New Frontier (Part One)

Over a series of articles, we examine yesterday’s vision of the future – peak chevron, Sa Majesté – the incomparable Citroën SM.

(c) stubs-auto.fr

Observing events through a half-century old prism can make for a faulty tool; contemporary visions of the future appearing to modern eyes, slightly naïve and somewhat inaccurate. Not necessarily a consequence of inexperience or ill-thought execution – certainly not in this particular case – it is as likely to pivot around the manner in which socio-economic factors, and customer tastes evolve, to say nothing of the relentless march of time itself.

Has any carmaker done more to define and shape the automotive future than Citroën, and in particular the double chevron during that most creatively fruitful period during the 1950s and 60s? Not simply in terms of design, although it is indisputable that Quai de Javel was at the forefront of aerodynamic science, but also in terms of systems engineering, especially given the carmaker’s widespread adoption of aviation-inspired, engine-driven hydraulics.

It goes without saying that only Citroën could have made a car as technologically and stylistically advanced, as resolutely modern as the 1970 SM, a product of a particularly fecund (and arguably profligate) period of latterday Citroën history. But, while it may in retrospect have benefited commercially from arriving on sale earlier, it could never have happened at all without the groundbreaking DS-series blazing its trail, or providing so much of its essential hardware.

The Deity of course was not only inimitable, but largely unchallenged – within France’s borders at least – a factor as much a consequence of the car’s unique qualities as any putative non-compete agreement between Quai André Citroën, Billancourt or Sochaux.

Today, the SM remains at once thrillingly futuristic, yet clearly of the past, and while it still appears otherworldly, the future to which it spoke so tantalisingly is one which perhaps in this post-modern environment seems a slightly innocent, if less socially bereft one, where to travel at high speed and in considerable creature comfort seemed not only within the realm of the possible, but within the bounds of social acceptability.

By the time of its 1970 Geneva debut, the SM was seen as a product of French President, Georges Pompidou’s high-tech Republic, his ascendency coming on the tail of Charles de Gaulle’s retirement and exile from public life. Pompidou’s France was to be one of leading-edge technology, high-speed travel (either by air or by train) and of large-scale, statement projects like the nuclear programme and major public works developments within Paris and elsewhere. Only two years after the bitter and violent student demonstrations on the streets of Paris, France was looking to the future.

The SM therefore chimed with this new frontier for the Republic as a technological leader within Europe, with transportation as its leitmotif. At least as futuristic as Aérospatiale’s nascent Concorde, the jointly developed supersonic airliner which in November 1970 took off from Toulouse to make its first Mach-2 test flight. The following year, Pompidou would himself go above and beyond in Concorde prototype 001 from Paris to Toulouse taking in a short supersonic burst over the Bay of Biscay.

Concorde 001 lands following a test flight. Image: flashbak

No car is created in a vacuum and the SM, while the culmination of some of the best minds within Citroën’s Bureau d’Études’, it was primarily the brainchild of one man – Citroën President, Pierre Bercot, without whose wholehearted backing the SM would never have got beyond the realm of thought experiment.

Formerly a lawyer, Bercot joined Citroën in 1937, and having held several roles within the organisation, was appointed to the board in 1950 – the same year that company President, Pierre Boulanger met his tragic end in a road accident. Citroën’s Michelin parent, having then allowed the post remain vacant for 8 years, eventually appointed Bercot in his stead, the position being formalised in 1958.

Highly intelligent, fiercely independent in thought and unswerving in action, Bercot was not a typical automotive executive (anywhere but at Quai de Javel at least). A man of culture, he appreciated fine art and poetry, counting classical pianist, Arthur Rubenstein as a personal friend. An aesthete, Bercot is believed to have detested the appearance of both the 2CV and in particular the Ami models, regarding them as visual freaks. However, once approved, he was immovable on matters of style, or indeed much else.

By 1970, under Bercot’s direction, Citroën had grown into a massive conglomerate, acquiring Panhard et Levassor, truckmakers Berliet, Maserati, and the Comotor joint-venture with NSU; all of which alongside the level of debt amassed by expensive investments in new and refitted factories suggested that monsieur le President was at least as impulsive and risk-prone as Citroën’s ill-fated founder. At that point, the PARDEVI accord had also come into being, whereby Fiat acquired Michelin’s 49% stake in the business.

Pierre Bercot. (c) lignesauto.fr

With these boardroom manoeuvres taking place amid Citroën’s over-extended finances, this didn’t appear to be the ideal time to be scheming an upmarket, powerful voiture de grand tourisme, a matter seemingly echoed within the corridors of Quai Andre Citroën, with factions therein vehemently opposed to the idea of developing such an expensive vehicle whose return on investment was likely to be scant.

But if such a car seemed unlikely to fully recoup its development costs in sales, assuming it was sufficiently well received, it would provide immeasurable value in PR and image terms, and given that Bercot saw Citroën as very much in the vanguard of technology and avant-garde design, his backing was sufficient to silence the naysayer’s objections, which Bercot would undoubtedly have dismissed as trivial.

Pierre Bercot’s guiding philosophy was that Citroën’s purpose was to aspire not only to the best they could possibly contrive, but to elevate the customer’s aspirations beyond the narrow prism of fashion and marketing; the latter a function which barely existed within Citroën, one which Bercot would have considered “totally irrelevant“. He stated, “the only option open to Citroën is to produce cars which distinguish themselves from other manufacturers’ models… Citroën’s character is only fully expressed in the lowest and highest market segments.

With the advent of the SM, Bercot would put this philosophy to the ultimate test.

Part 2 continues here

Credits / sources – further reading:
Robert Opron L’Automobile et L’Art: Peter Pijlman
Citroën SM : Jan P. Norbye
Citroën SM : Brian Long
Sa Majesté – Citroën SM : Peter Pijlman
Citroën SM – Accidental Death of an Icon : Stuart Ager
André Citroen – Engineer, Explorer, Entrepreneur – John Reynolds
Maserati- The Citroën Years 1968-1975 : Marc Sonnery

 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “New Frontier (Part One)”

  1. While the SM is/was a magnificent concept, daringly executed, stylistically it looks to me as if it was squeezed from God’s toothpaste tube. This impression is emphasised by the narrowing from front to rear. The length/width proportions are all ‘wrong’ (well, at least to me). Compare with the (again, to me) more successful proportions of the later C6 – which I owned for a few years.

    But but but: Gerard Pompidou? I must have been asleep when he was in power. ITYM Georges. Production of the C6 was prompted by another President, Jean-Philippe* Chirac. He saw the Lignage concept car while being conducted round the Paris Motor Show and (essentially) ordered Citroen to build it – to be the successor ‘Présidentielle’ limousine to the then obviously ageing Déesse.

    * Yeah yeah yeah. Jacques.

    1. Brieuc: Thanks for the correction. The guilty party has fallen on his sword, you’ll be gratified to learn.

  2. Good morning Eóin. The comparison between the SM and Concorde is apposite and insightful. Both were seminal creations, and very much of a time when, despite economic privations, industrial unrest and political extremism, there was still faith that technology would lead us to a better future, hence the excitement generated by their unveilings. Unfortunately, the fate of both audacious projects would be far from what their inventors had hoped.

    Very much looking forward to reading the further instalments of this fascinating story.

  3. The SM was definitely a high-water mark. We might also consider the Mercedes W-140 as being very close in its own way. The SM though is graced by the most astonishing looks. No other country produced as singular an object; even the most lovely Ferraris of the 1960s seem quite obvious although often pretty and striking. Interestingly, the positivist thinking of the 1960s was in in many other ways just awful. I am thinking here about the cities the cars were intended for: filing cabinet buildings, dead expanses of grass cut by wide, threatening highways. With some exceptions most of the world created in the 1960s and 1970s is horrific, such as suburban France and suburban UK especially. Things haven´t gotten any better on that score and the car designs are worse. Some are acceptable but there is little that is exceptional (is there anything?).

  4. This is promising to become an intersting series. Thanks for starting articles on the ultimate Citroen, a car André Lefèbvre surely would have been proud of.

  5. Thank you Eòin, this promises to be a fitting tribute series to a car fully deserving of one.
    In my youth I was fortunate enough to experience the SM when it was new(ish); being born in a Citroën family I was brought up on a diet of Tractions, DS’s, the odd 2CV, a Méhari and the pièce de resistance the SM. I took a quick dive into my old photo albums and found these photos- made in around 1980 with my first “real” camera, an East German Practica. Seeing the photo now I have to smile at my 15 year old self trying to look as if he is allowed to go for a spin at any moment 🙂

    1. You got a pretty good tracking shot there for a 15 year old with his first SLR, though!

    2. Bruno, just one question: how were you not insufferably smug when your dad dropped you off at the school gates?

      Jammy bugger, as we say this side of La Manche!

    3. Michael: thanks for the compliment, although I have to add that it took several tries before anything acceptable resulted- these days with digital photography it is so much easier with direct verification but on the other hand the suspense of seeing how your photos turned out is gone.

      Daniel: The SM belonged to my uncle, so I was never dropped off at the school gates in it. I did of course try to come up with any excuse to go somewhere in it whenever he visited us 🙂
      In those days my father had a CX 2000, in that well known shade of light-brown metallic with a matching interior. But even he rarely dropped me off at school as I was provided with a bicycle for my daily commute.

  6. When it comes to the SM quite like the 4-door and other SM-based specials (plus the experimental SM V8 prototype whose engine was intended for the Maserati Quattroporte II) despite the overly futuristic yet fussy styling, though of the view the DS Sport coupe / convertible models were a missed opportunity and exterior wise prefer the following low cost Citroën SM project based on CX underbody.

    Am interested to know what could Pierre Bercot (or someone less profligate) have done differently for Citroen to remain independent (albeit not above being part of more profitable joint-ventures and projects)?

    Obviously an early GS (be it C60 or Project F) to close the gap between the 2CV and related models with the DS is one priority for Citroen, not forming Comotor with NSU is another.

    Have seen others also question the value of Citroen acquiring Maserati just to get a suitable V6 engine instead of being in a position to invest in a new engine on their own, which in turn leads to whether there was a chance for an independent Citroen to instead tie up with the likes of Alfa Romeo (for the V6, Alfasud including Flat-Four, etc) or even with rivals Peugeot and Renault on the PRV project.

  7. Great to have Eóin writing about this most beguiling of cars. It’s so strangely beautiful, like nothing else before or after, and, containing such exotic ingredients. Really looking forward to the remaining instalments.

    Hoping it might tempt Sean into making a comment or two – I am still bewitched by the photo of his own SM in that container port (or whatever it was).

    Thank you!

  8. Great start to the series; I look forward to the next instalment.

    The quotation at the end is fascinating (and new to me): “Citroën’s character is only fully expressed in the lowest and highest market segments.” Though sentimentally appealing to an enthusiast, as a strategy for a car company this must surely be unique?

    1. It is a great start.

      That statement puzzled me – where does the GS fit in? It’s an exceptional mid-market / mid-size car.

      Did the statement mean it’s only fully expressed at the extremes and we need to fix that?

    2. Chris/ Charles: I wouldn’t wish to put words into the late Monsieur Bercot’s mouth, but my understanding of the statement was that he felt Citroen’s ideology was expressed in its definitive form at the opposite polarities of the market. Actually, when one thinks about it, could any other manufacturer successfully achieve this? I will return to this in forthcoming articles, so I’ll leave it there for now.

      Bob: Speaking of returning to a subject, the putative CX/SM hybrid will be covered in due course.

  9. Why is travel “at high speed and in considerable creature comfort” not “within the bounds of social acceptability”?

    1. Nowadays the kind of cars that allow one to travel at high speed and in considerable creative comfort are rather vulgar and not very environmentally friendly.

      The point I took from Eóin’s sentence was that in 1970 we were untroubled by such concerns (although Concorde would meet a lot of environment resistance a few years later) and could aspire to drive the fabulous Citroën SM.

    2. Furthermore, as someone who wasn’t alive at the time, I sometimes wonder if 1970 represented peak humanity. At least within a definition of design and engineering excellence.

      We had the Jumbo Jet, Concorde, the Citroën GS, DS and SM and the Lunar Module! Nowadays we can’t fly humans to the moon, can’t cross the Atlantic supersonically as a civilian and can’t buy a car with the engineering originality and rigour of a 50 year old Citroën.

    3. Hi John. As I recall, at the time of its launch the objections to Concorde were not concerning pollution, but sonic boom over populated areas. Boeing, whose own SST project, the 2707, was cancelled in 1971, orchestrated a huge political and PR campaign against Concorde flying across the North American land mass. That said, the designers of the Anglo-French aircraft didn’t exactly help its prospects by limiting its range. Allegedly at the behest of the French, Concorde couldn’t fly non-stop from Frankfurt to the US East Coast.

      By the way, you didn’t miss much by not being around for the start of the 1970’s. Aside from the brilliant inventions and achievements you cite, it was a grim decade: the (first) Energy Crisis, the three-day week, industrial unrest, terrorism, racism, bigotry, terrible fashions, worse pop music. As a 19 year old I was very happy to see the back of it.

  10. Eóin, I meant to say earlier, but forgot to do so, that your choice of title for this series is inspired. Knowing your excellent taste in music (which is incalculably better than mine) I take it as a reference to a track on Donald Fagen’s 1982 masterpiece, The Nightfly.

    The album track ‘I.G.Y.’ appears to articulate the naive and unquestioning faith in science and technology that prevailed when the SM was launched, but by the time the album was released, it was, I think, deeply ironic. The casual mention of nuclear holocaust in the New Frontier track was chilling:

    “It’s just a dugout that my dad built
    In case the reds decide to push the button down”

    Brilliant stuff!

    1. Daniel: Thanks. It’s always pleasant when people recognise the reference. (Mind you, opinions do differ on the quality and breadth of my musical tastes). Although perhaps Fagan’s 1993 recording, Kamakariad, would have been more appropriate – a cycle of songs describing a road trip in a retro-futurist, steam-powered car. ‘Deeply ironic’ probably best summarises Steely Dan’s lyrics. They always seemed to drip elegant disdain, especially when the subject was the West Coast music scene – something Fagan apparently had little time for.

      In my mind’s eye I imagine a contemporary SM owner driving to or from some (probably complex) psycho-sexual assignation (they were always somewhat louche individuals in my mind) to the strains of Steely Dan on the cassette player…

      JT: It was a comment on the manner in which such acts seem increasingly to be legislated off the roads. Where is it possible to travel quickly in the GT manner these days?

  11. Thank you for this great article, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming editions.

    I am amazed you start off by putting the SM in the very specific socio-economic context of the country in its time. I always held France, French cars and especially Citroën cars simply cannot be understood without doing so – so, yes, I think you’re spot on and fully concur with your observations!

    The SM (just as much the CX, if it would habe been released with the 180hp three-rotor Comotor engine as intended) is very much a pure essence of french modernism, of the belief a better future can be achieved, tamed by technology. A better future for all of society – which makes this approach completely unique in the world. This push gave birth to the TGV, the Concorde, the „Grand Projets“, le Nucleaire, the Force de Frappe, and not least all the numerous futuristic holiday resorts on the med (La Grande Motte) or the alps (Menuires, Flaine) and all the advanced and highly creative cars from Citroën, but as well from Renault, Simca, Matra and even (the bit stodgy, in comparison) Peugeot.

    „le progrès ne sert rien, si vous n‘en profitez pas“!

  12. I wonder is there a biography available of Pierre Bercot in English? To my shame, I don’t have any French. His approach and achievements at Citroën are interesting enough in themselves – that he also was friendly with Rubenstein suggests an entertaining personal life to boot…

  13. Eóin

    Yes, I understand this, but the question is why? Why is it “not socially acceptable”? And who is the arbiter of “socially acceptable” anyway?

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