As the ever quotable Oscar Wilde wrote, a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
As prices have escalated over the past three decades, that aphorism certainly applies to many contemporary classic car collectors. If you have an interesting looking car, people come up and talk to you about it. My Citroën SM is now entering my 21st year or ownership so, over the years, I’ve got reasonably used to this, though my social grace occasionally lets me down. Sometimes the speaker is highly informed and might tell you something you don’t know. Sometimes they are like-minded enthusiasts who just want to make a pleasant comment or know a bit more.
Sometimes they just want to ask the same pointless questions – constantly re-occurring are “is that the one that goes up and down / the headlamps turn / has a Maserati engine / Burt Reynolds drove off the dock in The Mean Machine?”. These questions all get a polite but terse ‘Yes’, but the two questions I find it more difficult to answer are “‘Is that a classic then?” and “How much is it worth?”
What exactly is a ‘classic car’? An ‘old master’ isn’t just any painting made before the 19th Century, it also needs to demonstrate the skill of the artist. But, providing it has survived the ravages of rust, the most cack-handed Hillman can be presented by its proud owner as a ‘classic car’. I’m not really making a point here, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to think of their loved car as a ‘classic’, even if I might not agree. Certainly the idea of a classics committee that someone who has spent 5 years restoring a Morris Marina would have to prostrate themselves before in order to beg for inclusion into their hallowed ranks would be highly unpalatable
But it still remains an essentially meaningless term. Vintage, Edwardian and Veteran all have defined years, Classic just means that, at the far end, it’s none of those and, at the near end, you can’t find one new in a showroom today. If you try to define it closer than that, you step into a world of subjectivity. So, whatever I really think of its position in the history of motoring, if I concede to someone that my SM is a ‘classic’, I’m suggesting that someone else’s Avenger isn’t. So my general answer is “it’s just an old car” and they walk away disappointed.
In fact my Citroën was supposed to be a Morgan, and two more contrasting cars would be hard to find. In the wake of 1992’s Black Wednesday, old car prices had taken a battering, and were still waiting to recover. Throughout the 80s I’d watched in disappointment as a yuppy feeding frenzy took cars I’d once thought I might buy further and further from my grasp. But, once again, it had become a reasonable proposition to purchase something interesting at a sensible price. On an unseasonably warm Spring Saturday in 1996, I test drove a 12 year old, Old English White, Fiat twin-cam engined, Morgan 4/4 4 Seater with my partner. That evening we decided to buy it, but a casual look through the Classic & Sportscar back pages showed a garage in Ripley, 30 minutes away from home, with an interesting choice of vehicles, including a Citroën SM, a car that had always fascinated as much as, for a home mechanic of average ability, it terrified me.
Now follows a short synopsis of the Citroën SM, based in part on the various nuggets I’ve been asked to impart to bystanders during my ownership. You can skip this part if you wish. Introduced in 1970, the SM was a result of what was, in essence, a vanity project of Citroën President, Pierre Bercot, the purchase of Maserati. Citroën had been considering a GT type car, which might also morph into a 4 door DS replacement since the start of the 60s but access to Maserati’s engineering genius, Giulio Alfieri, allowed them to commission a suitable engine. The 4 cam, 12 valve, V6 was a new design, it wasn’t made by sawing a couple of cylinders off a V8. Since it did, however, suit to use Maserati’s existing machine tools which were set of for a 90 degree V angle, that was used for the six rather than the better balanced 60 degrees. Originally fed by three carburettors, in 1973 Bosch electronic injection was fitted boosting power to 178 bhp.
Despite the existence of the 7 litre Oldsmobile Toronado, in its time the SM was the fastest front wheel drive car in the World. The engine was mated to a modified DS gearbox, with a 5th gear, and with an automatic option, plus 3 litre engine, becoming available later. The Maserati engine was the only engine Citroen offered in the SM. There are some turbodiesel conversions using a 4 cylinder engine made by the resourceful garagiste, Georges Regembeau who also claimed to have extracted 300hp from some of his blueprinted versions of the Maserati V6 petrol engine. Suspension was derived from the hydraulic system of the DS but with slightly harder settings – a relative term in the case of an old-school Citroën. New was the DIRAVI steering, with two turns lock to lock, where power assistance diminishes with vehicle speed, with automatic self-centering and which, in normal use, has no mechanical connection between shaft and pinion and thus, no real feedback.
The whole car was built to a far better standard than the DS, with thicker steel and high quality alloys, the downside being a weight of 1450kg. The car styling was by Head of Design, Robert Opron, said to be working with independent design consultant Henri de Segur Lauve (who’d had a distinguished career at General Motors), and, without any hint of retro, it shows itself a conceptual descendent to the pre-War French streamliners. All official UK SMs sold were left hand drive. Although the SM was sandwiched into a string of ambitious projects – GS, Comotor Wankel and CX – that, ultimately, overstretched the company and led to the takeover by Peugeot, it was hardly a sales failure. It had a rocky start due to timing chain failures caused, in essence, by Alfieri’s over belief in himself – in fact the fix to the tensioner was very straightforward. But over 13,000 were built between 1970 and 1975 and, although its demise has been put down to the fuel crisis and unreliability, hindsight shows us that Peugeot were never comfortable with Citroën hogging the limelight.
Basically, no tears were shed by the grey men at Souchaux when it went and, in fact, there had always been a faction at Citroën who considered it an unnecessary distraction and, objectively speaking, history makes it hard to disagree. The car was never officially called a Citroën Maserati, the only place that the Maserati name appears is on the engine covers and, possibly, in the second letter of the model designation which might, or might not, stand for Série Maserati. And, yes, it is the car that Burt Reynolds drove off the dock in The Mean Machine (AKA The Longest Yard).
Sunday was also a nice day, so we drove down to the garage and looked at various interesting cars on the forecourt, including a 1930s Singer and an early Porsche 356 (surprisingly affordable back then, though the paint was suspiciously thick and shiny), but the SM was not to be seen. On enquiry we were led into a showroom section where a dark blue SM sat forlornly on its stops, its bonnet dull with bubbling paint along the leading edge. This looked an intimidating ownership prospect, made even less attractive for me by the fact that it wore vanity plates ending SM, something I’ve never understood or wanted.
Really we’d only gone down there because it was a sunny day and I was about to make my excuses and leave when the dealer told me the history. Owned from new by a Citroën dealership for 16 years, then sold at the height of the 80s classic boom to a collector, who’d just run it back and forth from annual MOTs, it had done just 24,000 miles and was being offered at half the price it had changed hands for seven years previously. By now I was sitting in it and the dealer asked me if I’d like to look under the bonnet.
“If I look under the bonnet, I won’t buy it” “Would you like a drive then?”
He got the keys, we got in, he started the engine, pushed the throttle and I heard the Maserati V6 come to life for the first time as the car rose. We went out into the road and he drove us up to the roundabout, once round and back towards his lot. We talked and I guess I established myself as responsible and serious because he stopped, got out and told me to take it off for a drive. This was the killer sales move. By the second corner I knew I wanted it. Although I recognised the definite kinship with various Citroens I’d owned or driven in the past, as a complete vehicle it was unlike anything I’d ever driven yet, despite what you normally read about the SM, for me it never felt anything other than natural to drive.
On closer inspection, everything about the car bore out the dealer’s claims. The boot seemed never to have been used, the spare wheel was pristine and the toolkit was still wrapped in its oiled paper. I knew enough to check that its timing chain tensioner had been modified, but otherwise I acted on blind faith. I made an offer for a sum of money I didn’t actually possess, which included the dealer rectifying the bubbling paint, and we were taken over to the local pub to celebrate our acquisition. I then went off to carry out the rather essential business of arranging a bank loan to pay for it and I picked it up the next weekend.
SM lore says drive a good one you’ll never want anything else, drive a bad one you’ll never want one at all. This was a good one, but obviously not perfect. Getting up to speed on an unevenly surfaced stretch of motorway caused the car to start bouncing oddly then, coming in to London off the M3 and climbing a curved flyover at 70, the front hopped disturbingly to the right over an irregularity. I decided not to put off any longer the inspection by an expert that a sensible purchaser would have done before he wrote the cheque. The result was that the front spheres were shot (an affordable and easy replacement) and that, beneath the dull paintwork and the wrinkled cloth upholstery, whose underlying foam had delaminated, it was probably one of the most original SMs in the UK and in excellent condition.
There are two problems with a timewarp car. First is that low mileage is not always as good a thing as it seems. It means the car has been sitting around unused for months or years on end, and items like seals, that appreciate a bit of lubrication, are just waiting to fail. But, apart from a throttle cable that broke a few weeks into ownership, the main cost was overhauling the air conditioning. This involved a new York compressor and condenser but I was lucky to find a great engineer to do this work who modified the mounting with a brace to prevent unwanted flexing. Two decades on, it’s only now beginning to suggest it needs a recharge.
It took a bit longer before I did the sums and it dawned that it was still sitting on the same Michelin XWX tyres it had been supplied with when new nearly, 25 years previously. Tread depth was fine, and in the dry they were OK, but, driving down off a mountain in a rainstorm, I realised they’d have to go. The Michelins are still produced to order and are horribly expensive, but I bit the bullet and got a new set. This improved things further and, although the car is designed for Grand Touring, it is surprising quite how nimble it can be. Specific to the SM from non-use is the possibility of the original sodium filled engine valves snapping with disastrous consequences, but this didn’t happen and I only changed them for solid valves last year when the engine needed to come out for rear chain and clutch replacement.
The other problem with a timewarp car is what do you do with it – cosset it or use it? With a total production of around 13,000 and over 300 sold in the UK, for me it wasn’t a problem. I had the chance to experience what a near new SM felt like, so I used it and enjoyed it. Over the next few years it piled on the miles, I drove it all year round, for work and holidays in Europe. I was once accosted in the snow one Christmas in Alsace by a guy in a BX torn between pleasure at seeing the car and horror that it wasn’t sitting tucked up in a warm garage for the Winter. This was the first time I became aware that some people don’t approve of the way I use my car. Probably I should polish it more and just use it on sunny days for special occasions. My response is that, although I would take issue with anyone who used a Rembrandt as a tablecloth, the SM is just a bloody car and I’m using it for what it was intended.
My lifestyle wasn’t, and isn’t, that of the original intended SM owner. I live in a terraced house in London and, at the time, I certainly couldn’t afford to rent a garage nearby. I promised myself that, one day, I’d rectify this, but I never have and, in fact, I don’t really want to. I like seeing it in the street and so do other people. Other people admiring it doesn’t massage my vanity, in fact, as I suggest above, I find people complimenting me on the car a bit embarrassing (after all my name isn’t Robert Opron), but I just think it’s nice that it gives people pleasure, which it does, but in a different, more innocent way from that of a Ferrari, say. As for use, for various periods it has been my sole 4 wheel transport – I’ve used it as a work run-around, for B&Q runs (a bit of ingenuity needed there) and for two long camping holidays in the summer (even more ingenuity required).
My only regret is that I planned to have the car comprehensively Waxoyled as soon as I got it, but was talked out of it by an SM specialist. I understand why he was against it, but had I explained my intentions he might have thought it was the lesser of two evils. In the end, even though I usually avoided very salty days, of course corrosion took its toll. What I’ve learnt about restoring cars is more a list of don’ts rather than dos. Having painting skills, but not having the time myself, I’ve put my confidence in others and, generally, have not been fully rewarded. Ten years ago I committed to a full respray and, since this would be costly, I decided that I’d change the colour from a sombre dark solid blue to a light blue, actually a pearlescent Audi finish, but an approximation of an original SM metallic hue. This was a bit like suddenly going blonde and, even now, I wonder if I shouldn’t return to my roots. The dark blue has a certain discretion to it.
Anyway, even after the bad detailing had been attended to by the half-hearted spray shop, within a year rust was appearing around one incorrectly welded rear wing and, within a couple of years, the single pack clear lacquer was beginning to blister on the roof. So, five years ago, it received a more comprehensive, bare metal respray which at least used decent materials, though there are still small issues. So, top of my dos and don’ts, if you do want a decent respray, don’t leave the spray shop. Take a sleeping bag and stay there until the job is done. If you find that impractical, then either go to the very best or learn to live with imperfection.
At the same time the interior was retrimmed. The preference for most SM owners seems to be leather. It might look good, but I prefer the feel of cool cloth, so chose dark blue Alcantara. Apart from the non-standard colour, there are other small details the knowledgeable would notice. The dimple on the fuel flap has disappeared (don’t ask), I’ve fitted clear, Italian style front flasher lenses, the rear upper bumper is the more elegant one piece pressing of earlier models and the little aerofoil disappeared from the passenger wiper blade during the respray. Here endeth the pedantry.
I’ve always treated the SM like a modern, with little concession, though I hope I’m a mechanically sympathetic driver. For many years I was blissfully able to ignore the car’s age but recently, those minor irritations have multiplied with things like rotting washer tubes and cracking window seals – in essence the car is being betrayed by its rubber. There is also a chronic wet starting problem if the battery charge is allowed to drop too much and a growing tendency to stall when sitting in traffic on hot days, with a grudging restart. I suspect, this all might be down to aged wiring. But all this can be fixed, and I will probably put my hands in my pockets and do so.
Twenty years ago there was a relative wealth of spares available, with cars coming in from the US to be broken. But now some parts are getting rarer, though there is enough demand for it to be worthwhile for people to remanufacture items like the headlamp glasses, though in acrylic rather that the original glass. There are also a few modifications that it’s been worth having done, such as a larger alternator, a/c cutout and electronic ignition.
The car has shrunk during my ownership. In 1996 it seemed almost as big as it was when launched – at 4.89 metres long it is marginally longer than an XJ-S although, in its favour, you can fit at least one reasonably sized adult into the back of the Citroen. Now, however, it often looks quite compact parked next to something modern.
There is a certain type of enthusiast, come to think of it maybe the sort who buys a Morgan, who considers the SM far too clever for its own good. I know what they mean, but I find that attitude unfair. It was launched by a very different company to the Citroën of today, and they were genuinely trying to implement technological innovations in order to improve their cars, not as a gimmicky selling point. Old Citroën was a bit aloof, suggesting a certain intellectual rigour and, often, journalists were a bit in awe of them.
Initially the car had fantastic reviews but, after a few years, once news got round of the car’s timing chains disgracing themselves, the journalistic consensus became that it was probably more trouble than it was worth and, for many, this seems to have stuck. On the other hand, racing journalist Denis Jenkinson, who one might have thought would have found it a bit effete, was a great admirer of the car. There is still much about the SM that is relevant today. When new it was criticised for the lack of feel to its steering and, indeed, there is no actual feedback at all. But although they might find the immediacy disconcerting, with two turns lock to lock and a 10.5 m turning circle, I doubt many modern drivers would worry about the lack of feel. And, anyway, it still manages to tell you what it’s doing in its own way.
The driving experience is quite unique. Acceleration was respectable for the time, but most similar capacity turbodiesels from the last 20 years could see it off. But then they, at best, make a repressed drone whereas the SM comes with the Italianate growl of a proper engine. The engine was kept down below 2.7 litres due to French tax laws, and it might have benefited from standard fitting of the 3.0 litre fitted to the Maserati Merak. But, in a way, that makes it a car for today’s roads in that you get the aural experience without losing your licence too easily.
Though if you want to lose your licence, it can oblige, cruising rock steady at 200 kph. The gearbox, with its unique rotating gate, is always a pleasure to use. It suits the Italian sportiness of the engine, but is maybe is slightly at odds with the Gallic softness of the chassis and the delicacy of the steering and brakes. A period version of paddle controls would have suited the car well, possibly a sort of updating of the Cotal electromagnetic gearbox fitted to many of its spiritual Grand Routier predecessors.
I like to think that I’m a good driver, by which I mean that I anticipate the road and understand what I’m driving can and can’t do. If we look at a quintessential ‘driver’s car’, as touted by motoring journalists, I’d suggest that it’s something that has a high level of ability, but one that transmits to the driver something of the work it is doing to employ that ability on the road. That transmission, usually defined by words such as ‘feedback’ or’ feel’ is essential because, sooner or later, at the limit, the car is going to bite you in some way or another. The fact that the driver can cope with this is the way that they measure their skill and derive their satisfaction from having ‘tamed’ the car. This was never the way with either of the two French companies who, in different ways, once upon a time mastered in suspension design, Citroën and Peugeot.
Put simply, they thought it best to assume that the driver was an incompetent, that the car knew best and should get on with its job discreetly. Give the car the highest limits you can and avoid any nasty vices, such as lift-off oversteer. That keeps the mediocre driver safe and if, by chance, you are a better driver, you can still exploit the car’s abilities to the full, once you understand its limits. For aerodynamic reasons, the rear track is 200mm narrower than the front and, undignified as it might be with high roll angles, this makes it most remarkably nimble, but in a uniquely Citroën way.
The SM is not a car that you grab by the scruff of the neck and give a good spanking to – you might want to tell it that you’re in charge, but it knows that it is. It doesn’t like the muscular approach. Both brakes and steering require minimal inputs, after a while you scarcely notice yourself doing it. It’s easy to calibrate your body to this and, once you have, other cars seem over-demanding. But if you’re a hand on the roof whilst you grip the wheel between your thighs and lean over to pick up a CD off the floor kind of driver …. then, oh dear, you’re in a ditch. Otherwise it’s a car that looks out for you.
For its time, it has high levels of grip. At one point I economised, switching from the Michelins to that one time affordable staple of classics with odd wheel sizes, the Pirelli P4000. On balance, they’re adequate, but really not suited to the way I’d want to drive the car, not great in the wet and generating an embarrassing amount of tyre squeal in the dry. Also, with large modern graphics on the tyre wall, they don’t look that nice. A switch back to a set of new XWXs three years ago was welcome, if not by my bank account.
An endless gripe is electric windows that need to be booked a month in advance – this is a shortcoming from new – and the swivelling headlamp mechanism that, instead of the mechanical system on the DS, uses a clever enough mini hydraulic system, but one that, like the window winding mechanism, seems to have been built from a home hobby kit. The Mazak door handle mouldings have pitted, the way Mazak mouldings do, which is a pity, but much of the rest of the brightwork is, in fact, stainless steel so it remains in fine condition.
A minor pleasure to me was discovering the ingenious rain-sensitive wiper control (basically the circuit was closed by a magnetic coil which, as the wipers laboured over a drying screen, took more current which heated the coil to its Curie Point where it lost its magnetism, thus opening the circuit and stopping the wipers until the coil cooled). However, the insulation on the coil wasn’t intended to last for 25 years and it caught fire one rainy night, was disconnected and has never been repaired – memo to self, this piece of electro-mechanical archaeology needs re-instating. Another weak spot has been the drive shaft for the high pressure hydraulic pump, which has rubber bushes that have failed twice (unanticipated age again), though this had a silver lining of sorts.
Having spannered previous cars, I vowed I would not get involved with the SM, which in truth made me feel a bit disappointed with myself. Stranded in Tooting one Saturday with minimal tools (when drive to the hydraulics goes, you’re dead), I stripped off the shaft, lashed it back together and even re-timed the distributor by ear, pretty straightforward really, but causing me a disproportionate amount of pride.
For me it’s a very comfortable car. The driving position is perfect and the seat cushions are made from a series of separate foam sections which provide independent support for the different parts of your body – though a nightmare to re-trim and guaranteed crumb catchers. The boot is dominated by the large spare tyre. The camping holidays I mentioned above needed a fair amount of hyper-ordered packing. I have a vague memory of once reading that a planned space saver spare was intended to go under the bonnet and that would have freed up a decent chunk of boot space.
Last year I finally acquired a set of original style door mirrors – in fact the stock items fitted to my car were original on UK vehicles, a result of the need to fit right and left hand mirrors. If you’re an SM completist, there are two other items you might want. A set of Michelin RR composite wheels and a Continental Edison radio. The wheels, developed for the SM (though Michelin had ambitions to sell them to other makers) are incredibly light but, crucially, look a lot better than the standard hubcaps, which seem rather like an odd aftermarket faux alloy. The radio was the only thing that fitted flush into the centre console of the car – mounted face up, it must be said that the position isn’t an ergonomic triumph. But at a current price of maybe €2,000 for the radio and at least €1,000 each for the wheels, so far I have resisted.
So, returning to the question I mentioned at the start of this piece, how much is my car worth? Actually, the SM market is quite odd. Stagnant for a long time, it seems to have risen relatively substantially over the past 2 or 3 years. So it isn’t easy to pluck out a figure and, honestly, although I have a vague idea, I have little interest. On a broader level the economics of old car ownership are complex. Buy new, and the car has usually shed maybe 3% of its value by the time you get to the end of the road. Ten years later it’s worth a fraction of what you paid. Possibly if you hang onto it for another 15 years its value will have risen again, but maybe not.
Two years after buying the SM, I bought a used Mondeo for almost the same price. A few years later I sold it for several thousand less than I paid and, today, that car doesn’t exist. On the other hand, a modern car might, if you are very lucky, have run near faultlessly for the time you own it – though the Mondeo didn’t. The market has had its ups and downs over the past 30 years but, generally, prices have risen appreciably, with some classics such as Aston Martins seeming to have risen exponentially in value since 1996. So you can think of old car ownership as an investment, but you can also ask the question as to how much your investment will be worth when the internal combustion engine is banned from your country’s streets, or at least radically prescribed, in 30, 20 or maybe just 10 years time.
Depending on mileage you can usually get a classic insurance that will cover a large-engined sports car for the same premium as a small modern hatchback. Maintenance is likely to consume either time, money or both, unless you really have bought it just as an investment, in which case you might leave it in the garage. Otherwise, it’s a false economy to skimp. Even if the car is well maintained, you might still also factor in the inconvenience of occasional breakdowns. As I’ve indicated, no car was ever designed with a life of 43 years in mind and, although some materials will never degrade, others are not so obliging. That said, I’ve seen enough moderns immobile at the roadside.
Would I recommend old car ownership? If you’re asking as a potential investor, then please accept an impolite suggestion as to where you might stick your portfolio. Otherwise it’s an individual decision and it will never be straightforward. I’m not in love with old cars for nostalgia’s sake. I don’t go to get-togethers dressed in flares and a leather bomber jacket pretending I’m Johan Cruyff (a well known owner of the period and, Wikipedia tells me, legendary soccer player), although I am quite good-natured about people who do. I care about the way cars look, but there are old cars that look good and drive like pigs, and I can’t say I’d ever want one of those.
For me, the SM’s rise in value has actually been reassuringly modest, at least relative to other cars that I’d personally judge to be rather mediocre. As I’ve said, it’s not as rare as people might believe, and its rather unjustified reputation precedes it. Also, fun-loving Linda Jackson’s car company of the same name probably does no favours for the image of a car that was once more expensive than some Porsche 911s. But this suits me fine, since I don’t want to start questioning whether I should squirrel the car away in a climate controlled garage because it’s too damn valuable to enjoy.
I have a envelope stuffed with windscreen notes offering to buy it, and I even once had an official from the Jordanian Embassy ask me how much I wanted for it on behalf of ‘his boss’. Flattered though I was, I rather pompously said that it wasn’t for sale, based on the assumption that I’m sure his boss was no fool and the commercial value of the car is so far less than its personal value to me. However, I do keep the notes because, one day, I might have to get rid of it for one reason or another, but I have no desire at all to do so.
Oh, and if you ask why I was ever considering a Morgan in the first place, that was 20 years ago and I’ve quite forgotten. By which I mean that I still remember driving the Morgan, it was great fun, and I understand their appeal, but the idea of being able to drive the tens of thousands of miles around Europe in a wide range of weathers in the tooth-filling extractor from Malvern is impossible to countenance. I still do have a list (who doesn’t) of the stable of cars I’d own in a world I will never actually inhabit. Some of them, such as the Lamborghini 350GT, are far rarer and more exotic than the SM. But since I will never be in the position to indulge in such an extensive stable, and if I had to make the decision to have just one car from this long list, it is the one that I already own. So I guess that really sums up its value.