New Frontier (Part Five)

My friends all drive Citroën’s… Oh Lord won’t you buy me a … Porsche? 

Image: lautomobileancienne

After all this, they have created an enormous car; I wanted a Porsche.” These are believed to be 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 kind 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. [1]

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, Citroen 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 lead the design team for the SM) refuted this; others suggesting that it was Pierre Michelin who forbade it, but the upshot was the same – Maserati power only.

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?

Continue reading here.

More on the SM here.

Sources/ References – see Part One.

[1] We will return to the subject of Jacques Né’s short-chassis SM prototypes in a later episode.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “New Frontier (Part Five)”

  1. Good morning Eóin. It’s fascinating to read that a car that appeared to be designed to such a clear and unambiguous brief (as a grand touring car, but unmistakably a Citroën) should instead have been the subject of such apparently conflicting views. Normally, the outcome in such situations is horribly compromised. If Bercot actually disowned the SM as suggested, it doesn’t say much for his management and oversight of the project.

    Thoroughly enjoying this great series. Keep the instalments coming!

  2. “Opron … describes Né’s school as that of a “rally car – short, spartan and very fast”, which he alleged to have refused to work upon.”

    I always liked Opron’s oevre.
    Now I appreciate him even more.

  3. Despite the compromises it entailed for the SM, the latter would have benefited from an entry-level model featuring the fuel injected DS 21 engine later DS 23 unit and probably opening up the possibility of a DS 20 fuel-injected version of the SM for the post fuel-crisis era.

    Not surprised the Maserati V6 proved to be too powerful to use in the DS, the Twin-Cam DS Sport engine and an earlier DS Coupe would seem to have been more useful (the latter allowing Citroen to adopt a two pronged approach that would have aided the cause of the SM post fuel-crisis via the 130 hp 2-litre Twin-Cam DS Sport engine).

    It also brings to mind whether the M-Series motor in the CX that replaced the D-Series motor in DS (depending on if the former was more compact compared to the latter), could have later found its way into the CX-based PRV V6-based SM project?

  4. In addition to the above, “a hydra where the engineers ruled the asylum”
    A splendid tale this, Mr Doyle. There’s more twists and turns than your average slalom course; it once more baffles me how such a car actually got made. Yet how quickly the shape became a favourite of mine.
    Bravo and indeed, encore

  5. Great series. I’m really curious how the more spartan car would have turned out. Not sure if there’s any information on that, but would be really interested to see what Citroën would have done with that, it quite literally would have pushed them out of their comfort zone.

  6. Of course compared to current Porsche models the SM is a delicate lightweight. How times have changed.

  7. I hope I’m not unwittingly anticipating the content of future chapters, but UK price comparisons from May 1973 make interesting reading:

    Citroën SM: £5480

    BMW 3.0CSi: £6899
    Citroën DS23 Pallas EFI: £2884
    Ferrari Dino 246GT: £5915
    Fiat 130 Coupe: £5531
    Jaguar XJ6 4.2: £3027
    Mercedes-Benz 350SLC: £7467
    Porsche 911S: £6235

    The SM is thus almost double the cost of the most expensive DS, but its placing amongst the obvious competitors makes some sense.

    I also discovered that Fiat UK were offering a SEAT 850 (described as such) for £777. I can’t remember seeing any, although the later 133 found some takers.

    1. UK prices are notoriously difficult to compare, especially before the common market. All the world had closed markets with punitive taxes on imports to raise domestic production. For example in Sweden, an XJ6 was always in S-Class territory, it was never the bargain as portraited here. In this case, the German cars seems to be taxed harder than the Italian cars? It’s all across the board. I’ve found price comparisons from those years meaningless, because it doesn’t say anything about the buying power of respective market.

    2. That’s an interesting list of prices. with the Merc and BMW omfortably ahead of the Dino (I don’t think they were ever actually badged as Ferraris) and the Fiat only a little cheaper than it. In their defence Ferrari would doubtless say that the nearest thing to an entry level model today is vastly quicker and more Ferrari-like than the little 246.
      Also, the Jag seems almost like a giveaway, though the unkind might suggest that reasons for this rapidly became evident if you owned one.

    3. Ingvar: Britain had joined the EEC in January 1973, so one might have assumed (dangerous notion…) that most of the punitive tariffs might have been lifted by then, making for more of a level field from a pricing perspective. For me, the most surprising from a list price perspective was the Fiat 130. That’s a lot to ask for a Fiat-branded product – attractive and capable as it undoubtedly was. The advent two years later (and almost two years late) of the XJ-S rectified the Jaguar’s price discrepancy (if not necessarily any durability issues, sad to say). That car was priced from the outset to make a significant profit for its maker.

      For the record, I don’t particularly hold with the notion that Bercot was horrified with the eventual car. It simply doesn’t ring true. I’m not disputing Guy Malleret’s recollection. People say all sorts of things in retrospect. It’s entirely possible that Bercot might have preferred something more lithe and nimble, but the end result is only ever as good as the brief that underpins it. Given a suitably broad brief, as seems to have been the case here, the Bureau d’Etudes was always going to produce a Citroen. First and foremost.

  8. “Short, spartan and very fast”.

    Suppose the current A110 fills that gap, somehow (in RWD form, tho, and arguably spartan for today’s criteria).

    Its dynamic superiority today is probably comparable to what Nē’s oleopneumatic SM “RS” would have been had it appeared then, and seduce the keen drivers’ accordingly.

    It’s a shame that (with the slight exception of the somewhat surreal BX16V), Citroën never really managed to build a true “hardcore” drivers’ car, to properly celebrate the oleopn.dynamic advantages in a radical and
    no-nonsense manner.

    1. Hello Peugeotiste, let’s not forget the legendary Xantia V6 Activa which when tested by L’Automobile magazine achieved .94g lateral acceleration (equipped with stock 205/55R15 tyres), beating the Honda NSX and Ferrari 512TR.

      https://drivetribe.imgix.net/OLuYPerWSRq-n_KXlg27Jw

      Flat out amazing.

      The Xantia Activa also still holds the the vaunted Teknikens Värld Älgtest (Moose Test) all time speed record.

      https://drivetribe.imgix.net/Diq12H8MS–KzGIg8-st9w

      Adroite Activa a gauche.

      Unfortunately, as the received wisdom records in history Activa’s non-traditional behavior confounded hardcore drivers because it lacked the requisite physical feedback, so it was not broadly successful in the marketplace (reminds me of DIRAVI, pressure sensitive brake “mushrooms”, and PRN Lunelles). C’est dommage!

      On the other hand, it seems reasonable to speculate that it might have won more converts had active suspension not been disallowed in rally racing.

  9. Rally car – short, spartan fast

    The classic hydropneumatic Citroën suspension (DS, SM, CX, GS) is all about highest driving stability at highest ride comfort for road cars. It’s unique quality lies in fulfilling both of these two competing targets without compromising one or the other.

    Rally car suspension is all about controlling intentional instability under race conditions aimed at highest overall speed and not wasting even the slightest effort on ride comfort or road driveability.

    Whereas rally cars provoke instability (and then control it) for ultrafast cornering, classic Citroëns are designed to go fast but avoid instability to the utmost extent, which is what you want from a safe road car – or at least you should.
    But while we have seen thousands of spartan, fast, sporty road cars regardless, there is only one Citroën SM, one unique proposition of a fast and ultracomfy GT, unrivaled in automotive history.
    That’s why I am very glad that they resisted to build just another sports car.
    If you want to drive a Porsche, just drive a Porsche.

    By the way:
    If you love the classic hydropneumatic ride quality and joy(!), but feel the SM to be too big and heavy, try the GS! You may be surprised that even the engine has it’s advantages – although admittedly less powerful than the comparatively loud and rough running Maserati plant.

    1. “The classic hydropneumatic Citroën suspension (DS, SM, CX, GS) is all about highest driving stability at highest ride comfort for road cars. It’s unique quality lies in fulfilling both of these two competing targets without compromising one or the other.”

      Are you certain about this? Stability and ride quality are two different attributes. While one may influence the other to a greater or lesser extent, neither is the primary cause for the other. Indeed, you can have excellence in one without a high level of competence in the other. You get stability from the geometry of your suspension system and its roll moment distribution. The type of roadsprings, whether hydropneumatic or otherwise, is not the primary element of stability.

      It is possible to create just as good a ride quality on steel springs and hydraulic dampers along with good roadholding, stability and reasonable even excellent handling. Indeed, such a system has inherently superior properties when it comes to reacting to sharp or abrupt road disturbances compared to a hydropneumatic suspension system (not all suspension engineers are aware of this or ever take advantage of it).

      The main advantages of the hydropneumatic suspension are that it can self-level the car to compensate for varied payload while retaining the same (or very close to the same) low ride frequencies and, it opens the possibility of semi-active suspension as it is so readily adapted for that.

      Anyway, try driving a Jaguar XJ sedan (Series 1, 2 or 3) or even an XJS back to back with the SM, DS, GS, CX or ID. Stability and ride comfort… not an exclusive trait of hydropneumatics.

      In respect of the statement pertaining to rally cars “…not wasting even the slightest effort on ride comfort or road driveabililty…”- are you certain about that?

      Ride comfort and mechanical roadholding are aligned. We want the car suspension to track the surface over which the car is driven as closely as it is possible to achieve in order to ensure the tyres stay in contact with the road surface as much as possible (because they do not generate any grip when they are up in the air). Indeed, we go further than that by seeking to keep the normal force on the tyre as constant as possible, for sudden changes can and do reduce grip. This is why we seek good mechanical grip and, as it happens, achieving excellent mechanical grip results in improved ride quality- so we certainly do care about it. Apart from that, a car which is kinder to its driver and navigator over the course of a rally allows them to function at a higher level for longer than a car which is excessively fatigue inducing.

      “If you love the classic hydropneumatic ride quality and joy(!), but feel the SM to be too big and heavy, try the GS!”

      I had one of those. They are an excellent car and I need to go find another. Mine got written off by a colleague who borrowed it from work. GS could readily handle more power with a few adjustments here and there. Pity they never did that.

      I reckon that Xantia Activa is the pick though. On second thoughts, probably need to have both.

  10. Good morning JT,

    I agree with most of your points and I fear that my poor English – very sorry for that! – obscured some of my statements. Please, let me try to clarify:

    When using the term “classic hydropneumatic suspension” I meant suspension in the sense of “system of tires, tire air, springs, shock absorbers and linkages that connects a vehicle to its wheels and allows relative motion between the two”(© wikipedia). I fully agree with you that pneumatic springs alone do not make a good suspension system. Hence air sprung Audis – or the old Xantia for example. The Activa impresses by its anti-roll ability, but are you certain about its ride quality? Compared with classic hp Citroëns (DS,CX,SM, GS) and their highly sophisticated suspension kinematics I find the Peugeot derivates Xantia, XM, C5 I rather disappointing, when it comes to ride comfort. And there are technical reasons for that: Not only that they offer less elaborated suspension kinematics, but also these kinematics do not really fit with the hydropneumatic system – in particular when it comes to spring responsiveness: e.g. the McPherson concept may satisfy with steel springs, but if combined with pneumatic springs actuated via an oil cylinder, inner friction of the hydraulic system becomes an issue and the former hp advantage turns into a disadvantage. Not at all helping indeed is the increased stiffness of dampers and stabilizers as to be attributed more to the general motoring zeitgeist than to technical requirement.

    When it comes to race car suspension I fully agree that a certain extent of ride comfort and mechanical roadholding are aligned as very well described in your text.
    But: while a road car is (or better: should be) aimed at maximum ride quality at all speeds, the race car is singularily aimed at top performance. A suspension just soft enough for ultrahigh performance not necessarily will behave nicely at moderate speeds.
    I never drove a rally car but I often experienced how soft sportcar suspension can get, if cornered just hard enough. Nevertheless the same cars missed most of that suppleness at regular road speeds.
    In conclusion, please, let me add the words “at (all) regular road speeds” to the above quote of rally suspensions “…not wasting even the slightest effort on ride comfort or road driveabililty…”.

    Having said that I think I may stick to my core statement:
    Classic Citroëns are successfully aimed at keeping maximum ride stability under all circumstances and highest ride quality (=comfort+roadholding) at most of the road speed spectrum*, while rally cars are aimed at controlling intentional instability and roadholding under top performance competition conditions.
    Especially the pronounced stability characteristic might the classic Citroën chassis let seem to be the least suitable base for a true sportscar conversion.
    *…admittedly there are certain comfort deficiencies at very low speed.

    Finally the GS (mon amour):
    If you love the GS, but “feel that it could readily handle more power” (you’ll tell!) – try the 1.3 liter GSA with the short version of its 5-speed gearbox.

    Disclaimer:
    I have discovered „World’s Least Influential Motoring Site” on the web just now and I am highly impressed by the quality delivered in the editorial content as well as in the commentary section. Apologies to all for the disturbance caused by my poor proficiency of English as a foreign language but I just cannot resist adding my two-cents when discussion touches such highly interesting topics as above.

    Greetings from Austria
    Martin

    1. Pleased you’re enjoying the site Martin. No embarrassment necessary as regards your command of English – it shames many a native speaker. Plenty more double chevron-related material in the pipeline, by the way…

    2. Hello Martin

      Yes, the Xantia Activa does not ride as smoothly as some of the other Citroens. As you indicated the PSA Group chose their spring rates (probably preferable to think of system and mode frequencies instead, but the term “spring rate” will suffice for our purposes today) to meet differing objectives from those of Citroen’s earlier cars. In their defense, roads in France had improved somewhat from the times the earlier cars were designed and developed. Perhaps PSA felt the need to be able to cope with rough roads was no longer important or even necessary.

      If the roads are, in the main, smoother today, it is also the case that state of affairs is quickly changing for the worse. It is likely that road quality will decline throughout Europe as repairs fall behind the collapsing quality of aging infrastructure- it is just too difficult to bother with in the short term and too expensive for impecunious govts to afford it over the long term anyway. So…….. the early version of Citroen was on the right path after all. Softer is better. It is a pity that PSA did not have the confidence and bravery to let Citroen continue to evolve as it ought to have. the potential is still there.

      I do like the Activa for the reason of its high levels of grip and low values of roll. It lets the tyres work as they ought and THAT is its USP. It is fun to exploit the counter-intuitive weirdness of it!

      Re Mac Struts
      You sure are right about those. There is plenty of “stiction” inherent with them. They tend to compromise ride and handling and mechanical grip. The geometry is exactly opposite what it ought to be. In their favour they are cheap, lead to structural efficiencies in the vehicle body and are easy to set up for good NVH properties.

      “Especially the pronounced stability characteristic might the classic Citroën chassis let seem to be the least suitable base for a true sportscar conversion.”

      It is fine for this purpose. It just needs development to suit the task. All the usual rules apply. Loose as much of the weight as you can. Keep it as narrow as you can get away with. Add power and plenty of it. Make the styling really good!

      Did you know that in 1992 a Citroen BX driven by Peter McLeod was victorious in group N at the Bathurst 12-hour race? OK its a PSA Citroen and it does have the Mac Struts up front, but it did win and it achieved that win against more powerful rivals and teams with major resources behind them. Still PSA must have had something right with their chassis, as they also claimed second place (Peter Brock in a HDT worked Peugeot 405 Mi16). The BX victory was due to lighter weight (plastic body panels) and its hydropneumatic suspension. Peter Brock stated the cornering of the BX made it uncatchable during his live-to-air racecam broadcasting stint, as he chased the BX round the famous Mt Panorama circuit at Bathurst. On a very well-known and difficult corner he said, “How are you supposed to race against that?”

      “Finally the GS (mon amour): If you love the GS, but “feel that it could readily handle more power” (you’ll tell!) – try the 1.3 liter GSA with the short version of its 5-speed gearbox.”

      Yes. I need to get one of these again. Time to go hunting for a good ‘un.

      Finally, your English is AOK. Don’t worry about it.

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