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