My friends all drive Citroën’s… Oh Lord won’t you buy me a … Porsche?
“After all this, they have created an enormous car; I wanted a Porsche.” These are the words of none other than Citroën President, Pierre Bercot, spoken at the time to delegate-Maserati administrator, Guy Malleret. Quite some statement to have made; one which flies in the face of virtually every known document of the SM’s gestation. After all, the commonly held version of the SM’s creation saga is that Projet S was schemed almost entirely to Monsieur Bercot’s specification.
Jacques Fleury was the Citroën director responsible for factories, production and acquisitions. Amongst his responsibilities therefore was the Maserati factory in Modena and by consequence, the SM engine. According to his account, the prototype Maserati unit, having been tried in a DS saloon was deemed not only too powerful for the chassis, but that any resulting DS flagship model would have to be priced well above what the market would bear for it to be profitable.
Fleury’s account suggests however that the S-programme had taken on a life of its own by then, and had become unstoppable. But as an expensive car, more upmarket and luxurious, the extra costs the specification dictated would necessitate a more superior, more sophisticated car; one more akin, he stated, to the type of Grand Turismos Maserati were producing.
What is beyond debate is that Jacques Né, widely regarded as being the engineer with overall responsibility for the car’s development was in favour of a more overtly performance-orientated vehicle, and certainly in the wake of the SM’s launch in 1970, went on to continue the S-Vehicle programme very much in that direction.
Ingénieur Né’s early prototypes were either short chassis versions of the DS, or heavily modified versions of the Panhard 24, but it remains unclear whether these cars were simply engineering mules (intended to explore performance, rather than to codify the car’s character), or if the programme altered direction as it progressed – which wouldn’t exactly have been a first.
Chronicler, Marc Sonnery certainly considers the latter to be the case, positing the view that Bercot was too lofty in his eyrie; too removed from day to day affairs to realise that his favoured project was spiralling out of control, describing the Bureau d’Études as a hydra where “engineers ruled the asylum“.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that within Citroën, there were a number of factions who had their own ideas as to what kind of vehicle Project S ought to be, not just within the Bureau d’Études, but at board level as well, and one can argue that the lack of co-ordination and effective leadership within Citroën’s experimental teams led to, on one hand a slightly quixotic (if rather splendid) end product, but on the other, an environment where stories perhaps grow arms and legs.
Because surely if Bercot had wanted a Porsche-type car, would he not have specifically asked for one?
One of the problems Citroën engineers faced was that while they were committed to the idea of a compact, lightweight car, other factors conspired against this. Firstly, the car’s structure and suspensions, being dictated by DS practice, (and some component carry-over) were by their very nature on the heavy side, so despite the engine and transmission being commendably light (the former in particular) the car’s weight blossomed as it progressed, not aided by Citroën’s sales people asking for more features and creature comfort.
After all, a luxurious GT was very much the direction of travel right across the industry by the late Sixties. Indeed, Porsche’s 911 was already looking out of step with industry norms, not only because of its compact size, but also the car’s noisy air-cooled rear-engine layout would be at risk of being legislated out of the US market, to say nothing of its propensity to swop ends in the wrong hands. Customers were demanding more comfort, security and comfort, and the growing demand for convenience features like air conditioning meant that cars had to become larger and heavier – ergo, more powerful.
Certainly, if we look at vehicles of this nature either in production or gestation by 1970, we are looking at Jensen’s Interceptor, Alfa Romeo’s Montreal, Mercedes-Benz’s C107 SLC, Fiat’s 130 Coupé or indeed, Jaguar’s XJ-S. All large, luxurious, high performance grand tourers, in certain cases, replacing lighter, more overtly sporting machines. Ergo, Citroën were not as non-conformist as they are often painted. Furthermore, the SM as launched was undoubtedly a more saleable proposition, not to mention more Citroën-esque than anybody’s sports car.
Another strand of the SM creation myth where accounts differ regards the idea of a four-cylinder, entry level model. Certainly, there appears to have been considerable enthusiasm for this idea, especially prior to the Maserati engine being procured. However, subsequent to this, elements within either management, or the Bureau d’Études (possibly both) were insistent on the fuel injected DS 21 engine being made an option, necessitating not only the engine bay to be enlarged to accommodate it (the V6 was a more compact package) but the cowl height to be raised sufficiently to clear the taller unit.
This is believed to have compromised the scuttle height, windscreen position and beltline of the car, which otherwise would have been lower and sleeker. While some accounts suggest that it was Bercot who was behind this, Robert Opron (who led the design team for the SM) refuted this; others suggesting that it was Pierre Michelin who forbade it, but the upshot was the same.
Opron’s account confirmed that there had indeed been two schools of thought as to the car’s intended direction. He describes Né’s school as that of a “rally car – short, spartan and very fast”, which he alleged to have refused to work upon. The second, and the one to which he did espouse, was for a Grand Tourisme; stating pointedly, “I did the SM with Pierre Bercot“. Citroën’s former design leader also made it clear that Monsieur le Président approved his first proposal as presented, suggesting that maybe Bercot had fewer qualms about this enormous car than suggested.
We may never quite learn the truth, and in a historical context, one should always retain an open mind, but on balance, the assertion that Pierre Bercot, when presented with the Bureau d’Études’ fait accompli received it with horror, isn’t entirely credible. Does that mean that Guy Malleret’s account is incorrect? Not necessarily. After all, one can begin a journey in a certain direction yet arrive at a very different destination. Surely that’s the purpose of a grand touring car?
More on the SM here.
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
 [Source: Marc Sonnery]