A brief, meteoric rise and sudden precipitous fall.
While there may have been some discord as to the conceptual nature of Citroën’s 1970 flagship, the matter of its style appears to have been more assured. Certainly, there are 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 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. 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 amongst those within the Bureau d’Études which espoused the ideal of a prestigious Grand Tourisme, rather than something “short, spartan and very fast“. With no overt design brief from above, Opron’s primary intent was to establish a balance between aerodynamics, style and function. 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 towards 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 converging elements, but discord is often a 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, told them to “either resign, or get to work.“
Opron also maintained that the decision to allow provision for a four-cylinder version of the SM, which forced a compromised location for the windscreen base had been anathema to Bercot, who he said 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 after the design had been finalised. Nevertheless these tests showed a drag coefficient some 25% less than the DS, itself regarded as a paragon in this area. 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. 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 period, but also to a design team at the very peak of their powers.
Spring 1970, and for months now the prospect of a new high performance Citroën flagship has become 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. Regardless of what Monsieur le Président is said to have originally wanted, the SM is ready to make its debut.
Claude Alain Sarre had been chosen 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 Citroën leaders was striking; on one hand the diffident, erudite, culture-loving Pierre Bercot, who viewed Citroën 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 marque, Citroën’s new administrator was not a man to be distracted by the irrational.
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 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. Maserati’s Giulio Alfieri gave the technical briefing – a snub to Citroën’s engineers. A more overt rebuff saw Robert Opron’s invitation being mislaid – said to have been an oversight, but seen as an overt political act.
Given his role within Citroën, Sarre latterly stated that he had felt duty bound to 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. 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. Later that year, the press launch for the SM also took 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 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 significant number failed to make it through the imposing courtyard gates without making some form of contact.
A considerable measure of the SM’s commercial prospects rested upon its reception in the United States. Having envisaged selling the car in the US market from the outset, Pierre Bercot correctly viewed the American market as being pivotal to the business case of the SM – the projection being to sell 50% of production there.
With the SM, Citroën seemed ready to get serious, opening a brand new headquarters in Englewood, New Jersey. US market requirements had been given due consideration during the car’s design, but with the regulatory environment changing constantly, Citroën engineers ended up chasing what would become a fast moving target. While the SM was first introduced by the Citroën Cars Corporation in time for the 1971 model year, it wasn’t until Spring 1972 that it was fully certified for sale. US-market SMs were initially fitted with a de-smogged version of the standard 2.7 litre engine with manual transmission.
Cosmetically, US market SMs bore a close resemblance to their European counterparts, albeit with one glaring exception. Owing to US headlamp mandates, the elegant glazed headlamp covers were outlawed, the six rectangular headlamps replaced by an ungainly pair of sealed-beam units, prompting Motor Trend’s John Lamm to lament, “the man (or men) who devised the laws that keep that system out of the US have done us all an injustice.“
The Citroën-Maserati, as it was marketed in North America came fully loaded, with standard-fit air conditioning (praised as being on par with domestic makes), leather upholstery, tinted glass and an AM/FM radio for an introductory price of $11,492. US imprint, Import Buyer’s Guide concluded their review of the car, saying; “In our opinion, the SM is years ahead of anything else existing on the road today… It’s the car of the decade.”
The 1973 model year saw a Borg Warner 3-speed automatic transmission offered as an option, combined with the larger capacity 2965 cc unit, developing 190 bhp (SAE) – an option denied to European customers. Top speed was down slightly on the 2.7 manual, but the SM Automatique’s power to weight ratio was better, with improved on-paper fuel consumption.
But while the car of the decade’s critical introduction would prove something of a triumph, timing was not to be the double chevron’s friend. The lack of an automatic version hampered sales that first year, at a point when early interest in the car was high. As a result, the SM only really enjoyed a single full year in the US market before troubles of both geopolitical and legislative natures would engulf its North American business case entirely.
A number of federal regulations relating to impact protection would come into effect during the early 1970s. While the mandate for 5 mph impact-absorbing front bumpers (2.5 mph for the rears) would not be fully enacted until 1975, the bumper/headlamp height regulations were more immediate. The ride height of all hydropneumatically suspended Citroëns altered constantly as the system adjusted for load and speed, and when stationary, system depressurisation sank the car to its bump stops, meaning post-1973, the SM was no longer in compliance.
While initially, the importer was confident that a sensible accommodation could be reached, it soon became apparent their optimism was misplaced. The North American market, making up at least 20% of SM sales, was forfeit and its loss would be keenly felt.
Meanwhile back in Europe, Citroën had promised a right-hand drive SM for 1971, but this failed to materialise. Because initial demand for the car was strong, development of a RHD version (for markets such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) was not prioritised, there being no spare capacity at Quai André Citroën once mainland European and US markets had been accounted for. However, Citroën moved some SM production to the Ligier facility to take up the slack.
1972 saw the debut of Injection Electronique version. Autumn 1973, and Citroën, now severed from PARDEVI, introduced the SM Automatique for the 1974 model year. Customers had been agitating for an automatic transmission model since its introduction, and since this was the direction the market was taking in the luxury car sector, it remains something of a mystery as to why it took Citroën so long to offer it. Like its US market equivalent, it came fitted with the 2965 cc version of the 114-series engine.
A month later, the Arab oil embargo turned the automotive world on its head. Virtually overnight, demand for expensive, indulgent luxury cars evaporated and the business case for the SM too began to melt away. By the beginning of 1974, the situation had become dire; the wholesale collapse of European demand being one thing, but with the car being effectively banned from the US market, its ultimate demise became an inevitability.
So what brought about the demise of such a futuristic, brilliantly (if chaotically) conceived motor car? Was it simply a victim of the oil crisis, as many commentators and chroniclers have posited, or the loss of the US market sales? Both certainly were significant factors, but there were others too.
In his imprint documenting the SM’s brief career and sudden demise, Author, and UK-based SM specialist Stuart Ager examines not only the rationale behind the car, but explores the politics behind its demise and posits a number of possible reasons, much of which sits outside of conventional narrative or received wisdom. For those who wish to better understand the SM’s fall, it provides a compelling and sometimes provocative narrative.
Ultimately, however, could it be possible that the SM’s demise has a more straightforward rationale – simply that it suited all concerned?
According to Citroën’s records, 12,920 SMs were built, the majority by Citroën themselves at Quai André Citroën. France was the SM’s largest market (5509), followed by Italy (2070). Germany ordered a comparatively modest 971 cars, while Britain took a mere 327 – Citroën’s delay in providing RHD costing them dear. The United States received 2037 SMs, while 396 were exported to Canada.
In December 1971, specially developed lightweight Michelin RR wheels were made available as an extra cost option. These were not available as a retrofit, owing to the fact that they required a different design of flange for the drive shafts, and rear wheel spindles. The RR wheels were never offered on any other car and production ceased with the SM.
More on the SM here.
 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”. [Peter Pijlman]
 While the revisions to the Ami were very much Opron’s work, the acclaimed 1967 DS facelift was acknowledged as having been an elaboration of a scheme originated by Bertoni, prior to his death. [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. [Jan Norbye]
 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’s telling that Opron was quoted as saying, “I did the SM with Pierre Bercot”. [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]
 According to Opron, his invitation 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.” Opron made it to Geneva in the end, Claude Alain Sarre flying him over at short notice to present his grand vision. [Marc Sonnery]
 Claude Alain Sarre 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.” [Marc Sonnery]
Sarre seems to have been something of a killjoy, also renowned for a scathing critique of the Concorde programme. Interestingly, former Citroën director, Jacques Fleury latterly also drew unfavourable comparisons between the SM and Concorde. [Marc Sonnery]
 Canadian SM buyers were spared this visual horror, with the standard six Cibies retained behind glass.
 Stuart Ager makes the case that the reluctance to offer an automatic SM in Europe may have been the result of a gentleman’s agreement with FIAT, so as not to step on the toes of their rival’s 130 Coupé model, which sold primarily in automatic form.
 Source: Peter I 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.
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