1973 Citroën SM Coupe

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.