The SM is the symbol of demise of Citroën as an independent company. It is also the story of corporate management embracing the "bigger is better" theory, and the engineering department wanting to make a better and more sophisticated car, but ending up with something that was just more complex, less reliable and infinitely more expensive than the models it already had. In the late '60s, Citroën, at last freed from family control, embarked on a buying spree: It acquired Panhard, Berliet (trucks, tanks and such) and Simca's factory near Paris, built a huge (and very costly) new factory and formed a joint holding company with Fiat, which among other things gave it the ownership of proud (but financially weak) Maserati. If this was not enough, a joint venture with NSU was formed to develop the Wankel engine. All of this was made possible with funds from Michelin (a long-time Citroën backer and an investor in the stock of the new joint holding company), along with some creative bookkeeping. Citroën's engineers, still elated from the success of their revolutionary but also quite bizarre DS models, were itching for another Tour de Force. Nothing else but a superb Grand Touring car would do, and it had to be both glamorous and technologically light years ahead of anything else. Maserati and its chief engineer Ing. Alfieri were called to come up with a solution. The existing V8 models-the Ghibli and Indy-were too heavy and too long for a front-wheel-drive design (Citroën's signature). And their engines were considered crass and "American-like," unacceptable to the sophisticated French. Alfieri delivered a prototype engine in six weeks, after cutting (literally) two cylinders off the 4.7-liter Indy engine. This solution looked like a bargain, but by the time the V6 was adapted to front-wheel drive and reduced to under 2.8 liters to avoid confiscatory French engine-size-based taxes, it was as expensive as a brand-new engine would have been. The "cheap" V6 had problems of secondary harmonic vibration, which could not be resolved by the technology of the day. Other complex and costly peripherals included a distributor that was really two separate units in a single casting and a five-speed gearbox mounted ahead of everything. It was extremely complex, with two input shafts and all indirect ratios, not to mention a Rube Goldberg shift linkage which had to be machined to aerospace tolerances, and was still very bulky and slow. But this was just the beginning. The revolutionary (and repair-shop delighting) hydro-pneumatic suspension of the DS was grotesquely expanded to include a large hydraulic liquid reservoir, a pressure accumulator, twin high-pressure pumps, hydro-pneumatic shock absorbers and a power steering pump, something called Vari-Power power steering. This last gem was like no other power steering on the planet. In reality it was a servo mechanism, with the driver's steering-wheel movement only indicating the direction the servo was to take. The mechanical components of the steering system were eliminated from the equation, meaning no resistance-when you turned the wheel, it merely sent a signal telling the system in which direction to compress fluids. Unfortunately, that left the driver with zero road feeling through the wheel. Instead of using a series of springs to give the illusion of the feel of the road, as proposed by Alfieri, an extremely complex hydraulic governor was constructed, giving virtually no sense of effort in straight-line steering, and maximum effort at full lock.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1973 Citroën SM

This car sold for $8,155, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Geneva auction, held March 10, 2003.

A friend once said of the SM, “It was the greatest handling and riding car, if you have never driven another car before.”

The front-wheel disc brakes were mounted inboard, with calipers so complicated that master mechanics cried when they had to service them. All this was mounted in a very sturdy (and heavy) monocoque, clothed in a Citroën-designed, very aerodynamic and moderately ugly body.

In order to accommodate all the gadgets and widgets, the grand touring 2+2 coupe offered virtually no useful room in the rear seats, and the trunk space was minimal. At close to 3,000 lb, it was not exactly a dragster.

However, the PR department excelled in marketing it and the motoring press of the period loved it, bestowing awards left and right. In 1972, it was selected as Motor Trend’s car of the year.

The initial success of the car was largely due to people buying it on the strength of period motoring press’ glowing reviews, and then being ashamed to admit that they made a mistake. But the end of the Citroën-Maserati partnership was near. In ’73, Fiat pulled out. Michelin quit at the end of ’74, and tight-fisted Peugeot became the owner of Citroën and the Maserati-Citroën holding company. Nearing bankruptcy, Citroën was acquired for a rock-bottom price. And the demise of the SM followed soon thereafter.

SMs trade in a very thin market. While a few in the US that have been perfectly restored by specialists can bring up to $30,000, most bedraggled ones change hands in the $8,000 to $10,000 range, and are no bargains at that. Let’s hope the buyer of this car got lucky, and has a car with no rot, perfect service records and no immediate needs. In that case, he paid a fair price for a car that will look quite natural each morning making its coffee and baguette run into the village center before heading to the shop for its daily service.-Raymond Milo

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