The coolest French car of all time joins the Mullin Museum’s Citroën exhibit

Citroën SM on a trailer

What’s the coolest French car ever made? Nope, you’re wrong. It’s the Citroën SM, the fragile Franco-Italo dreamboat that exudes ‘70s, brown-on-brown, Continent-crossing cool. But not just any Citroën SM. It’s a bright red example that reached 200 miles per hour at Bonneville, setting two class records in the process, complete with moon-disc wheels and a hydropneumatic suspension—just as God and André Lefèbvre intended.

French seduction

Jerry and Sylvia Hathaway built the SM through their shop, the aptly-named Citroën SM World, based outside Santa Clarita, California. In 1972, Hathaway was working at Irv White Buick on the corner of Third and La Brea in Los Angeles, doing alignments on Buicks all day, as he had for nearly 10 years. He was “bored to death.” When the dealership decided to add Citroën, things got interesting. Every other technician stayed far away from the Citroën’s hideous complexity, and rightfully so, but Hathaway found it intriguing. Soon, he was obsessed.

“Everything about the SM was so different from a Buick,” Hathaway says. “It was from a different planet, you know? Here we have this car that’s got the motor in backwards, the suspension has no bushings, and everything you look at and everything you touch was absolutely different from a Buick. The more I worked on it, the more I liked it.”

Citroën SM pickup
Citroën SMs at the Mullin Museum
Citroën SM wheel detail
Citroën SM seat detail

Hathaway set out on his own in 1976. He began to hoard Citroën parts. The French automaker bestowed him factory-certified status, which must have made things easier. If you wanted your SM restored—hell, if you still held on to your fabulous spaceship after all these years—his shop became the only game in town. One of his customers was Jon McKibben, who in 1971 rode a Honda Hawk streamliner at the Bonneville Salt Flats and became the first man to break 286 mph on a motorcycle. (A year later he crashed at 270 miles per hour, but survived.)

Braving Bonneville

McKibben brought an SM to Hathaway for service and remarked that it would be a great car to take to Bonneville. In no time, they hatched a plan. “I would build a motor, he would build a cage, he would haul it to Bonneville and run it for a record, and then run back, put the stock motor back in, and prepare for the next year,” Hathaway recalls. “Then, without ever saying a word to us, he got sidetracked in Formula C racing. We said, wait a minute, what happened to our Bonneville project? He said, ‘Oh, I got into something else.’”

The year was 1978. By then, Hathaway had his first-ever parts SM, which had been rear-ended. He decided to turn it into a race car, vowing “it’s gotta be perfect; it’s gotta be something spectacular.”

Race Citroën SM in the Mullin Museum
Mullin Museum

Atop the SM’s 3.0-liter Maserati V-6—the stock engine block—came ported heads, forged internals, and triple Weber carburetors, good for 250 horsepower. In May of 1979, Hathaway took the car to the El Mirage dry lake north of Los Angeles, and a few months later to Bonneville, where he set two class records, reaching 151.249 miles per hour.

“I loved the power of the blown Top Fuel dragsters and funny cars, I loved lots and lots of horsepower,” Hathaway says. “If I ever had much money, I would’ve been a drag racer.”

For the next decade, the Hathaways gunned for the vaunted 200-mph limit. The car received two AiResearch turbochargers, a setup that would remain for the rest of its runs. In 1981, the wind was bad at Bonneville. In 1982, it rained, and everyone went home. In 1983, it was still wet, so everyone went home. In 1984, it was still wet, but not as bad as the previous year, so Hathaway made his licensed passes, but every time he reached 15-psi of boost, the tires would spin on the wet salt, and he couldn’t break above 194 mph, so “that was a wasted year.”

Citroën SM Bonneville speed records
Citroën SM El Mirage speed records
Citroën SM rear
Mullin Museum

Finally, in 1985 the course was dry, the salt was nice and firm, and Hathaway gave it another try. On the return from his record run, the right rear tire blew—or so he thought—so he backed off. The tire was fine. He got back on the throttle again, but it was too late. “Wasted a bunch of real estate,” as he put it. But it was just enough. The SM squeaked past the goal and reached 200.002 miles per hour—just enough to break into the 200-mph club.

Two years later, the Hathaways returned. This time, Jerry wanted his wife Sylvia to join him in that exclusive club—she would be the second woman to do so, and they would be the second couple. Tanis Hammond of Santa Barbara, California, beat Sylvia to it, reaching 251 mph in a streamliner (she would eventually join the 300-mph club, topping 314 miles per hour). Two days later, Sylvia climbed into the SM and drove it to a record of 202.301 miles per hour.

“So Sylvia became the third woman in the club,” Hathaway says. “But she was the first woman in a production-body to get in.”

And then, somewhere along the line, some miscreant stole the Hathaways’ pickup truck and trailer. Most people would file a claim and hopefully get their truck and trailer back, or buy another Silverado or F-150 and another trailer. Instead, the Hathaways turned an SM into a pickup truck with matching trailer. Using everything he learned from Bonneville, Hathaway worked six years to design the trailer, and 10 more to build it.

Citroën SM drag parachute
Citroën SM Bonneville land speed trails
Citroën SM interior
Citroën SM race number detail

The hydropneumatic system on the race car was moved to the back. Using the hydraulic braking system, it could be self-contained, using valves to open and close the system, and operated by aircraft switches from the pickup truck. “The truck and trailer will stop faster than an SM on its own,” Hathaway says.

So the coolest French car in the world may very well be a Citroën SM turned into a pickup truck. Shorn of its three-sided rear window, and equipped with moon-disc hubcaps, it looks surprisingly apt to be a pick-em-up from the future. (We’ve seen the new trucks on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit—why can’t they all be so streamlined?)

Of course, it has competition in the same museum.

The three vehicles have their own monikers: the Bonneville car is the Race SM, the pickup is the Works SM, and the trailer is known as the Port SM. If you go to Oxnard, California, you can witness all three jaw-dropping SMs at the Mullin Museum, the cathedral of all things French-obsessed.

Citroën SM race engine
Mullin Museum

The exhibit, titled Citroën: The Man, The Marque, The Mystique will be showcasing 46 of Citroën’s greatest cars, including such luminaries as the Citroën H-Van; the CX; the Traction Avant, which you could have purchased for cheap two months ago; the 1919 Type A, Citroën’s first car; some of Henri Chapron’s rare DS coupes, including a Majesty Limousine; the brutally wonderful Ami; a floating DS; and a replica Eiffel Tower with the legendary CITROËN letters down the side, lit up.

Only one of those Citroëns, however, put the Hathaways into Bonneville’s hallowed 200-mph club.