What do Leonid Brezhnev (ex Soviet leader), Idi Amin (ex Ugandan dictator) and Adam Clayton (present U2 member) have in common? Well, hopefully not more than the fact that they were all proud owners of one of the most legendary cars of all times and the subject of this week’s post – the wonderful Citroën SM! Actually so did further, less democratic guys like Haile Selassie and the shah of Iran, but let’s please not consider this wonderful automobile creation as a transport for dictators – it was more a testament to the position of the SM as one of the most spectacular cars in the world at the time of launch, and therefore something political leaders of different kinds (and also including some more democratic ones like the French president) were keen to be seen in.
I’ve wanted to write about the SM for a long time as to me, no other car symbolizes the true innovation and great engineering from the mechanical age. Long before computers, the SM had some features that it’s taken the automobile world 40 years to catch up with, as we’ll see below. And it was all packed in a format that in my opinion has stood the test of time better than most. And…. Hold it. Before I get too carried away, let’s take it from the beginning, which in the case of the SM means going back to the early 60’s.
Some of you may remember my post on the Goddess, the Citroën DS last summer, that you can otherwise read here. The DS had been launched in 1955, and ever since, Citroën had wanted to add a more luxurious but beyond that, initially quite undefined luxury car to its line-up. This project went under the name S and was officially started in the early 60’s. When Citroën aquired Maserati in -68, the plans to build a GT had taken shape, and the SM was launched in 1970 with an engine provided by the new Italian colleagues. Or rather, an engine newly developed by them, since there was not enough room for the Maserati V8 of the time under the bonnet of the SM, and so it had to be shortened to a V6 with an unusual 90 degree angle. The volume was limited to 2.7 litres, a tribute to France’s fiscal system that ever since WW2 has been very mean to large engine volumes. And so, the Citroën SM also became known as the Maserati Citroën, and was the only Citroën ever to use a Maserati engine.
The DS had a futuristic form when it was launched back in 1955, and the SM was no less remarkable in that regard. The body has the shape of a droplet with a wider front than rear axle, as was also the case in the DS. The sleak body with the typical back wheel covers and the abrupt rear all helped achieve a wind resistance CV-value of 0.26, basically unheard of at the time. In its low position (more on the suspension below) the car looks very futuristic still to this day, and it should be noted that in spite of the shape, the SM offers sufficient room for 4, including a boot of a reasonable size. It was only sold in one version that equipment-wise was very complete, and the SM was in other words a true GT.
So what about all the innovations? Well, to start off, the SM obviously retained the hydraulic, self-leveling suspension system from the DS. I covered it in the post last summer I won’t do so again, but given it can be adjusted in height, the SM can go from very low to indeed very high by using a mechanical lever on the left side of the driver’s seat. The high position could for example be used on uneven roads or in snow, the lowest corresponds to its “resting” position. But there is a lot beyond the suspension to be mentioned. This includes the turning headlights that saw into corners, and that were also featured on late DS’s. There are the rain-sensitive windshield wipers, a first that it took decades for other car brands to replicate, the inboard front disc breaks, reducing the unsprung weight of the wheels and thereby improving ride quality, and of course the steering called DIRAVI, providing much assistance at low speeds and progressively less as the speed increases, again a first at the time. The DIRAVI steering in the SM had only 2 turns from lock to lock and a very strong centering back. In combination with the mushroom brake, another feature taken from the DS, the steering makes anyone driving an SM for the first time look like a beginner. Just as you will always apply too much breaking pressure, you will also steer far too much. The SM is a car that you have to learn, but when you do, boy does it allow you to travel in utter comfort and style!
Unfortunately the Maserati engine wasn’t very spectacular but it sure sounded better and was more powerful than the 4-cylinder Citroën had used in the DS. With a power output of 174 hp it put the SM in the middle of the GT pack at the time in terms of performance, with a time of something like 8.5 seconds to 100 but given the aerodynamic shape, a top speed around 220 km/h, making it the fastest front-wheel drive car in the world in 1970. The shape also saves fuel as an SM will roll better than most modern cars without loosing much speed. Given it’s a 50-year old construction, that in itself is quite remarkable!
Citroën thus built a Maserati-powered car that was unlike anything the world had seen, and unlike anything it had driven as well. The car is far sportier than the DS with the exhaust providing a relatively raw exhaust note. Ride comfort is exquisite and superior to the DS, and once you get used to the steering and breaking, the SM is a cruiser by excellence. it’s actually capable of much more than that, as proven by some rally wins in the early 70’s. The standard power output didn’t make it a sports car however, and today few would think of doing more than cruising, something it excels in.
Unfortunately, after a 5-year run and 12.900 cars produced, the SM story came to an end due to a number of factors. For one, Citroën had gone bankrupt in 1974 and been taken over by Peugeot who were far less keen on the SM and also on Maserati, that they sold a few years later. Secondly, the SM had always been destined for the US but ran into various issues in the US market, notably the fact that headlights at the time had to be fixed in the US, so the turning headlights had to be replaced by some of the ugliest fixed lights the world has ever seen. Thirdly, Citroën messed up a bit in terms of after-service both in the US and elsewhere. They didn’t give the US market the attention it deserved and they didn’t make buyers aware of some quite critical timing chain adjustments. This latter point was also a more general problem with the Maserati engine, which Citroën garages often didn’t know how to handle, meaning owners basically had to visit two different garages to service the car. Not a recipe for success and after five years, production of the SM came to an end.
Like so many other youngtimers, finding a good SM today has become an expensive story that starts somewhere around EUR 50.000. As said there is only one version and most cars are also manual, as they should be. Injection models made up some 3500 of the total production are to be preferred, all else equal. Otherwise your attention should go to a thorough check of the body where rust can hide in many places, and a likewise very thorough check of the engine. The timing belt issue can be fixed and has been so on many cars, make sure to choose one of these. Obviously check the suspension as well and how it has been maintained, but of the three areas mentioned, that’s by far the least worrisome one.
I don’t fall in love with all cars I write about, but I find the SM very, very hard to resist. No doubt there are many astounding innovations on our modern cars, but there is something truly special with the revolutionary stuff that was developed by engineers with the help of nothing but brains and tools. No other car pays tribute to the mechanical age better than the SM with its unique shape, its many ground-breaking innovations and of course, the lovely sound of the Maserati engine. A few weeks ago when writing about the DeLorean, I got some criticism for referring to it as legendary. Point taken in that regard, but I’ll dare use the word again when speaking of the SM – I really struggle to imagine a more legendary car!
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