The dawn sun rises behind the distant mountains, filtered by haze, and between the long shadows misty shafts of light punctuate the sweeping and utterly deserted road ahead. As dream drives go, we’re in the right place – the Route Napoleon – and, as the offbeat bark of the Maserati V6 ahead of me confirms, this is definitely the right car to be in. The 5.30am start might have left us bleary-eyed as we left our hotel near Nice and headed north, but by the time we’d emerged into the mountains, the onset of the new day was all it took to put our senses on high alert.
Driving a Citroen SM along such an incredible road has been one of my life’s ambitions since long before I had a driving licence. The SM, modelled in 1:65 scale by Matchbox and resplendent in French Blue, was enough to spark a lifelong love affair. Just because of that miniature I wanted to know more and, aged ten or so, I ventured out, pocket money in hand, to buy my first ever car book: The Citroen SM Auto History by Jeff Daniels. It was the start of a slippery slope.
And it’s been a lasting obsession with this most majestic of grande routières. If there has been one problem between SMs and me, it’s this: they have always been tantalisingly out of reach. I never quite had the money to spare to buy one. Still, it doesn’t stop me enjoying other people’s SMs, such as Michael Quinlan’s fantastic example that I’m driving along the Route Napoleon on this beautiful August morning.
As for this legendary 200-mile road, I accidentally stumbled upon the Route Napoleon back in 2003 on a meandering South of France cruise in a Rover Vitesse. And I’ve longed to return.
It’s funny to think that the Route Napoleon’s origins lie in one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, even if my history teacher did his best to convince me that the Napoleonic War was actually a byword for sleepy Wednesday afternoons in class. Truth is, they could have called the N85 the Boulevard Bruxelles or the Rue de Reading and it would still be utterly magnificent to me.
But the more you read about its history, the more fascinating the road becomes. After doing his best to conquer Europe between 1799 and 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as Emperor of the French Republic – following his crushing defeat in Russia – and was exiled to the Italian island of Elba, where he was given sovereignty. You’d think he would have learned from his past follies. Instead of working on his tan and living out his final years in the Mediterranean sun, within months he had created his own small army and navy on the island. Shortly afterwards, Napoleon escaped Elba with the intention of retaking France by overthrowing Louis XVIII.
He arrived on the French shore on the night of 1 March 1815 and, after spending the night in Cannes, headed north accompanied by 1200 men. The route he took avoided the Rhône valley to the east, where he knew he’d soon be intercepted by the royal troops, and instead he climbed into the lower Alps through Digne and Sisteron on his way to Grenoble. Back in 1815 the route was composed of small trails and mule tracks, and torturous travelling conditions – it was a brave decision to go this way in snowy and punishing weather.
It took Napoleon and his army a week to travel the 200 miles to Grenoble, and when they arrived the Royal Fifth Regiment was waiting for them. Ever the emperor, Napoleon faced down the army, approached the regiment alone, dismounted his horse and, when he was within gunshot range, shouted: ‘Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.’ The soldiers immediately sided with him, and responded with: ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ Then they marched with Napoleon to Paris, where he enjoyed 100 days of power, before being banished to the Atlantic Island of St Helena to see out his days for his troubles. And no chance this time to do any sunbathing. I’m rather hoping that our drive in the little emperor’s footsteps will be rather less dramatic, and somewhat more successful.
It took Napoleon and his army seven days to make it to Grenoble but, thanks to the fine work undertaken by daring French road engineers, who completed the road we know today in 1932, we could do the route – and return to the coast – in as little as seven hours.
Because of our early start, the morning mist and low cloud are doing their best to scare photographer Tom into thinking we’re going to have a dull day behind the wheel. But I know full well that it’s going to be great. As soon as the scenery transforms from the desaturated greens of the hills beyond Grasse into the dramatic golden beiges of the rock that lines the gorge we’re now driving along, we know we’ve truly arrived on the great Route Napoleon that I remember.
The road is fantastic, and the car more so. With the scene now set for a memorable run, I jump into the driver’s seat. Michael’s looking slightly nervous now. And so he should be – his car is about the best SM in regular use I’ve ever seen – and it’s clear that he loves it as much as I would. ‘Take care,’ he smiles. But what’s unsaid is that he knows the SM is a troubling car to drive for the ham-fisted.
I don’t mind, and completely understand. I hardly look like a shrinking violet. But I’ve driven SMs before, and I’m one of the converted he will never need to preach to. Contemporary road tests often complained about the super-sharp steering and touch-sensitive brakes, but that was back in 1970, the time of the SM’s launch, when the Brits were only just getting used to the Cortina Mk3 and barely had much acqaintance with the idea of servo assistance at all. Many of those manufacturers who fitted power-assisted steering to their luxury cars – especially the Americans – tended to retain the standard rack, leaving drivers with the prospect of over-light steering combined with gearing that gave four turns lock-to-lock.
Of course, Citroen’s response was simple. And logical. Why have power-assistance for controls and not take full advantage of it? The result of that thinking was simple: Citroen adjusted the gearing of its oleopneumatically driven DIRAVI steering system to just two turns between locks – with a tight turning circle as well. Meanwhile, a rubberized floor-mounted button that responds to toe pressure, rather than movement, replaced the conventional brake pedal. In 1970, this was truly radical thinking.
In 2011, the gearing and assistance of the SM’s major controls are no longer quite so alien. As a result, a driver new to the SM and familiar with modern cars would feel far more comfortable with this car than, say, a Jensen Interceptor with its meatier controls. In short, the days of the ‘standing the SM on its nose’ and ‘twitchy steering’ clichés have long since passed. And if you read any from now on, treat them with the disdain they deserve.
As I climb behind the small, fat-rimmed single-spoke wheel and take a view of the oval instruments, I sigh contentedly. Welcome to the future, 1970-style.
Firing up the SM is straightforward enough; it just takes time, as the engine is already warm and the carburettors like to evaporate their fuel.
The advice is to keep the throttle floored and churn away until it coughs; and when it duly sparks up, first with a sputter and then a loud pedal-assisted whoosh, the SM sounds wonderful. Michael’s car has been retro-fitted with a Maserati Merak SS-specification 220bhp version of Alfieri’s chain-driven quad-cam V6, and its bark is somewhat more purposeful than the standard 170bhp SM’s.
Getting ready for the off, surprisingly, I’m quite nervous. Maybe it’s the fear of disappointment. That old saying about never meeting your heroes. And the combination of this car and this road are most certainly that. But here’s a strange thing: the light steering and progressive clutch make this a seriously simple car to drive away and feel comfortable in. I love the driving position: you’re semi-reclined in a soft leather armchair, and everything is where it should be. The cylindrical gearknob is lovely but not quite as wonderful as the way the stick it’s attached to slides between gears. It’s creamily effortless yet mechanically direct in feel.
As the speed builds, it becomes clear that the SS-spec upgrade finally delivers the E-type-crushing potential the SM needed to become that era’s greatest-ever long-distance GT. Previously you would have to wind the V6 up to 4000rpm for it really to fly, but this one picks up seamlessly from far lower in the rev range. And although the standard SM’s an astonishingly quick car point-to-point, this is a different matter entirely.
Maximum speed according to Michael is ‘around 150mph’, compared with 135mph for the standard one. In the real world, the extra power makes itself felt when you’re mixing it with traffic. Where a 170bhp SM requires work to get round slower cars, in this one you flex your ankle and the thing just lifts its nose and passes without a care in the world.
We’re heading for the bends now and, like all demanding roads, the Route Napoleon really focuses the mind. With the sheer rockface to the right and a modest barrier separating us from the gorge to our left, I just get on with it and head into the first corner. Being a Citroen, this isn’t a car you throw into bends – do so and it will lurch in the most undignified manner. Instead, feed it in with your fingertips, and feel the ample grip on fresh Michelin XWXs. Those used to more sporting GTs might find the amount of body roll unacceptable, but for me it’s fine – and fine because the transition into roll is controlled and consistent. But only if you’re smooth.
We’re pushing on now, this marvelously sinuous piece of road beginning to tighten up – the sweeps are becoming shoelace-like, and the straights just that little bit shorter. The tighter bends rarely demand more than half a turn of lock, and this really does feel like perfection. I have to keep telling myself that it’s the Hydropneumatics that are imparting ‘feel’, while the DIRAVI system’s constant desire to return to the centre position is felt as weight.
As for the handling, at no point does the SM become unruly. Pushing it harder, but still remaining smooth, you will eventually encounter gentle understeer that’s signalled by a squeal from the loaded XWX at the front. You’ll need to be going pretty quickly to meet this point, so it’s generally a good moment to back-off. And, unlike with many powerful front-wheel-drive cars, there’s a gentle tuck-in and not a trace of lift-off oversteer. It’s safe and predictable. I like it.
Now the road’s plunging downhill and it’s time really to test the brakes, and, far from being over-sharp and lacking in feel, they’re wonderful. They demand a gentle touch, but the car dives little under braking, inspiring huge confidence. The approach to this tricky section of road is simple: brake, sweep, and hold on.
As the road flattens out and the next plain opens in front of us we take a break, and I jump out to take stock of the styling, inspired by the way the SM drives. Like all great Citroens, the SM polarises opinion – you either love or hate it; there really is no middle ground. Michael’s example is about as good as it gets condition-wise and, now that the sun’s beginning to shine, its silver metallic paint is really starting to glisten. Like everyone, I’m fascinated by the sextet of Cibiés up-front behind their glass covers, and am pleased to see the inner set swivel with the steering as they should. If they were painted yellow and the registration plate between them was a traditional silver-on-black French item, this would be the coolest car ever.
But that imposing glass front and arrow-shaped nose are all about maximising aerodynamic efficiency. This continues through the tapered sides and unbroken roof/rear window line, and concealed rear wheels. Robert Opron’s team certainly produced a slippery car, with a clay model registering a drag co-efficient of 0.25 in Citroen’s wind tunnel. The production car is not that far behind, and would still put many modern cars to shame.
The details are what really sell the SM: the horizontally split bumper at the rear; the feature lines that melt away towards the front of the car; that cute little air intake on the aircraft-grade aluminium bonnet. They all help to define the SM beyond its lavish proportions and modernist interior. But the wheels are probably the pièce de résistance of Michael’s car. To the casual observer they might look like standard alloys but, in fact, they’re the optional RR-type reinforced resins, which weigh a mere 4.7kg apiece. Michael is convinced they make a difference to the handling. All I know is that they look fabulous and, if you want a set on yours, and you can find them, you’re looking at spending around €10,000. They’re part of the dream-spec SM I have in mind.
For the next stage, and on towards lunch, Michael takes the wheel, and I get a chance to enjoy the SM’s luxury. The seating position is perfect and the seats themselves are astonishingly comfortable – considering their age, they’re in great condition. But when we arrive at the first bend, I’m sliding around looking for something to brace against. The Gitanes-smoking GT men who bought these cars clearly travelled fast in straight lines only – unless they wanted their female passenger in their lap. Now there’s a thought.
Thankfully the Route Napoleon straightens out at this point, and we’re once again travelling through a valley. As we head towards Sisteron, we take a detour around the unfeasibly blue waters of the Lac de St Andre Les Alps and, as this road is slightly rougher than what came before, it’s a great opportunity to feel how the SM rides. Predictably, it’s brilliant. It might be firmer than a DS but, compared with all of its GT opposition, the SM is utterly cosseting. Snuggling back into the seat, it’s easy to imagine less demanding passengers might well find themselves drifting off to sleep.
As the morning turns into afternoon, and the topography changes into wide, sweeping and interesting mountain roads once more, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that there are few cars – new or old – that can be had for the £25,000-30,000 a good SM costs these days that would handle the Route Napoleon as well. Michael Quinlan’s example might well be just about perfect, and has been uprated during his 20 years of ownership, but it shows how right Citroen got the car in the first place – and how cruelly the world was robbed when the after-effects of the 1973 oil shock killed the global demand for large cars. Including the SM, which died in 1975.
But more than that, it shows just what a towering achievement the SM is. Citroen was an ambitious company in the late 1960s, but it was hardly cash-rich. To build the SM at all was a huge strain on resources – the company was also in the midst of developing the GS and CX – but to have built a car that stands up so well today is remarkable. It’s also amazing to think that much of the technology the car featured four decades ago has only recently been adopted by less adventurous manufacturers. Think adaptive lighting, ultra-quick steering and hyper-aerodynamics: Citroen has been doing so for 40 years.
As we head back towards the coast, we make a brief stop-off in the sleepy Provencale town of Castellane. At least, it’s usually sleepy. But now it’s August, the height of the holiday season, and the place is packed with tourists. And when we finally squeeze the SM into a parking space mere inches longer than the car itself, admirers and the plain curious immediately mob it.
Over coffee and a pizza, Michael and I discuss what it is about the SM we love so much. He nails it: ‘There’s no other car that looks like it, no other car that handles like it, and no other car that goes like it.’
On the Route Napoleon, this has certainly proven true; a real wake-up call after the early morning start. This is a world-beating car, a charismatic French icon that has feasted on this amazing road. It will take more than this run through Provence in honour of France’s infamous emperor to faze the SM.