What prompted Citroën’s buyout of Maserati?
By 1967, Pierre Bercot had secured an engine supply deal with Maserati for Citroën’s forthcoming Projet S. Yet within a year, not only would he have taken over the Modenese atelier in its entirety, but inked a far more wide-ranging deal with FIAT Auto in Turin. But was the Citroën-Maserati takeover a symbiotic coming together, or simply Monsieur le President’s Victor Kiam moment?
Having traditionally confined the lion’s share of their sales effort domestically and within Europe, the pull of the US market became too lucrative for Maserati to ignore. However, by the mid-’60s, the regulatory environment in the US was becoming increasingly hostile, with stringent crash testing mandates and emissions regulations, which for such a tiny outfit would ladle enormous costs upon an already stretched enterprise. By mid-decade, Maserati’s owners were already seeking a means to offload the business.
Furthermore, both Adolfo and Omar Orsi were unwell; the former too elderly and infirm to administer the business. Furthermore, it is also quite possible that the Orsi family, after so many years of struggle and financial commitment were simply losing the stomach for the job.
Quai de Javel’s interest was therefore welcomed at Viale Ciro Menotti, because with Citroën’s engine contract committing Maserati to the purchase of expensive production tooling, coupled with the significant bolstering of Maserati’s employee headcount required to fulfil the desired volumes (20-30 engines per day), the potential risk for the Tridente should matters undergo a reversal might otherwise have been ruinous.
For Bercot the rationale seems to have been threefold. Firstly, an equity stake would ensure Citroën had sufficient control over the supply chain – no small matter at Quai de Javel and an entirely prudent one. The second imperative behind his decision however appears to have been more sentimental in nature.
According to Guy Malleret, Bercot’s chosen representative at Viale Ciro Menotti, the Citroën President, far from the cold technocrat he was often portrayed as being, “adored Maserati”, Bercot informing him that while Ferrari was to his eyes, “nouveaux“, Maserati was “une grande maison.” But not only was there a desire to return Maserati to what Bercot saw as its rightful place in the pantheon, he also wanted Malleret to oversee their return to the racetrack.
The third compelling pillar behind Citroën’s interest lay with Bercot and Michelin’s broader commercial imperatives. Despite his oft-cited profligacy with regard to acquisitions, which were intended to strengthen the business, Bercot also recognised that even his much enlarged auto-empire could not continue into the 1970s alone – even assuming Michelin’s continued backing, itself no certainty. Like many of his fellow contemporaries, he began investigating potential partners.
In spite of some half-hearted discussions with both Peugeot and Simca, Bercot and his Michelin masters are said to have favoured an alliance with a non-French European carmaker. By 1967, they were in advanced discussions with FIAT scion, Gianni Agnelli, but cognisant of the political ramifications surrounding a potential Franco-Italian merger, fleshed out a collaborative deal where the Italian carmaker would assume control of Michelin’s 49% stake in the double chevron.
Chronicler, Marc Sonnery suggests that Bercot’s stake in Maserati was a spur for Agnelli, who shared a sentimental attachment to the Modenese carbuilder – albeit the latter’s involvement with Ferrari precluded any active interest he himself might have had in taking over the business. However, of more strategic imperative for Fiat Auto was likely to have been Agnelli’s interest in gaining a toehold upon Citroën’s Comotor operation with NSU; interest in Wankel technology at fever pitch during this time.
Another interested party was none other than Alejandro de Tomaso, a figure who was already agitating around the peripheries of the Italian auto scene. The Argentinian businessman appeared to be in the running to gain control, but is said to have been thwarted by Tridente chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, who saw in the double chevron, not only a valuable technological source for Maserati, but also an opportunity to bolster his own influence. Additionally, Alfieri is known to have harboured some ill-feeling towards de Tomaso, which undoubtedly coloured his opinion, but either way his council was to prove crucial, the highly trusted engineer advising the Orsi family to back the French bid, a matter which would have stark repercussions for him later.
Once Citroën assumed a controlling interest in Maserati (shares changing hands in the Spring of 1968), Bercot appointed Malleret as his administrator at Modena with the injunction you report only to me; the Frenchman arriving at Viale Ciro Menotti in March 1968, with a letter of mandate from le President. Malleret stated that he was well received by Orsi, who continued (for a time) to take a role in the business, but less so by Alfieri, who viewed Malleret’s arrival with a certain dismay.
By the close of the year, the PARDEVI accord with Fiat was completed, with Citroën emerging a vastly enlarged entity. It didn’t remain so however – that year, the Citroën business was also split – Bercot now President of a newly created holding company, Citroën SA, while Automobiles Citroën would administer the carmaking function, headed by Claude Alain Sarre. With Bercot now even more remote from the day to day running of the various car businesses he had worked so hard to combine, these developments would come at a crucial time.
Furthermore, having effectively shut the carmaking operation out of his Transalpine venture, apart from one trusted lieutenant, Maserati would be managed very much by remote, but a further consequence is the possibility that the nascent Projet S, may have lacked sufficient oversight at board level. Certainly the testimonies of several old hands, both in Paris and Modena suggest that the car that would emerge from the various skunkworks that made up Citroën’s Bureau d’Études bore scant resemblance to what Bercot had requested.
Read the series in full.
Sources and references:
Robert Opron L’Automobile et L’Art: Peter I Pijlman
Citroën SM : Jan P. Norbye
Citroën SM : Brian Long
Sa Majesté – Citroën SM : Peter I Pijlman/ Brian Cass
Citroën SM – Accidental Death of an Icon : Stuart Ager
André Citroen – Engineer, Explorer, Entrepreneur – John Reynolds
Maserati- The Citroën Years 1968-1975 : Marc Sonnery
 Victor Kiam was a US businessman who became a household name in the 1970s fronting a long-running TV ad campaign for Remington shavers, which contained the immortal line; “I liked it so much, I bought the company.”
 Immediately prior to this time, representatives of the Orsi family approached Jaguar with a view to selling some or all of the business. It’s believed that Sir William Lyons briefly entertained the idea, but elected not to proceed. [Source: Philip Porter/ Paul Skilleter]
 In 1968, Bercot is reputed to have instructed Guy Malleret, as he dispatched him to Modena, ‘you must win Le Mans within two years.’ [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 Prior to Simca being bought out by the US Chrysler Corporation.
 According to author, and SM specialist, Stuart Ager, while there was little in the PARDEVI agreement to benefit Citroën, there was a lot in it for Michelin; the tyremaker gaining a highly lucrative exclusive deal with FIAT. In Ager’s estimation, the alliance died, not just because Citroën refused to collaborate fully, but by 1973, the lustre had decisively come off the Wankel engine – and of course by then, FIAT had problems of their own.
 Revenge is a dish best served cold. Having been thwarted in his ambition to helm Maserati under Citroën’s ownership, Giulio Alfieri would once again be wrongfooted by fate’s twist. Allegedly one of the first actions taken by Alejandro de Tomaso upon taking control of Maserati in 1975 was to sack the longstanding chief engineer. [Source: Marc Sonnery]