While there may have been some disagreement as to the conceptual nature of Citroën’s 1970 flagship, the matter of its appearance seems to have been more assured. Certainly, there are comparatively few observers who could cogently argue that the SM’s styling was not a success – indeed it remains probably the car’s defining feature – still a futurist marvel, despite a half-century having elapsed since its introduction.
Within Citroën’s Bureau d’Études the Style Centre was hidden away in an unkempt and dingy section of the Rue de Théàtre facility. Overseen by longstanding Citroën design chief, Flaminio Bertoni, he alongside his small team of fellow designers and put upon artisans would work largely in seclusion, without interference, nor indeed much by way of recognition.
Originally training as an architect at the Ecole des Beaux arts in Amiens, Robert Opron joined Citroën’s style centre in 1962. He quickly developed a rapport with the mercurial Bertoni, the two men sharing mutual interests in art, cuisine and culture. Opron was said to be devastated when in 1964, he learned of his sudden and premature demise.
Having already illustrated his abilities and gained the confidence of his superiors, Opron was asked by head of the Bureau d’Études, Jean Cadiou to elaborate upon Bertoni’s work, being appointed, Responsible de Style – an unexpected promotion for the young designer, who was elevated above several older hands.
Opron quickly put his stamp upon proceedings, and while initially at least, his output was very much a continuation, he recruited a number of talented designers, who would prove pivotal in the development of not only the SM, but a whole new generation of Citroëns.
Opron was part of the school of thinking within the Bureau d’Études which espoused the ideal of a prestigious Grand Tourisme, rather than, in his words, something “short, spartan and very fast“. With no overt design brief from above, Opron’s primary intent for the nascent SM design therefore was to establish a balance between aerodynamics, style and function, but also for it to be recognisably a Citroën.
Opron and his team worked at a feverish rate, creating the styling schemes for both the SM and GS models almost concurrently. Initial sketches were the work of Jacques Charreton, and a number of these were translated into quarter scale models – one of which would prove to be a fascinating blend of DS and SM features.
The definitive outline shape is believed to be that of Opron with the bulk of the detail work by Jean Giret. The styling lines themselves are quite simple, there being very little elaboration apart from the extremities, which are (especially at the rear) quite complex. The side glass DLO upkick was a feature of pretty much all of the early proposals – the definitive form taking shape to mitigate the falling beltline, which Opron told chroniclers would otherwise have made for a “ridiculously small boot“.
Despite the lack of overt styling flourishes, there was a tremendous sense of dynamism to the SM’s lines, with a notable contrast between the clean, almost unadorned nose to the almost discordant rear, which has something of the aesthetic of an aircraft’s jet engine extractors. This area has been the most criticised of the SM’s visual envelope and perhaps suffers from too many elements converging with one another, but discord is often an important and sometimes overlooked element of design realisation. Certainly, nobody could accuse Citroën’s designers of not being bold.
A 1:1 scale mockup was created in May 1968 to be reviewed by Bercot and his deputy, Antoine Brueder. This duo-tone full-size plaster styling model was presented and despite some reported misgivings from Brueder over the lack of chrome garnish, it was approved unaltered.
One of the SM’s most distinctive features was its fully glazed double curvature nose section, containing six rectangular headlamps, two of which turned hydraulically with the steering (also controlled for pitch variation), which Opron had insisted upon for sound aerodynamic reasons. At a style briefing with senior management however, production engineers dismissed his scheme as unworkable. Bercot, unimpressed by their attitude, placed an ultimatum before them to “either resign, or get to work.“
Some you win, some you lose: Opron maintained that the decision to allow provision for a four-cylinder version of the SM forced a compromised location for the windscreen base. The final design had this placed higher and further back than was ideal, leading to a more vertical screen angle and a higher scuttle line than intended. All the more perplexing because Opron insisted this entry-level derivation was anathema to Bercot, who refused to countenance it.
Although aerodynamic performance was central to the SM’s body design, the final shape was not submitted for wind tunnel tests until well after the design had been finalised. Nevertheless these tests showed a drag coefficient some 25% less than the concurrent DS model, itself regarded as a paragon in this area at the time. Opron’s close co-operation with Citroën’s aerodynamics specialist, Delassus and his previous experience with Nord Aviation appears to have been fruitful.
The design of the SM’s cabin was the responsibility of Michel Harmand, the brief being to reflect the SM’s performance capabilities, but with an ambience of luxury and ease. Henri Dargent proposed a design combining four circular instruments within a sweeping arced binnacle. However, owing to the fixed positioning of both steering column and windscreen base, legibility was horribly compromised. However, Dargent then arrived at a clever solution, whereby ellipsoidal instruments were substituted, eliminating the problem.
Several steering wheel designs were also evaluated before the definitive single spoke wheel with a large ovoid central crash-pad was decided upon. The use of anodised stainless steel throughout the cabin added visual richness, while the seat design and generous appointments left no doubt as to the Citroën’s luxury status.
The SM’s style would perhaps represent not only the peak of this form of late Sixties modernism – a logical visual progression from the radical pragmatism of the DS. To this day it remains incomparable, otherworldly; a thrilling symbiosis of pure function and voluptuous sensuality, and testament not only to the ideals of progress, as embodied by Citroën during this most creative period of their history, but also to a design team at the very peak of their powers.
The question now was how it would be received?
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
 Opron describes his astonishment of the Rue de Theatre styling studio’s dark, decrepit and dilapidated state. The entire Bureau d’Etudes was moved to the modern Vélizy facility in 1968.[Source:Peter Pijlman]
 Both men were talented amateur artists in their own right – Bertoni being both a painter and sculptor. Opron described him as one of the “greatest artists the world has ever known”. [Source: Peter Pijlman]
 While the revisions to the Ami were very much Opron’s work, the acclaimed 1967 DS facelift was acknowledged by him to have been an elaboration of a scheme originated by Bertoni, prior to his death. [Source: Peter Pijlman]
 A proposal from Bertone by Giorgetto Giugiaro was considered, which was a more overtly rakish design. This was strongly supported by Maserati’s Giulio Alfieri, but was not favoured by Citroën management.[Source: Jan Norbye]
 According to Opron, his reply to Brueder was to point out that cars were not made like saucisson; Brueder’s response being that he hoped they could sell the car to butchers! [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 At Bercot’s behest, Opron was given a direct telephone line to Citroën’s CEO, and it would appear that the two men enjoyed a professional rapport. It is rather telling that Opron was quoted as saying, “I did the SM with Pierre Bercot”.[Source: Peter Pijlman/Marc Sonnery]
 When Giulio Alfieri saw the proposed instrumentation, he reportedly reacted “very negatively”, convincing Bercot to reject them. However, Opron won that particular argument. [Marc Sonnery]
A number of names were suggested for the car, mostly some combination of its S-Vehicle nomenclature and Maserati. Sa Majesté was proposed by Opron’s team, and while not adopted, it became the SM’s unofficial title. [Source: Peter Pijlman]
Key figures within the style centre with direct influence on the SM design were as follows:
Robert Opron – Design oversight – senior management liaison.
Jacques Charreton – Concept design. Structural design/ liaison with body engineering
André Estaque – Body design engineer.
Jean Giret – Concept design. Three dimensional Modeller/ detail design.
Michel Harmand – Interior design.
Henri Dargent – Instrument panel design.
Henry de Ségur Lauve was a freelance American designer of French extraction who was employed by Pierre Bercot to stimulate his design team. It’s unclear just how influential he was to the SM’s design, but it is known he did submit proposals, which Bercot is stated to have dismissed.