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Pleasure & Pain - Citroen SM

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It's the SM's 40th birthday - although you would never guess, from seeing it. This Citroen still looks like nothing else, and drives like a goddess...

Rarely has a car been more appropriately named. SM might have stood for Speciale Maserati back in 1970, but today those letters have far more dubious connotations, thanks to the literary prose of Donatien Alphonse François – marquis de Sade – and Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. And, as any owner of France’s most dramatic post-war GT will tell you, this big Citroen is capable of delivering pain and pleasure in equal amounts.

Yet in 1961, when the manufacturer first set about creating a new French national flagship, thoughts of pain would have been a million kilometres away from the team tasked with shaping the car. In fact, the birth of the SM was influenced by two strong trains of thought: reliving the glorious pre-war creations of Bugatti, Delage and Talbot-Lago, as well as filling the vacuum left by the departure of Facel Vega; and taking the Deesse concept of 1955 and evolving it into its ultimate form, ready for the 1970s.

From the desire to produce Né’s more powerful DS sprang the SM. Ordinarily, taking an ageing middle-class saloon and trying to create something special from it would result in disappointment. But when that car was as daring and adventurous as the DS, there’s a certain logic to such a decision. Thanks to its low-slung proportions and daringly swooping aerodynamic body, it looked like nothing else on earth. But key to its majesty was its technical make-up – Hydropneumatic interconnected suspension and powered disc brakes gave the modestly priced saloon a genuinely exotic feel.

The question of how to create that engine was answered in January 1968. These were expansionist times for the major car manufacturers, most of which were going through a ‘grow or die’ period. Corporate mergers were all the rage. To outsiders, Citroen’s riposte to the mood of the moment was baffling to say the least – when the firm purchased a controlling interest in Maserati, industry watchers wondered why.

Especially as, concurrently, Citron was stretching itself elsewhere: it purchased Panhard and Berliet, as well as formed joint ventures with NSU (to work on Wankel engines) and Fiat(to form the short-lived Pardevi company). But for Bercot, Maserati’s integration into the family made perfect sense: it focused Projet S, as the Italian marque would build its engine. Within days of the takeover, Citroen abandoned Walter Becchia’s continuing six-cylinder powerplant programme. Instead, Bercot tasked Maserati with developing a new V6 for the SM. Maserati chief engineer Ing Giulio Alfieri set about designing a fresh unit from scratch using the Indy V8’s tooling. It needed to be compact and light in order to work with Citroen’s traditional FWD layout, which forced the gearbox forward of the axle line.

Turning the 4136cc Indy into a sub-2.7-litre V6 to fit into France’s 15CV puissance fiscale tax band required a shorter-throw crankshaft and a reduction in stroke from 85 to 75mm. A one-millimetre smaller bore size was the final modification needed to get the capacity down to a tax-friendly 2670cc, although further work was essential to allow the powerplant to work with Citroen’s twin-shaft five-speed manual gearbox.

The Maserati-developed V6 was certainly sophisticated – and so it should have been, effectively being three-quarters of a supercar motor. It was all-aluminium, had quad camshafts and, at 140kg dry, it was exceptionally light. Being based on the V8 left it with a 90˚
vee-angle, which was far from the ideal 60˚ that V6s favour. Conceptually, that was how it was going to be – the Indy V8, simply shorn of two cylinders – but, as things turned out, it ended up being all new apart from the cam followers.

It was a remarkable achievement by the Italians. Alfieri had been given six months to come up with the initial Indy V8-based V6 prototype, and he did the job in three weeks. His target was to produce an engine with 150bhp, yet in the end the offbeat V6 was capable of delivering 200bhp depending on camshaft profile. In production form with three Weber 42DCNF2 carburettors, it would make do with 170bhp.

As for the rest of the SM’s technical package, it was a mixture of DS carry-overs and innovations, rather than further revolution. But as the 1955 car was so far ahead of the game anyway, the SM would still emerge as a machine that was at least 20 years before its time. Suspension was a refined version of the DS’s Hydropneumatic set-up, while the braking system remained powered by the suspension hydraulics; it now had discs all round instead of a mixture of discs and drums.

The main innovation was the steering. The SM’s powered system was known as VariPower (or DIrection à RAppel asserVI – DIRAVI – if you were French), and was a speed-sensitive set-up that was distinguished not only by its super-high gearing of two turns from lock to lock, but also by its hydraulically assisted self-centring. The system’s party trick was that it would always pull the wheel to the centre, engine running or not. And the faster you went, the less assistance you got. Sounds artificial but, as we will see, it works a treat on the roads.

As for the styling, Citroen really wanted to make a massive splash. Although at the time of the car’s launch no single designer was credited, it’s now known that the SM was mostly the work of styling chief Robert Opron. As a piece of design, it remains a true love-it-or-loathe-it effort – the long nose, curved rear window and drooping tapered flanks take some getting used to. It also has good and bad angles. Yet there was no denying its aerodynamics – in the wind tunnel the original model boasted a drag coefficient of 0.25, while the production car was nearer 0.34 (still better than the much-lauded 1983 Ford Sierra). But thanks to a glazed and grille-less front-end dominated by six Cibié halogen headlights – with the inner two set up to swivel with the steering, allowing you to see round corners – it had huge autoroute presence, with little chance of being mistaken for any other car.

The latter stages of Projet S development were completed in remarkably little time. Barely more than two years after the French company’s purchase of Maserati, it debuted the SM at the Geneva Auto Salon. The press and public were blinded by science, especially as the car was displayed alongside the equally futuristic GS – the gap-filling family model (which also rode on Hydropneumatic suspension and sported a Kamm-tailed wind-cheating body) that showed the world Citroen really was at the cutting edge. And in the spring of 1970, the SM was as cool as Brigitte Bardot in a little
black Chanel dress.
 
Of course, in the starry-eyed optimism of the opening weeks of the new decade, the SM really did appear to have it all. When the magazine road testers got their hands on the car over the following months, its allure weaved a spell that had them reaching for new superlatives. Enthralled by unheard-of levels of straight-line stability, combined with ultra-responsive steering and brakes, Autocar magazine spoke in terms of being able to fling the SM around ‘like a Lotus Elan’ in tight corners.

But the Citroen gave out mixed messages that the road testers took time to fully understand. VariPower was a new experience, and seduced them into thinking the model handled like a sports car – yet in reality, the SM still understeered and rolled like a DS; perfect for France’s indifferent back roads. It’s just that with two turns from lock to lock and artificial feel through the small, fat, single-spoke wheel, the steering was telling fibs. However, to rough-house the SM was to entirely miss the point.

Citroen SM guru Andrew Brodie has proven the car’s ability on road and track. ‘Team Brodie won the 2007 Tour Auto Regularity using my SM, with Bob Linwood driving and his wife navigating. We came second equal in Tour de España, and last year won Tour Britannia, so the car can’t be as bad as some people reckon,’ he says. ‘It is the finest GT ever made. No vehicle has the dynamics of the SM, and you won’t find another that steers as well. The faster you go, the more confident you get.’

And that’s the point. It was – and remains – a GT car par excellence. ‘The difference is the straight-line composure,’ Brodie continues. ‘You don’t come off on bends, either, and it doesn’t wallow.’

He’s right. Driving a standard example today takes much less getting used to than it must have done in the early 1970s, yet you still require a mental reboot to get the best out of an SM. It’s a wide car, and outward visibility isn’t its strongest point, but it’s the steering that will dominate your impressions. The set-up is delightful and cerebral – on the road, you’ll rarely need more than a quarter
of a turn, but the hypersensitivity discourages a lazy driving style.

Instead, you’ll be inclined to hold the wheel at the ten-to-two, and never will you want to drive one-handed (because the weight of resting a single hand on the wheel will have an SM turning), or allow the wheel to slide through your fingers exiting a bend, such is the strength of the self-centring. As for attacking bends, you feed the car in, allowing it time to settle into its roll angle; pitch an SM in, and it’ll lurch in an unseemly manner.
Compared with the GT price opposition of its day, such as the Jaguar E-type Series 3 and Jensen Interceptor, the SM was considerably down on power. A standard 0-60mph time of around nine seconds was middling at best, although the 137mph maximum speed was exceptional for a 170bhp car of this size. But that slightly offbeat-sounding V6 was more than man enough for the routes nationales and autoroutes you would enjoy on the way down to the Côte d’Azur. And although overtaking in an SM was harder work than in its muscular British rivals, holding high speeds and maintaining your averages was easier thanks to its overall levels of chassis refinement.

Yet the SM enjoyed only a fleeting honeymoon in the marketplace; probably because its appeal was more limited than Citroen had
ever anticipated. In 1971, the model’s first full year of production, 4988 rolled off the line – but in 1973, when the effects of the world economic crisis were beginning to affect all large car sales, that total dropped to 2619. And the following year, when Peugeot wrested control of Citroen from its long-time partner Michelin in a Government-brokered deal, production fell off a cliff to a mere 294. But by then, Citroen was fighting for its very survival thanks to its loss-making habit, an inability to amortise the SM and GS’s development costs, and tooling up for CX production.

Despite huge investment in the project, Citroen developed the SM sparingly. Electronic fuel injection arrived in 1972, upping the top speed to 142mph, and a 3-litre auto version was added the following year. But that was it. The SM’s high-pressure hydraulics found their way to the Maserati range – with VariPower making the Khamsin uniquely responsive at the helm in the supercar set – and its engine was installed in the Bora to create the Merak. Yet remarkably little of the SM’s technology, beyond the steering system, filtered into the rest of the Citroen range.

And that made it a high-profile loss-maker in the eyes of Peugeot’s accountants. Citroen had seen the dead hand of its new master being readied to kill the SM, and tried to head it off by setting up a deal with Ligier to quietly build the model at its factory in Abrest. But the arrangement took time to establish, and Ligier produced a mere 135 examples before Peugeot finally axed the SM – after off-loading Maserati in May 1975. Once that decision was made, the bosses didn’t even allow Ligier to assemble the final few unfinished cars, ordering them to be sent to the crusher instead. And that was it: the SM was dead after a mere 12,920 had been built during a five-year production run.

It would be easy to blame the fuel crisis and a stumbling world economy for the death of the SM, but in reality it was a car that few really understood. And even fewer actually lived the romantic Nice-by-lunchtime lifestyle for which the model was so clearly conceived (and which was so beautifully captured in Citroen’s brochures and press photos). Even while the car was in production, it was earning a reputation for unreliability – and not from the complex suspension system which lay-people continue to fear to this day, but due to the Maserati engine.

The weakness of the rear timing chains that drove the V6’s overhead camshafts was well documented, and word soon spread that the SM was a fragile beast. The oil pump and ignition system were also failure-prone, as was the air-conditioning. Citroen’s response was to sweep the problems under the carpet, and it wasn’t until much later, when the specialists got their hands on the SM, that these issues were resolved. Had it survived the Peugeot takeover the model might have recovered with factory fixes, but that’s a matter for conjecture now.

Yet the reputation for fragility stuck, and even today – 40 years on from its launch – enthusiasts will shy away from an SM, afraid of its engine and worried the suspension system won’t work. Which is probably why the French masterpiece remains such an underrated commodity. But the truth is that the SM is a dependable car for an understanding owner – and one that’s just so magnificently cool.

Stuart Ager, who runs Brodie Engineering, still sees his fair share of SMs. He maintains that solutions to the V6’s problems are now very well known. ‘Fuel-injected engines should be fitted with an idle-up valve to better cope with the air-conditioning in traffic,’ he says. ‘Original, hollow-stem exhaust valves are an Achilles’ heel because the heads can snap off, especially if the engine hasn’t been run for some time. Solid valves solve the problem, so it’s important to check that this has been done.’

The weakness of the timing chains, so long the bane of the SM, is also completely curable. Ager explains: ‘There were several modifications for the rear chains, including one for an uprated curved tensioner and another for the oil spray to it. Make sure these have been done. The original air-con pump is driven by that chain via an auxiliary shaft; if the pump seizes it can cause major damage if not fitted with a safety cut-out that was introduced by Citroen in the US but not in Europe.’

As Andrew Brodie himself says, the V6 can be made to run with ease to 100,000 miles on modern oils once these three essential modifications have been carried out. Timing chains sold nowadays last three times longer than they did 40 years ago, as the product has improved. As for fears about those worrisome suspension problems? ‘Rubbish!’ Brodie exclaims. ‘Citroen had been building Hydropneumatic cars since 1954, and had got it pretty much right by the mid-1960s when it changed to using mineral oil.’ It’s a system that’s still in use today, too – albeit with computer control – in the C5 and C6 models.

So, ultimately, if you desire to put an SM in your garage, you need not worry too much about feeling the pain of your masochistic passions. Bag one with a fit body, which has enjoyed loving
former keepers, and you’re going to be in for an amazing ride. Sacher-Masoch may have said, ’You have a curious way of
arousing one’s imagination, stimulating all one’s nerves, and making one’s pulses beat faster,’ about the beautiful Wanda in
his book Venus in Furs, but those words hold equally true about the Citroen SM. Enjoy its pleasures…

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