New Frontier – (Part Eight)

La Fluidité.

Image: autoevolution

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.[1]

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.[2] 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,[3] 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.[4]

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“.

Believed to be the initial full-size styling model, which was approved by Bercot and Brueder. Author’s image.

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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

[1] 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]
[2] 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]
[3] 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]
[4] 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]
[5] 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]
[6] 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]
[7] 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.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

46 thoughts on “New Frontier – (Part Eight)”

  1. Lovely article, well informed and educational with zippy story telling.

    The exterior design is, for me, the most beautiful and arresting car to have graced our roads, and the interior is just so louche and evocative of that modernist era. Alas it was, I think, misunderstood, overpriced (in the context or what the market valued at the time), and, under-developed in terms of some of the engineering.

    An article to lift the spirits in terms of subject matter and written execution. Thank you.

  2. Good morning Eóin. That two-tone colour scheme on the styling model is very striking from the rear three-quarter aspect. I’m surprised it didn’t feature on the production car. I’ve trawled SM images on Google and cannot find any examples of a two-tone car.

    I have always loved the SM for its clarity of conception and pure, uncorrupted execution. It may not have been a commercial success, but the automotive world was enriched by its existence. What follows, therefore, might be regarded as blasphemous, so apologies in advance to anyone who is offended!

    The uptick in the window line, or rather the falling line before (and after) the uptick, is one aspect of the SM that I cannot quite get to grips with. In side profile, it makes the rear of the car look somehow weak and undersized compared to the front, especially when it’s sitting low on its suspension. The imgur app is misbehaving this morning so I cannot illustrate what I mean with a photo.

    I might commit an act of heresy later and play with the SM window line to see if I can ‘improve’ it. Have your brickbats at the ready!

    1. I agree with you, Daniel. I love the SM, but have never particularly liked its design from the B post rearward. It’s too droopy and fussy. Having said that, for me it always looks worse in photographs. On the very rare occasion I’ve seen one in real life* I’m always captivated by how sleek and curvaceous and generally gorgeous it is.

      * In the olden days when we could travel, whenever I was near Waterloo Station in London I’d try to make the time to visit one of the nearby streets where an SM, DS and BX live. Presumably the same owner!

    2. If they all belong to the same individual or household, the neighbours must all be either car enthusiasts or non-drivers!

    3. I didn’t think it was possible to get that many parking permits so my guess is that they own more than one house on that street. Either that or they pay their neighbours for their right to park…

    4. Laurent: Whatever the situation may be, I think it’s rather unseemly to be speculating upon it on a public forum.

    5. Unseemly? I’m only commenting on what I see out on the the street, i.e. in the public domain. Actually down my neck of the woods there is one street where I once counted three Range Rovers, and five (five!!!) Volvo XC90s all parked at the same time. So another possibility here is another weird case of keeping up with the Joneses within a rare cluster of Citroënists.

    6. Maybe you were out on the street in an unseemly manner? Which worries me as it sounds like we live near to each other. I do wonder whether the street with three Range Rovers and five XC90s could be my street, especially if it was children’s football at a weekend…

  3. Right, I’ve got my tin hat on, so here goes. Original SM:

    Waistline raised, straightened and extended to tail:

    Above plus rear hatch adjusted so that the edge of the glass (rather than the shut-line) visually connects with the kink in the trailing edge of the rear side window:

    Hatch adjusted further so the glass aligns with the lower DLO line:

    Kink removed from rear side glass:

    Time for me to beat a hasty retreat, I think…

    1. Good Morning, Daniel. Interestingly, you’re getting close to the R25 hatch treatment in that last version…

    2. I was afraid someone would say that, Michael. 😩

    3. Agree with John, and Michael, … the latter versions gradually morph in that other Opron design, the R25. I’d still stick with the original.

    4. I love your photoshop renderings, Daniel! On this set I really like the first one. I never realized how much the beltline drops on the SM until today. Risking heresy accusation, I like your proposal much better than the original. The last iteration looks quite Fuego-esque 🙂

    5. Good morning Richard. Perhaps I’m simply following Robert Opron’s train of thought?

    6. In the original version there is not so much parallelism – the lines are supposed to conververge somewhere behind the car which is more dynamic than if they stay parallel. Someone once said that the story of car design is in part the change from lines tilting back to parallel to tilting forward. The SM is a late example of lines tilting back.

  4. you’re a good man Daniel, and we’re indebted to you
    for all sorts of insights and treasures and remarkable
    perspicacity, but you’re really tempting fate here.
    actually I remember you doing something similar
    with the E-type, what an outrageous iconoclast!

    1. That last one is almost there – move the B-pillar forward a touch, push it upright, and then you can add the rear doors….

  5. Thanks all, pretty much the reaction I expected. I think the first revision (second photo) makes the rear half of the car look more substantial and better balanced against the front. The further revisions make it progressively less SM-like, although the last iteration, perhaps with a more inclined C-pillar, is the most coherent of those three.

    Thank you, Lorender, for your kind (and lyrical) words. Happily, there are no sacred cows here at DTW, at least of the automotive variety!

  6. I love the droopy window line and pinched rear of the SM – it looks like it is being stretched out, and warped by perspective.
    In my opinion, it really works as a four door too, and i would give an arm and a leg to own a chapron SM opera.

    straightening it out makes the shape less organic, and removes some of the elegance.

    1. Other views are, of course, not only available, but welcome on DTW!

  7. I’ve said it before, the rear “face” of the SM needs to be lifted up a notch. The bumper needs to be lifted up to where the light bar is, and the lights needs to be lifted up above, preferably a horizontal light bar mounted on the hatch with room for the number plate in the middle, and with big amber turn signals in place of the chromed “horns”.

  8. Is Sean Patrick still on here? I used to love seeing his SM a couple of streets away from my house but sadly it or he seem to have moved on. And there’s no obvious SM replacement parked there, so I suspect it might be him.

    1. I’m local too and I miss seeing that car there. I haven’t seen the Nissan Cube for a while either, but I thought the camper van was his and that hasn’t moved for a while.

    1. Weirdly, I really like the one with the reverse-rake rear screen!

    2. Now thats an interesting article – nice to see the actual experimentation they did back in the day, but i can see why they eventually dropped changing the body too much in the end.

      I tried keeping the styling sensibilities of the day in mind, so its nice to see that i was thinking in the same lines as the actual designers.

      The reverse rake DS is pretty cool, but i would prefer it with the SM rear window compared to the more “jet age” upswept one by Jacques Charreton.

      Also – the early curvy SM model with the Matra 530 face looks a bit like the curvy one i made up top, with its window and beltline drooping down in the middle (only theirs was more extreme)

    3. Jacques Charreton’s renders are fascinating, especially insofar as, from my understanding, Projet L was not intended to directly replace the DS. The early ‘Curvy’ styling model you refer to above is documented in some reference books as being based upon a proposal from Bertone and carried out by some unknown chap by the name of Giugiaro.

  9. I absolutely adore the SM. It was one of the few cars my girlfriend liked as well, even more so after I pointed out that it’s name were here initials. She insisted on us buying one at some point, but sadly this never materialized as she passed away in November 2018.

    I love the design, especially how the wide front and narrow rear give the car a certain shape that leaves no doubt to which wheels are driven. The rear end is a little too busy, too much going on there. I’ve seen quite a few people having a go at restyling the back end, but still prefer the flawed original. Maybe that’s the mark of true artistry.

    1. My condolences for your loss, Freerk. I am inclined to agree with you as regards the SM’s ‘flawed’ derriere. Sometimes we need a little sand in the Vaseline, so to speak. Allegedly, it was Jean Cadiou who insisted upon semi-covered rear wheels on all Citroens – it was intended to underline the ‘Traction Avant’ layout – a holy writ at Quai de Javel.

      On the subject of the ‘Waterloo SM’, I recall seeing it there as well – quite the sight as one was emerging from one of the several watering holes in the vicinity.

  10. In the Roupell St cars, there seems to have a long standing Citroen connection in the area. When I worked around the corner c.1985, there was a garage under the arches (Waterloo East Station) specialising in the Traction Avant, at the junction of Roupell St and Cornwall Road. When I lived in the area c.2000, I remember “proper” Citroens being parked in these few streets. Correlation is not causation etc, but it does make mw wonder…

  11. I think we should remember that not only were Citroen’s designers in some ways honouring the Streamliner era of the mid-1930s, but also (and no small item this), referencing the the lines of the DS, which of course also embodied this falling line motif – very much a Citroen design leitmotif, as we know. If you view the SM in this light, it makes perfect sense – not that the SM requires much by way of explanation in my view anyway.

    1. I think you’re right, Eóin, context is very important here. I’ve thought a lot about the SM following my Photoshop experiments yesterday. My criticism was that the rear half of the car appeared ‘weak’ in comparison with the front, but perhaps that makes sense in the context of Citroën’s ‘traction avant’ tradition. Are the falling lines, narrower rear track semi-concealed rear wheels intended to reinforce the impression of that the SM is ‘pulled’ by the dominant front end? Or am I attempting to read too much into it?

    2. Daniel: no, you aren´t over-reading it. The car´s shape has meaning based in fact. I had the good fortune to see an SM being driven at top speed on a runway.

    3. Daniel, that’s kind of what I tried to clarify here, but Eóin has a more eloquent way of explaining it. Richard, I’ve never seen an SM at top speed. Must be a sight, but then again slower speed might be preferable, as I can watch it a little longer 😉

    4. Hi Freerk. I was actually influenced by your perceptive comment about the driven wheels and should have acknowledged as much. Apologies for my oversight.

    5. I recall a very wet night some years back, seeing a white SM zoom past on London’s Euston Road. It was quite late, so the traffic was light, and the SM was not hanging about. It was a memorable (and quite evocative) sight.

      I have been fortunate enough to travel as a passenger in an SM from Streatham South London to Horsham in Surrey. A memorable day, not just because the weather was atrocious (the tail end of a horrendous storm), nor simply because the SM ran stable and true despite the conditions, both there and back (the owner wasn’t hanging about), but also because it was the very same day that DTW went live for the first time. The SM was magnificent – and the sound of that Maserati engine being given full voice lives long in the memory.

    6. What a wonderful memory, thank you for sharing Eoin. If only…

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