New Frontier – (Part Ten)

Press and punter have their say.

(c) citroen-sm-uk.com

Otherworldly, at least as celestial an apparition as Roland Barthes’ depiction of its DS 19 forebear, the appearance of the new Citroën poleaxed visitors at its debut. Because in the Spring of 1970, nothing spoke of the now quite like an SM, although the Pininfarina Modulo, also shown at that year’s Geneva salon potentially ran it a close second.

The motorshow also presented Citroën’s public relations with their first tangible opportunity to gauge the public’s reaction to the new Quai de Javel flagship, but more to the point, to elicit the impressions of those who might be minded to place an order – not that any were being taken at that juncture. Having carried out a poll of visitors who had viewed the SM, representatives from the double chevron compiled a dossier of their findings, split between potential French prospects and those from elsewhere.

They discovered that French visitors found more to criticise (71%) than their non-Francophone counterparts, owing perhaps to deeper-rooted preconceptions around the marque. Of those polled, a majority considered one car in particular to be the SM’s nearest rival – the Jaguar XJ6 (45%). Other potential rivals formed the elite of the European industry; Mercedes’ 280 SL and 280 SE Coupé, BMW’s 2800 CS, exotica like Aston Martin and the Modenese trio of ateliers – not to mention Porsche and Alfa Romeo.[1]

Notable amongst the design-related criticisms of the car was the observation that the rear-end looked “heavy“, that there was an excess of glazing and brightwork, critiques which were almost equally matched by Frenchman and foreigner alike. Matters like the semi-enclosed rear wheels elicited only a small percentage of negative comment, but none at all amid the home team. Other cited demerits included rear seat accommodation, boot space and the vulnerability of the car’s extremities.[2] A small percentage (more amid the foreign contingent) would have preferred four doors to two.

All food for thought, but on balance, Citroën were encouraged by their findings. Even more so later in the year at Paris, where the double chevron won the public’s Oscar du Salon, with 68% of the vote, the SM dubbed Car of the salon. It didn’t quite sweep the board however, the Lamborghini Espada pipping the SM as most beautiful car of the show.

The press reaction was of course another source of anticipation and trepidation. The reaction of French scribes was understandably euphoric, giving voice to a collective gasp of Enfin! Journalist, René Bellu in l’Auto-Journal described the debut of the SM as being equally as significant as those of 3 March 1934 and 5 October 1955.[3]

The following year, former race driver, Jean-Paul Beltoise, writing for Champion magazine documented his experiences in an SM over 4000 km, stating that “the SM is a formidable beast to devour kilometres with.” He went on to draw comparisons to it having “the status of a Ferrari, with the qualities and guarantees of a series production car.” That same year, l’Auto-Journal awarded the car their Palme d’Or, and while it didn’t win the 1970 Car of the Year competition, it did come third, behind its victorious GS stablemate.[4]

Over in the UK, weekly journal, Motor was characteristically understated: “That the car can reach 135 mph on half the power that a Jensen needs for the same speed is adequate commendation that Citroën aerodynamicists know more than most how to get the best blend of shape and styling, for the car is as striking to see as its specification sheet is to read.” Eliciting further praise was the ride quality, Motor observing that “for a sports GT the ride is unequalled and there are very few saloons which rival it – it is most akin to that of a Jaguar XJ6.

Rivals Autocar were if anything, even more circumspect – editor, Michael Scarlett noting with an almost palpable sense of numbed disorientation that “the styling grows on one,” and while ensconced in the SM’s cabin, conceded that “the interior has a bizarre singularity that is mainly pleasing.

The Haymarket weekly praised the rear seat room, the cabin ergonomics, the precision of the gearchange and the car’s “fine standard of finish“. Scarlett also had praise for the steering, describing it as “completely natural“. The magazine’s Autotest noted that once the driver had acclimatised fully to it, “the SM becomes as nimble on the open road as a much smaller sportscar like the Lotus Elan.” However, they marked down the engine’s harshness at lower revolutions. Nevertheless, they concluded by describing the SM as “technically the world’s most advanced car.

Across the Atlantic, Road and Track was if anything, even more impressed, stating, “If anyone thinks the Citroën’s extreme suspension complication isn’t worth the trouble, let him take a ride. There is no better riding car in the world than the SM. At anything over 30 mph it is like the proverbial cloud and will traverse big bumps and dips at speeds and with aplomb that leaves passengers awestruck.” They went on to say, “Everything considered, the Citroën SM is one of the most delightful, satisfying and entertaining cars we have ever driven.

Motor Trend concurred. “Take it on a rough road“, they said, “with dips ruts and railroad crossings and when the rest of the cars have had their ends skid and chatter right off the road, the SM will be quietly motoring away.” In 1972, a panel of journalists from the publication awarded it their Car of the Year, describing the Citroën as the “best car in the world”.

Road and Track also singled out the quality of the SM’s gearchange, noting  the difficulty Citroën’s engineers undoubtedly faced mitigating the SM’s longitudinal layout, with the gearbox mounted well ahead of the engine, which necessitated a lengthy, convoluted linkage.[5]

But amid the mostly euphoric praise, there were some dissenting voices, the most prominent of which being writer, Jerry Sloniger, who certainly didn’t appear all that taken. “As soon as you do get brisk”, he stated, “the beautifully contoured (in one plane) seats, with proper lumbar and thigh support display far too little lateral hold. That left foot brace pedal isn’t there for show – more bucketing would be appreciated by fast SM drivers.

Turning his attention to the practicalities, he wrote, “Playboy lovers of touring in the grand manner will have to restrict their birds to the topless bikini and toothbrush sort of luggage – the spare gets most of your boot space. Sordid items like baggage can always go ahead by van.” Ah yes, the past truly is a foreign country… He then went on to condemn the SM as “engineering for its own sake“, summarising it as “a Maserati-pushed pose wagon.[6]

Can’t please them all, but Citroën management could take solace from the fact that that a sizeable cohort of Geneva-goers (some 50% of foreign visitors), believed that the SM, far from having rivals, existed entirely in a class of its own.

Read the series in full.

Sources and references – see Part One.

[1] Often cited as a natural rival to the SM, the somewhat flawed Alfa Romeo Montreal was also introduced at the 1970 Geneva show. Another notable debutant that year being the Range Rover.
[2] Amongst the more curious observations by those polled was that the instrument panel looked “sad” and could have been more practical – a matter cited by 8% of French show-goers, but 14% of foreign visitors.
[3] These dates refer to the debuts of Citroën’s Traction Avant and DS19 models respectively.
[4] Further Palmarès included the Style-Auto Award 1970, for both SM and GS models, which was accepted in 1971 by Robert Opron.
[5] The standard of the SM’s gearchange served as a reproach to those carmakers (and their defenders) who repeatedly made excuses for the poor shift quality of their rear-mounted transmissions. The SM’s gear linkage is by necessity very long, but Jacques Né explained that the key was rigidity. “Get your dimensions right, make sure you’ve got the bits clamped down, and that’s all!”
[6] Amongst the SM’s notable latterday detractors was British art critic, aesthete, and autophile, the late Brian Sewell, who in later years waspishly derided the SM, describing it as “this mannered car, this monument to Citroën’s ingenuity, idiosyncrasy and idiocy.”

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “New Frontier – (Part Ten)”

  1. Imagine calling any car today the “best car in the world”. It´s a credit to the SM that it garnered such praise. And isn´t it odd that a one-time “best car in the world” is rather forgotten? I am sure DTW is the kind of place where it isn´t. Over at other more generalist car fora, I doubt the SM is much more than an extreme version of an extremely odd car.
    Another sign of the times was the way Citroen were seemingly only getting audience feedback when the car was first shown. I suppose it was not clinicked at all, it was the results of designers working in the dark about what the customers wanted. Is it really worse for it? Customers tend to be rather backward looking and sometimes dishonest or at least inarticulate (Opel Signum?)

    1. “Customer clinics have been the ruination of automotive design.” Discuss.

    2. Apologies, Richard, please could you explain more about your Signum comment?

    3. The Opel Signum – like the Peugeot 1007 – was a car that people said they wanted, but in reality didn’t actually want to buy….

    4. Ditto the 2005 Fiat Croma, based on the same floorpan as the Signum, and similarly unwanted.

  2. I’m no expert, but isn’t a “topless bikini” just pants?

    Hopefully, his “bird” would have directed her knee appropriately when he made that suggestion to her.

    1. Correct, anyone going with just a toothbrush and bikini bottoms is travelling light. I think Sloniger was being a bit harsh. One could fit a spare pair of shorts, a t-shirt, some undies and socks into the back of the SM. I expect it can hold at least two large squashy sports hold-alls.
      The Signum must have been clinicked and approved and it turned out that it was always wanted less than other vehicles. It must have been the appearance (which I like) becuase other than that it´s a standard if large five door hatch and does everything those cars can do. It´s only peer is the Renault VelSatis, similarly rejected.

  3. I had a look at the Signum again – even though it had a short life it was facelifted as per the Vectra “C”. I can´t see anything wrong with the Signum. It´s much less strident than the VelSatis. It ought to have at least been a slow but steady seller rather than a complete bomb.

    1. Agreed. The Signum was an interesting (in a good way) looking car before they spoilt its integrity with the facelift, which suited it much less well than it did the Vectra:

      It was practical too. The 130 mm (5″) longer wheelbase, shared with the Vectra C estate, gave it plenty of rear seat room, yet it was only 40mm (1 1/2″) longer than the Vectra C saloon and hatchback and 186mm (7 1/2″) shorter than the estate.

    2. The only jarring note is the rear lamp. They tried to bridge the lower edge of the DLO with the lower edge of the rear windscreen by angling the lamp´s upper edge. Calls for a DOC redesign, I think.

    3. Surely the problem was that it was developed as some sort of executive express, but executives don’t want to be seen in a humdrum-looking hatchback. A LWB Sigma saloon might have sold better….

    4. Of course I mean Signum saloon. I sat in the front of a Signum saloon once, and thought it quite unpleasant.

    5. Ah, the Sigma, that’s something else again, a late 1970’s saloon also known as the Mitsubishi Galant:

  4. Wasn’t the Signum developed as a cut price version of a larger car? It’s a really odd concept – a Vectra limousine.

    1. If memory serves, the Signum was supposed to take over from the Omega. In the abstract world of marketing, that might have made sense. For real customers, a FWD hatchback was never going to have the same feeling as the RWD saloon Omega. I like the Signum a lot. It isn´t an Omega, though. Apples and chalk, to a large extent.

  5. There can’t be too many articles around about the SM that result into a discussion about the styling of the Insignia. Kudos to DTW and its readers. I see an Insignia quite frequently as my mum’s neighbours have a dark blue 3.2 V6. I like it and these are dirt cheap right now.

    Back to the SM. I have never driven this beauty, but sat in the driver’s seat of one back in 1990. It belonged to the owner of the hotel where my parents, brother and I stayed for the night. The car was in good shape, but not in running order, otherwise they would have taken me for a spin. I don’t really have a bucket list, but driving an SM would be very, very, high on that list. I’d be slightly nervous of the brakes and steering, I’ll admit. Every now and then I see one and I always keep looking at it until it disappears from sight. This car has nestled itself in my brain in a way few others have.

    Since we were talking about press reviews I wonder if LJK ever reviewed the SM.

    1. I didn’t – and don’t – alway share LJKS’ more contrarian views, but I always loved reading his work, and I have several of his books on my shelves.
      I just wish I could write with a fraction of his elegance and passion on technical matters!

    2. I had a look at Signum prices at mobile.de. In the words of John Coates, the prices aren´t that soft. It´s been out of production for ages and ought to be near the 2000 euro mark (not that old, not that rare) but many of them sell for 4000-5000 euros except for miley examples. Much the same applies to the Vel Satis: not so cheap for a car “nobody” wanted very much. But now supply has dried up and those that liked them but could not afford them new want them second hand.

  6. Wow! That is a brilliant brilliant article. I had forgotten how sharp, succint he could be, the very opposite of opinionated.

    1. I can pick up a decent Signum in the Netherlands for € 1.500. Surprise to see they’re so expensive in Germany.

  7. “a bizarre singularity that is mainly pleasing”

    That could be DTW’s masthead…

    1. How about this, straight out of Archie Vicar´s style guide:
      “With Ferrari, too, it was downhill all the way, impossible though that may seem hen so many early Ferraris were so abysmal; and if it has been uphill all the way with the Porsche 911, that is only because it was so dreadfully wrong at the start.” I pasted that in verbatim. When did you last see “hen” used in print in that sense??

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