The Pain and Pleasure of the Citroën SM
There have been some pretty strange pairings throughout automotive history: Lamborghini and Chrysler, Ford and Aston Martin (really, the whole Premium Auto Group), Mitsubishi and AMG, the list could go on. But none of them produced something as truly collaborative and weird as the Citroën SM, a cutting-edge grand tourer that represented the peak of automotive engineering for four brief years in the ’70s, before disappearing without a trace. For decades, it was thought to be too complex, too temperamental, too expensive, too weird to be remembered as anything other than a curiosity. Thankfully, nearly 50 years on, Citroën‘s iconoclastic GT is well on its way to becoming a legend.
The SM story begins in 1968, when Citroën acquired Maserati. The legendary Italian sports car builder was badly in need of a cash infusion, and found a savior in the French company, entering into an partnership with it in January. Both companies immediately benefitted from the partnership (though Citroën was technically Maserati’s owner), with Citroën buying performance prestige, and Maserati gaining financial stability and access to its new owner’s technological know-how.
And Citroën was flying high in the 1960s. Its 2CV and its variants were selling in huge numbers, and the beautiful, avant-garde DS had become the unofficial car of the French middle class and government. But despite the success, the company (and to some, France as a whole) was lacking a certain amount of prestige without a world-class sports car, something the company set out to change, fast. Within weeks of buying Maserati, Citroën brass had tasked the company with creating an all-new V6 engine for its sports car — and it needed to be ready in six months. Astonishingly, the Italian engineers delivered with time to spare, delivering the design for a 2.7-liter, 90-degree V6 (just under the French tax on engines 2.8 liters and up) in just a few weeks.
For Citroën’s designers in France, they had a much easier task. The new car would be largely based on the long-running DS, borrowing its self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension, hydraulic brakes (albeit with four discs instead of two), self-centering steering, and unibody construction. Its body would be reminiscent of the bigger DS, albeit with a focus on performance. Its overhangs would be shorter, it would ride lower to the ground, and it would be even more aerodynamic than the already slippery sedan.
Less than 24 months after the project began, the Citroën SM (for Sport Maserati) made its debut at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. Like the DS had 15 years before, the car was a sensation. With its six headlights set under a glass nose (with the inner two turning with the car’s front wheels), its abrupt, chromed kamm-tail, and covered rear wheels, the big 16-foot GT car looked like a rolling sculpture — like any great Citroën should.
Inside, it was more of the same, the curved, segmented leather seats and swooping dashboard with single-spoke steering wheel looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under the hood, Maserati did its job admirably; the 2.7-liter V6 cranked out an impressive 170 horsepower to the front wheels, nestled far behind the front axles, giving the big car excellent weight distribution. Tipping the scales at 3,300 pounds, it went from zero to 60 in a leisurely 8.5 seconds — slow for performance cars of the era — but thanks to its wind-cheating design, could top out and an impressive 140 miles per hour.
Almost overnight, Citroën found itself in the center of the high-end sports car world. Starting at over $11,000 for U.S.-spec cars (around $65K today), the big GT was as expensive as the Ferrari 246 Dino and Porsche 911, and far pricier than the Jaguar E-Type and Chevy Corvette. Despite its size and weight, sluggish acceleration, and high buy-in, the SM was a success, with Citroën selling over 5,000 cars in 1970, and an additional 4,000 in ’71. In 1972, it was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for its combination of luxury, comfort, handling, and performance. Unfortunately, it marked the beginning of the SM’s sad decline.
French and Italian cars have never been known for their reliability, and the SM represented the worst of both worlds. A few years into ownership, SM owners began experiencing a number of problems with the V6, usually due to its complex timing chains or ignition system. Due to U.S. emissions standards, the company needed to modify the exhaust manifolds, which could lead to engine fires. Increasing safety standards (which had already forced Citroën to replace the SM’s complex but effective lighting system with a polarizing sealed-beam fascia) meant that federalizing the car for the U.S. market would cost the company a fortune, and after 1974, Citroën pulled up stakes and left the U.S. market altogether.
In 1973, the oil crisis blindsided the auto industry, and Citroën was more vulnerable than most. The company had lost more than $110 million (over $658 million today) since buying Maserati. In 1974, it declared bankruptcy and was taken over by rival Peugeot. SM production limped to a halt in early 1975, when Citroën sold the company to De Tomaso. It never built another luxury grand tourer again.
As the 12,900 or so SMs aged, they became curiosities. The Maserati engines proved to be robust if well-sorted, but the complex and temperamental hydropneumatic suspension system required expensive and time-consuming maintenance, and with virtually no Citroën support in the U.S., there are likely thousands of SM projects out there with sunken suspensions that haven’t been run in decades.
But that may change soon. The SM was unlike anything else in its day, and nothing else has really come close to it since. It’s comfortable and sure-footed at speed, and its space-age looks have only gotten better-looking to a younger generation of collectors. Preserved and restored examples have been climbing in value in recent years, and the renewed interest is likely to inspire people to restore tired examples too. Any restoration work on an SM is likely to cost a small fortune, and could drive you insane, but if it pays off, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most unique and unforgettable driving experiences in automotive history. If that isn’t incentive, we don’t know what is.