High drama amid the champagne flutes at Geneva.
Spring 1970, and for months now the prospect of a new high performance Citroën flagship has become something of an open secret amid the motor-press. A concerted proving programme by Citroën engineers has been completed, although the chosen name is something of a late in the day affair. Nevertheless, and regardless of what Monsieur le Président is said to have originally wanted, the SM is ready to take its bow.
A prerequisite of the 1968 PARDEVI alliance with FIAT Auto was the creation of a new Citroën SA holding company, a development which saw Pierre Bercot elevated from the day to day running of the car business. In his stead, Claude Alain Sarre was appointed to manage Automobiles Citroën, an appointment which would not be a happy one, proving neither harmonious nor, as it would elapse, long-lasting.
The contrast between the two men was striking; on one hand the diffident, erudite, culture-loving Bercot, who viewed the Citroën motorcar as a vehicle of liberation and edification, while on the other, the pragmatic Sarre, who had worked his way up from the sales floor. And while both men shared a passion for the double chevron, Citroën’s new administrator was not a man to be distracted by the irrational.
The two men clashed regularly on matters of policy, working methods and structures, but when it came to the SM, Sarre appeared to view the programme as tantamount to a personal affront, both ideologically and commercially. For him, Projet G (the GS) was Citroën’s over-riding priority, not this “big, heavy and clumsy car“. Sarre not only agitated to have the much-needed GS model fast-tracked into production, but also lobbied incessantly to have the SM programme cancelled. Bercot however, would have none of it.
The official debut for the SM took place at the Ambassador Hotel in Geneva, on the eve of the 1970 motor show. Amongst the delegation introducing the car to the press was Maserati’s Giulio Alfieri, who gave the technical briefing for the car, something of a rebuff to Citroën’s Bureau d’Études. An even more overt rebuff saw Robert Opron’s invitation to the launch being mislaid; said to have been an oversight, but as told to author Marc Sonnery by the former design chief, was an overt political act . Opron made it to Geneva in the end, Claude Alain Sarre flying him over at very short notice to present his grand vision.
Given his role within Citroën, Sarre latterly stated that he had felt duty bound to officially present the car, although it does appear as though his was very much a performance through gritted teeth. In his presentation, he stated, “Whenever we plan a new car, we like to achieve the impossible. The object was to produce a different type of sports car – a sports car anyone could drive. No-one thought that a very fast and very safe front-drive car could ever be produced. We did.” These words clearly stuck in his throat, for exactly one week later, he presented Bercot with his letter of resignation.
Despite the drama behind the scenes however, the world’s motor press were captivated by the new Geneva salon star and for the most part, wrote breathless accounts of the SM’s technical and stylistic innovations, unaware that only three complete SMs existed at the time. Not having carried out much by way of market research for their new model, Citroën management were understandably keen to establish what the public thought of their new flagship motorcar. As the white SM revolved slowly on its dais, flabbergasted visitors to the Geneva show were canvassed, which made for some interesting observations.
Planned volumes were stated to be in the region of 20 cars per day, which would be in line with sales projections, with a maximum of 30 a day (some 6000 per annum) being possible, owing both to limitations within the venerable Quai Andre Citroën plant and the supply of engines from Modena.
The Paris motor show that autumn marked the world debut of Citroën’s more commercially sensitive GS saloon, the vitally important mid-range model Claude Alain Sarre had been agitating so vehemently for. It caused almost as much of a sensation as its larger, more upmarket sibling, owing to its technical and stylistic advances. Paris was also notable for the SM’s home market debut and the fact that Citroën was now taking orders for their new flagship.
In the interim, the press launch for the SM had also taken place – the setting being a chateau in the Camargue region of Southern France, where a fleet of SMs were arranged for a cadre of journalists who had converged at Citroën’s behest, to sample. Following a drinks reception, the scribes headed for their steeds and hopelessly unfamiliar with the car’s exceptionally direct and highly sensitive steering (not to mention, several sheets to the wind), a number failed to make it through the imposing courtyard gates without making some form of contact.
How much (or any) effect this might have placed upon their critical faculties would remain to be seen.
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
 Earlier that year, FIAT Auto brought their holding in the PARDAVI joint venture up to 49%, Gianni Agnelli at the time praising Citroën’s advanced technology, and noting how well the double chevron fitted with FIAT’s business. [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 According to Robert Opron’s account, his invitation to Geneva was ‘lost’ owing to the machinations of Albert Grosseau (described as a “young ambitious engineer“), who allegedly not only plotted to oust Jean Cadiou from his role, but also “really wanted to get rid of me [Opron] because he felt I didn’t appreciate him much.” [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 Claude Alain Sarre subsequently denounced the SM as “infamous“, describing it as being “of no value to us whatsoever.” His conclusion was that the car was “Bercot’s clumsiest error, but not the gravest one.” [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 Sarre does seem to have been something of the killjoy, also renowned for a scathing critique denouncing the Concorde SST programme as folly. Interestingly, former Citroën director, Jacques Fleury latterly also drew unfavourable comparisons between the SM programme and Concorde. [Source: Marc Sonnery]
This seemed something of a recurring theme. Citroën UK’s Oct 13 1970 press release for the launch of the SM contained the following: “It can be said that the SM represents as marked a contrast between not only the DS and other cars of the Grand Touring class, but also as between the Caravelle and the Concorde.” (The Caravelle being Sud Aviation’s pioneering jet airliner from the 1950s). [Source: sm-uk.com]