz 350 SLC and the BMW 3.0 CS, and even weighing in at about 3,200 pounds, it could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds and cover the quarter mile in 16.7 seconds at 84 mph – it had the performance to back up its looks. Très rapide!
Thanks to Citroën’s history of innovative engineering, the SM came standard with features that were not available on any other brands at any price, including variable power-assisted steering that reduced the assist at higher speeds and had self-centering action; a self-leveling hydro-pneumatic suspension system; and a hydraulic system that operated the steering, brakes, power windows, power seats, and the two swiveling headlights (non-U.S. only). Standard equipment also included air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo, rack and pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes, full leather seats, and stainless steel wheels.
Market conditions conspire against the SM and Citroën
Citroën made 8,519 SMs by the end of 1972, with 1,285 being exported to the U.S. Before Citroën could begin to think in terms of adding the SM to its list of long-lived models, the oil crisis of 1973 devastated the market for high-performance cars. Sales for 1973 were 2,619, but dropped to 294 in 1974 and 119 in 1975.
Citroën lost more than $119 Million between 1968 and 1970 due to the development costs of the SM and the compact GS models. When sales of the SM dramatically dropped in 1974, Citroën declared bankruptcy and the French government imposed a merger with Peugeot into PSA Peugeot Citroën, which is now known as Groupe PSA. Très triste!
Maserati was sold by Citroën in May of 1975 and the slow-selling SM was cancelled. A total of 12,924 SMs were built, with 2,057 being imported into the U.S. Citroën closed all of its U.S. operations in 1977, followed ten years later by Renault leaving the U.S. market. Peugeot was the last French manufacturer remaining in the U.S. and they turned out the lights in 1991, bringing to a close French new car sales in the U.S. Au revoir.
Ate Up with Motor – http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/citroen-sm/
Automobile Magazine – http://www.automobilemag.com/news/collectible-classic-1971-1975-citroen-sm/
Driving Today – http://www.drivingtoday.com/acarplace/greatest_cars/citroen_sm/index.html#axzz4NSc5w5vX
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citro%C3%ABn
History of the Traction Avant – http://www.traction.ch/history/hist_ta_e.html