6 July 2017

The seldom-seen Citroen SM is a Concorde for the road

Call it a crossbreed of French futurism and Italian soul, a jet-sleek Citroën powered by a growling Maserati engine. The Citroën SM, built from 1971–75 but sold in the U.S. only through 1973, might be one of the motoring world’s most unlikely mashups. This unique grand touring coupe, which won Motor Trend’s Car of The Year award in 1972 and wowed all who drove it, can still make onlookers take second looks—and third and fourth.

If you’ve never seen a Citroën SM in person, it’s because it was fairly rare to begin with, and because many of the 2,000 or so imported here perished from owner neglect. For a long time, values remained too low to justify investment for restoration. The SM is, however, getting attention from collectors. At the January 2017 Gooding & Company Scottsdale auction, a restored 1973 Citroën SM sold for $81,400 against a pre-sale estimate of $75,000–$100,000.

What makes this unique French GT so, uh, unique?

“The SM was designed at the same time as the Concorde,” said Brian Brandt, an SM owner and Citroën devotee in New York. “Both were made to bring prestige to France.”

Brandt, who drives his 1973 SM often, was of course referencing the Anglo-French supersonic airliner developed in the 1960s that began flying commercially in 1976. He also owns a Citroën DS and runs his own record label, Mode Records, for contemporary classic and jazz composers.

But how did this French car end up with a Maserati engine driving the front wheels? Go back to the Citroën DS, a car that was so far ahead of its time when introduced in 1955 that it was, in many ways, still quite advanced when Citroën stopped building it 20 years later. The DS introduced radical aerodynamic design and a novel hydropneumatic suspension that yielded an uncannily smooth ride.

For all its advances and renowned comfort, however, the DS never offered more than about 140 horsepower from a four-cylinder engine.

While developing a new high-end coupe in the ’60s, Citroën went looking for a more suitable powerplant, finding a V-6 under development at Maserati. Citroën ended up buying the whole company in 1968. Maserati would go on to use the V-6 to power its 1972 Merak mid-engine GT, a lower-priced sibling to the V-8 Bora. Many car buffs know the SM as the “Citroën Maserati,” although it was never officially called that.

French Flagship

Designed by Citroën’s head designer, Robert Opron, the Citroën SM looked ready for the 21st century when it arrived in 1971. The low, sleek, tapered shape was narrower at the rear than the front, as was the Citroën DS. The covered, six-headlight front end included Citroën’s steering headlights, although the U.S. models were saddled with exposed conventional lights. (Many American SM owners had had the French lights retrofitted.)

Inside, the Citroën SM offered a distinctive mix of high design and French opulence. In place of a conventional brake pedal, there is a large round button protruding from the floor, known as “the mushroom.” It responds to foot pressure but does not pivot like a conventional pedal.

The single-spoke steering wheel sprouting from a dashboard filled with oval gauges looked futuristic in the early 1970s. Soft pleated leather upholstery and tasteful chrome accents gave the SM cabin a feel that was somewhere between the elegant simplicity of a 1970s Mercedes and the lavishness of the period’s Jaguars.

The Citroën SM was featured on TV’s “Columbo,” driven by Patrick McGoohan in one of his four appearances as the murderer. (Columbo also drove a French classic, his dented but trusty Peugeot 403 convertible.)

The Maserati Song

The Maserati V-6 (2.7 liters at first and later 3.0 liters) gives 180 horsepower and issues a much more “growly” tone than today’s V-6s, with no help needed from trick mufflers or sound “enhancers.” A 5-speed manual was standard and is still preferred over the 3-speed automatic that was optional.

Acceleration was on par with the Mercedes 450 SL, with 0-60 mph in under 9 seconds. The 3,300-pound SM’s forte was comfortable, stable high-speed cruising—a Concorde for the road. The SM cost more than $13,000 in 1973, also in league with a premium Mercedes.

The Citroën SM makes an exceptional driver’s car today. “I still drive mine about 3,000 miles a year and love to use it whenever possible for long drives,” Brandt said. “She is reliable and just needs normal maintenance.”

Unfortunately, many SMs didn’t receive proper maintenance or repairs over the decades, especially as good Citroën and Maserati service became more difficult to find after the 1970s. (Citroën sold Maserati and abandoned the U.S. market in 1975.)

Getting the SM into a reliable state today, Brandt said, requires a few critical mechanical upgrades to make it reliable. Modifications to the engine’s valves and timing chain take an expert technician about two days to complete. Brandt knows, because he’s done the job working with a former Citroën factory technician.

One must get used to driving an SM, which has a reputation for acutely quick steering. It’s not simply hydraulically assisted, as in more conventional cars, but rather hydraulically operated. The system, called DIRAVI (a French-language acronym meaning essentially “power steering with controlled return”), varies hydraulic actuation according to vehicle speed. Even if you park the car with the wheels turned, as long as the engine was running, the wheel returns to center. The system, called SpeedFeel in the U.S., was also used in other Citroën and Maserati models. The driver must always be aware to the rapid self-centering and keep hands on the wheel.

The SM’s ride quality, however, is love at first ride. The hydropneumatic suspension sublimely shrugs off bumps and ruts on Manhattan’s Westside Highway.

“Once you get acclimated to this car,” Brandt said, “nothing else you drive feels right.”

3 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ken W Nelson MI July 9, 2017 at 12:01
    Citroen really abandoned the US market effectively in 1973, not '75. Very few '73s made it into the country. Unfortunately, the car came in with some crucial design flaws that gave it a bad rep - an overloaded primary timing chain driving a jackshaft which in turn drives 4 cams, the AC pump, hydraulic pump, emissions air pump, and the alternator - all of which led to chain stretch and the trashing of many engines as the chain jumped time. But thanks to some dedicated US enthusiasts with creative engineering backgrounds, all the inherent design problems now have solutions that make the cars far more reliable. When GM bought their "test" SM, an exec there told me that car NEVER sat still - there was a signup line of engineers and execs wanting a chance to drive the car! Not only that, but when Automotive Engineering magazine, the best rag in Detroit for engineers, put an "advanced lighting" article on their front page somewhere around 2000, guess what cars were recognized for their superior lighting? The DS21 and SM, with their pivoting, self-leveing headlights leading the cars around corners. Of course the DOT hadn't a brain in their heads when they outlawed those lamps.
  • 2
    Jerry Swenson California July 11, 2017 at 00:06
    Wow! I just love the look of this car and it looks big enough for a family inside too. Plus it is a Maserati link: a line of cars that I look to be on line with their prime competitor, Ferrari. Just to imagine driving one of these beauties down the street makes my feet want to dance!
  • 3
    Moss Jacobs Illinois July 13, 2017 at 15:23
    I bought an SM in 1993 from a guy in Chicago that claimed it was Gray market, it was titled to Studebaker in south Bend Indiana, possibly for R&D? had a host of issues from day 1, but i knew that would happen.. it was awesome.. i was nervous to drive it and had a bunch of other cool toys at the time so it just sat, sold it in 2000 for $2,500 .. it was nearly perfect... i wonder where it is or what its worth now...

Join the Discussion