Just as Citroëns were not like other cars, Automobiles Citroën itself was unlike any other car company – especially in conceptual engineering terms.
It might be convenient from a narrative perspective to suggest that the SM came about as part of a carefully considered product plan, but that would be inaccurate and misleading. In fact, the model came into being almost by accident or at least osmosis; primarily at the behest of company president, Pierre Bercot, but at a more fundamental level in response to another man’s determination to prove a principle.
Few carmakers operated quite like Automobiles Citroën, not only during the tenure of the company’s eponymous founder and chief architect, but equally in the years that followed the carmaker’s initial cashflow crisis, collapse, and takeover by Michelin in 1934. Michelin had placed Pierre-Jules Boulanger as company President, under whom existed an environment which permitted Citroën engineers a great deal of freedom to explore their more creative flights of fancy, yet never entirely losing sight of André Citroën’s guiding principles.
Foremost amongst these was perhaps André Lefèbvre, a conceptual engineer of remarkable ability, creativity and foresight. A dashing figure with a lordly bearing, who is said to never have imbibed anything apart from water or champagne, Lefèbvre initially qualified as an aeronautical engineer at Paris’ École Supérieure d’Aéronautique. A onetime acolyte and lifelong friend of visionary architect, engineer, aviator and artist, Gabriel Voisin, Lefèbvre’s contribution to the double chevron (and the SM itself) cannot be overstated; his being perhaps the most profound amid Quai de Javel’s Bureau d’Études for more than two decades.
Recommended to André Citroën by Voisin himself, Lefèbvre had just emerged from an unproductive stint at Billancourt, departing in rancour, following a falling out with Louis Renault over creative direction. At his arrival at Quai de Javel in March 1933, he is said to have remarked that he had moved from an Empire to a Republic. Unquestionably the most significant of Citroën’s technical appointees, his inspiration, work ethic and pioneering spirit saw Citroën not only get the faltering Traction into production, but to lay his indelible imprint upon three of the most important car designs of the 20th century.
A career-long adherent to the principle of front wheel drive, Lefèbvre became frustrated with some of the voices within management who were questioning the carmaker’s continued adherence to the traction avant formula. Determined to prove the principle against those who questioned its suitability above a given engine size and power output, Lefèbvre set out to demonstrate that a high powered motor car was capable of being driven by its front wheels, setting deputy, Jacques Né the task of creating a series of performance models based on the DS 19 at his Rue de Théàtre skunkworks in 1956.
These experimental cars were to be purely that; scoped, schemed, designed and built with the intention of developing a data bank for future use, rather than to directly inform or influence any forthcoming production vehicle. Therefore it would not be until 1959 that the first of these prototypes was built, consisting of a cut down, short chassis DS. This prototype series would continue in a number of forms, employing a variety of experimental power units until 1963, when Pierre Bercot is believed to have approached the Bureau d’Études, inquiring as to how much additional power could be placed through the production DS’ front wheels.
Informed of Lefèbvre and Né’s experiments, Bercot’s next move was to officially sanction a formal research programme to investigate the outer limits of the performance envelope for a front-driven car, lending it the title, S-vehicle. Still lacking any production intent at this stage, it nevertheless now carried the approval of the President himself, a matter which undoubtedly would have given Lefèbvre considerable satisfaction, had he been around to be aware of it. Sadly however, he had been taken ill in 1958 (it’s been suggested he suffered a major stroke), never recovering sufficiently to return to work. The gifted engineer, racing driver and father of the DS, passed away in 1964.
Citroën’s engineering department and indeed the entire Bureau d’Études was possibly unique within the industry at the time. Nominally headed for many years by Jean Cadiou, there was no conventional hierarchy as such. Merely a collection of gifted specialists in their given fields, who worked in a loosely arranged series of cells, largely without rank. Only the term Responsible for marked out the individual whose responsibilities might lead one to suggest a supervisory role.
What is evident is that while Lefèbvre may not necessarily have been in charge, he was very much the spiritual leader amid the Bureau d’Études’ collection of rival engineering cells and his loss left both a creative and power vacuum at the Rue de Théàtre. In his wake and amidst an ageing engineering cohort, many of whom were reaching retirement age (Cadiou included), a new direction and fresh thinking was urgently required, especially as the engineering function appeared to be grinding to a halt.
The ambitious Albert Grosseau, then 37 years old, took it upon himself to approach senior management regarding the increasingly chaotic state of affairs within the Bureau d’Études, proposing himself as its new administrator, a matter agreed to and implemented in 1966. This would prove to be a pivotal year, given that not only did Bercot initiate projet G (a programme which culminated in 1970’s acclaimed GS), but also sanctioned development of a production S-vehicle.
As a flagship model, the design brief (or Cahier des charges), both from Bercot himself, and equally from project leader, Jacques Né was for an exceptional car, yes – but also one which would be demonstrably beyond question or query, regardless of which end the car’s wheels were driven – and at Citroën there could only be one answer to that). While Né was said to have favoured a more overtly sporting car, most histories allege that it was Bercot’s insistence that the S-vehicle would be a luxurious and upmarket Grand Tourisme*.
But just as the SM programme itself did not come about in a straightforward manner, neither did the choice of power unit – there being quite a number of false avenues and alternative realities along the way – which we will consider next.
*There is some conjecture as to whether Bercot actually requested a Grand Tourisme or a more overt performance model, a matter we will consider in a subsequent episode.