Politics dominates at Quai André Citroën.
As early examples of the SM began to appear on Europe’s roads, the political fallout to its advent took another, even more high profile scalp with the June 1970 announcement of the impending retirement of Monsieur le Président, Pierre Bercot. And while it was characterised as a scheduled act, the timing was nonetheless, to say the least, interesting.
Because while it would appear that Bercot had won the day over his deputy and fierce critic’s opposition, it is equally possible that Claude Alain Sarre’s unilateral decision to resign in May 1970 not only significantly contributed to existing fissures between Bercot and his Michelin overseers, but may in fact have precipitated something of a denouement.
Sarre, described by one observer as having the clearest grasp of the fundamentals of anyone in the French auto industry at the time, recognised the desperate need for a fresh injection of product, particularly at the mid-to-lower end of the market, where the double chevron was lacking entirely. Bercot, on the other hand, seemed to believe that a move into more prestigious sectors of the market was what was required.
Prior to his departure, Bercot appointed former engineer, Raymond Ravenel to replace Sarre. Ravenel, a long-standing Citroëniste with a background in plant management and viewed as something of a diplomat, was a more emollient character, a quality much needed at this juncture. It was he who presided over the successful and far less political launch of the GS that Autumn.
It is possible that in the wake of his 1968 ascension, Bercot was not only out of the loop somewhat, but as the headwinds intensified against the business the quality of his decision making and remote management style may neither served him well, nor have endeared him to the Michelin board. Either way, by choice or duress, he departed at the end of 1971, and with him a major impetus both for SM and the Maserati alliance – now orphans within what was becoming an increasingly inward-looking business – was lost.
Having divested itself of nearly half of their double chevron holding to FIAT Auto by 1969, Michelin nevertheless retained a profound influence. It fell to François Michelin therefore to appoint Bercot’s successor; the tyre mogul keeping it close to home by approaching his close friend and longstanding confidant François Rollier.
Having the less than enviable task of announcing Citroën’s 1970 loss (to the tune of $80 million) Rollier was determined to revive the double chevron’s fortunes. Within a year, aided by a strong order book for the new GS model, and a significant upturn in sales of the DS, he (with Ravenel’s aid) managed to do just that, with total sales of 665, 691 cars; Citroën raking up a profit that year of $5 million, improving further to over $50 million for 1972.
But further setbacks arose, this time from across the Alps. It was becoming evident that the PARDEVI accord had hit a wall, with Bureau d’Études engineers stubbornly refusing to employ Fiat hardware. And while there was ambivalence on both sides, for Citroën it appeared that the issue was both of identity and pride.
Towards the end of 1972, François Michelin met with the French industry minister, Jean Charbonnel to inform him that PARDEVI was unravelling. The axe fell conclusively the following June, with FIAT selling its shares in Citroën back to Michelin; Gianni Agnelli stating, “We had different concepts of collaboration“.
Fiat didn’t enter into the PARDEVI accord out of altruism. As outlined by author, Stuart Ager, in his provocative 2019 chronicle of the SM’s untimely demise, Citroën had something Agnelli wanted – access to rotary engine technology. The rapturous reception NSU’s futuristic RO80 saloon received in 1967 had made the entire industry sit up and take notice, and for a brief period, rotary was viewed as the ticket to the bigtime. Not least at Volkswagen, who in 1969 aggressively took-over the entire NSU operation, much to Citroën and Fiat’s chagrin.
Bercot is believed to have had ambitions to cement stronger ties with NSU (who were partners in the Comotor business), but with the carmaker now falling within VW’s orbit, not only was that no longer possible, but it now placed Fiat’s German rival in a far stronger technical position. Agnelli, according to Ager’s account, moved quickly to strengthen his alliance with the only other Wankel power broker.
Meanwhile in the US, federal lawmakers were considering stringent emissions regulations for 1976 which would impose strict limits on carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and in particular, oxides of nitrogen. But while regular piston engines would struggle – especially as regards NOx, the rotary engine it was believed, could meet it largely unmodified.
The US big three carmakers were aghast by what was being proposed, stating they simply could not comply with such measures. However, Ager tells of how GM quietly went about obtaining a US patent for Wankel powerplants, precipitating something of a feeding frenzy in the financial markets, where companies with rights to the technology saw their stock values rocket.
Speculation became rife that a large proportion of US cars would be rotary powered by the latter part of the decade, with GM proposing a Wankel engined Vega, and AMC designing its upcoming Pacer model around a rotary powertrain. Even Ford, who lacked a licence, is believed to have developed their own rotary, as a precaution.
By 1973 however, the tide began to turn – a noxious combination of durability issues, fuel efficiency concerns but most significantly the fact that the US big three had mounted what would become a successful lobbying campaign in the US senate to amend the 1976 regulations, which ultimately would be watered down significantly, (ignoring NOx emissions), to the advantage of Detroit. 
The impetus for Wankel was diminishing, and with PARDEVI already in tatters, Agnelli appeared content to walk away that summer. Heedless of the oncoming express, Citroën debuted its first rotary powered car, the GS Birotor, in September 1973. A month later, the oil embargo struck – petrol prices doubling overnight. For the entire motor industry, it represented a crisis; for Citroën however, it would be catastrophic.
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
 Claude Alain Sarre may have been vehemently opposed to the SM, but he fully supported the Comotor alliance and was a firm adherent for the rotary Wankel engine programme. [Source: Jan Norbye]
 During the handover phase between Bercot and Rollier, both men flew to Modena to visit the Maserati facility. They were met separately by Guy Malleret and Dominique Drieux, and according to the latter, such was the rancour between the two Citroën executives, they travelled in separate aircraft. Like Bercot however, Rollier (initially at least) took a hands-off approach to Maserati. [Source: Marc Sonnery]
 Following its 1967 facelift, and the advent of the larger-engined and fuel-injected models, sales of Citroën’s D-Series leapt by 50% the following year. Indeed, the four best-selling years for the DS were between 1969 and 1973. [Source: Stuart Ager]
 There was a certain element of cross-pollination across some programmes. Projet Y was intended to share the Fiat 127 platform. There are also some unsubstantiated stories of initial collaboration on the car which became the Lancia Beta, (which used a Citroën gearbox) while it’s evident that both Citroen’s projet L (which became the CX) and the so-called Lancia Ammiraglia (which became the Gamma) were to have been twinned – the proposed Lancia flagship believed to have been intended to use a Comotor rotary engine along with Citroën’s oleo pneumatic suspension at the rear. Fiat engineers on the other hand, were totally opposed to the rotary Wankel in principle. [Source: Citroenet.org/ Stuart Ager]
 Rotary section source: Stuart Ager]
 It has been commonly held that the collapse of PARDEVI came about because of the fuel crisis, but Gianni Agnelli had not the foresight to predict what would unfold later in 1973; the official severance being announced months before Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack. [Source: Stuart Ager]
Editor’s note: The text has been modified in a number of areas to bolster attributions from source material, in conjunction and with the approval of Mr. Ager.