New Frontier (Part Eleven)

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.[1] 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.[2]

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[3], 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.[4] 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. [5]

The impetus for Wankel was diminishing, and with PARDEVI already in tatters, Agnelli appeared content to walk away that summer.[6] 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

[1] 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]
[2] 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]
[3] 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] 
[4] 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: Stuart Ager]
[5] Rotary section source: Stuart Ager]
[6] 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. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “New Frontier (Part Eleven)”

  1. This has been an absolutely enthralling story of power, ambition and politics. Chapeau, Eóin, for the depth and precision of your research in pulling it all together for us. There’s definitely a script for a Netflix drama in it. Incidentally, has anyone ever made a decent film or drama series about the motor industry? I cannot recall one.

    1. Good morning Elias. Yes, good suggestion. I’ve actually seen it, but managed to forget it!

    1. Hello John, I guess the main reason was that rotary engines were compact for the amount of power produced, so you could have lighter cars with lower bonnet lines. They were also relatively simple, so long term cost reduction could also have played a part in manufacturers’ calculations.

      That said, the industry does seem to have gone somewhat overboard in their enthusiasm. I hope that there isn’t a parallel with EVs.

    2. To add to Charles’ rationale, for a company like Citroen, who had a rather lacklustre background when it came to engine design, the rotary Wankel was a means of sidestepping the problem of upgrading their powertrains for the new decade. Rotary engines were adaptable, modular (just add rotors) and could be produced as commodity engines in huge quantities. (A bit like electric motors today) Had the powertrain proved successful, Citroen was in a very strong position to licence rotary patents across the industry – clearly a sizeable factor in Bercot’s thinking.

      Couple this to the strong possibility that the US carmakers would be forced to adapt to rotary in order to meet the proposed NOx emission regulations and it started to look like this was the direction of travel.

      Furthermore, once there is a groundswell, everyone tends to pitch in, and motor executives are as prone to group thinking as anyone. In boardrooms across the industry, senior engineers were probably being rather pointedly asked; “Where’s our Wankel“?

      Not everyone was in favour however. Fiat’s engineers rejected it outright for example and amid a good deal of research on my part, I can find no evidence of any interest from Jaguar, who were a quite technically literate car business at the time.

      The author and SM specialist, Stuart Ager makes some very astute observations regarding NSU’s rotary power unit (which Citroen adapted), pointing out several key errors they made. Timing was not their friend, but ultimately, the rotary was not the panacea people thought it was. Having said that, given 40-odd years of intensive development, and who knows where we’d be now?

      After all, back then, nobody could have envisaged the modern high-performance diesel engine (for all its sins…)

    3. Thanks both. Really I was just wondering whether the (now) well-known problems around durability, poor fuel economy, high oil consumption etc. were known about at the time. Did the industry think they could be overcome?

      There seem to be many parallels with BEV technology now, which is increasingly being presented as some sort of panacea in spite of significant shortcomings.

    4. Hello John, yes – NSU, for example, had experience with rotary engines going back some years, so one wonders why they weren’t more cautious. Perhaps everyone thought it’d all come out in the wash, as it were. And there’s always the rush to be first and to secure patents.

      I agree re BEVs – I think humans have a tendency to be a bit ‘all or nothing’ – ‘we’re going to stop doing x, and do y instead and everything will be fine’. Presumably an evolutionary trait.

      I did a bit of research and by chance discovered that Rolls-Royce developed a 4-rotor diesel rotary engine in the ‘70s, aimed at military applications. Rotors were in pairs, with the first acting as a turbocharger for the second, which compressed and burnt the fuel. The exhaust gas then went on to help to turn the first, compressor rotor. Clever – I wonder if diesel helped with lubrication problems.

      Also, in light of the problems of using metal in rotary engines, I wonder if anyone tried using other materials, such as ceramics.

    5. It’s probably difficult for us today to fully grasp the effect of the rotary in 1967. Apart from a few carmakers’ piston engined efforts (mostly from the more rarefied carmakers, but not all), European engines were breathless, wheezing devices, with little top-end power or mechanical refinement. An engine which ran more quietly the faster it spun (and it spun very quickly indeed) was literally, a revelation.

      A lot of the rotary issues were covered when we profiled (and briefly drove) an NSU RO80 in 2017.

      NSU it seems lacked the financial resources to perfect the rotary, and it would appear that more expensive rotor tip seals (Mercedes had developed one that were resistant to wear) would have aided matters considerably. Similarly, the combination of electronic fuel injection and a five-speed manual gearbox would have drastically improved efficiency. The combination of the oil crisis and Volkswagen’s priorities meant that once they had absorbed NSU, they essentially ran it down, subsuming it into Audi.

      Nevertheless, there wasn’t (still isn’t apparently) any way around the rotary’s inherent disadvantages. (Which again have been covered on these pages in the past – see RO80 and Mazda RX-7 profiles in archive.)

    6. Wankel engines are neither truly modular nor cheap to make.
      The large lateral surfaces need to be precision ground and the convoluted trochoid surface needs expensive machines that don’t simply rotate but follow their contour. Any Wankel with more than two rotors is very difficult to assemble because it either needs a split excenter shaft with expensive Hirth couplings or split centering gears and other expensive stuff.
      The rest of the Wankel’s disadvantages are system immanent and can’t be overcome like inefficient combustion caused by the shape of the combustion chamber or high oil consumption caused by the large surfaces in need of lubrication by either petroil or active/full loss oil feed. Even a Mazda Rx8 has an oil consumption as high as one litre every 1,000 kms and needs an oil level check at every fuel stop.
      The most advanced Wankel was Audi’s Wieland ‘tin Wankel’ made from stainless steel sheet steel and a trochoid made from a bent strip of stainless steel welded in form. It had tip seals with circular cross section that rolled on the trochoid’s surface, causing nearly no wear on the trochoid or seal itself.

    7. Thanks for clarifying Dave. That was a bit of a broad assumption on my part.

    8. The Wankel’s high production costs even came as a shock to NSU when they fully costed an engine.
      Their development boss Dr. Froede was very disapopointed that the Wankel couldn’t be produced at the same cost as a conventional engine.
      The Wankel with the lowest production costs is the Wieland ‘tin wankel’ that is more or less made from standard stainless sheet steel for the side covers, stainless tubing for cooling ducts and an artfully bent and seamlessly welded strip of stainless steel for the trochoid. Even the hot rotor is spot welded from stainless steel pressings.
      Engines of this type were developed with 750cc (like KKM 871) and were last shown to the public with 180cc powering the range extender of an electric A1 prototype.

  2. It is a brilliant series. As well as the Citroën SM focus, I’m enjoying it for the wider historical context – e.g. the industry’s hopes for the rotary engine.

    I was interested to see what happened next to Claude-Alain Sarre, and he had a very varied and fruitful career after Citroën, working in academic and other roles.

  3. Great series this – surely could be the basis of a book on the subject? It’s amazing how senior people in organisations spend more time fighting each other than the competition – in my experience it is the same everywhere.

    1. It gets truly depressing when you start reading military history and find how often members of the general staff appear more intent on winning the battles against one another than any more pertinent objective…

    2. Hi Sam – you’re absolutely correct – this would be the basis for a great book on the subject – I wrote it two years ago! Its called “Citroen SM: Accidental Death of an Icon”, and is available from ebay and selected bookshops. Its currently selling well in France, where it has had great reviews and is available from Librairie Passion Automobile. Raphael who runs the shop says its his favourite book! I think Eoin has been too busy writing to find time to acknowledge where much of his information has come from – you’ll find it in my book! Stuart

    3. I read in the comments here people suggesting that Eóin Doyle’s piece here in Driven To Write would make a good book – even a movie. Those folks might be surprised to learn that someone already has written a book on this subject. Stuart Ager’s Citroen SM : Accidental Death of an Icon was published a year or so ago and was very favourably received by the press, with enthusiastic reviews in magazines such as Octane. I am quite sure that Eóin Doyle has read Stuart’s book, so closely is his series matching it, beat for beat.

      I have Stuart Ager’s book right here – I would be astounded if I was the only Driven To Write reader who owns a copy, and to have drawn the same conclusion, which is that Eóin has set out to create a Reader’s Digest version of Accidental Death of an Icon.

      I am perhaps being disingenuous. Clearly Eóin has done his own research, but only the kind of research I could do by pulling down any of the four or five books on the subject I have on my ‘big boy car book’ shelf here in my study.

      Where Stuart Ager differs from the vast majority of transport writers is that he understands that there’s no point telling the story of a car, say, without also telling the story of the people and the society which produced that car. This means examining the politics, commerce, economics, trends in technology, even the music and movies that were current at the time. For some petrol- (or steam- or kerosene-) heads, perhaps this is the kind of thing they hoped they had left behind back in school. However, done well, a book like this reads more like John Le Carre or Umberto Eco than a dusty history textbook.

      This is very much what Stuart Ager has achieved. He comes at the subject by questioning whether the received wisdom, the reasons we were given for the cancellation of arguably Citroen’s most impressive creation, were the actual causes of its premature demise. Ager points out that people were responsible for these decisions, and that people at times can appear to be irrational – until you understand their motivations.

      Don’t get me wrong, I do like Driven to Write, and I appreciate the often unique, quirky and wry perspective that the writers here take to subjects that conventional motoring journalists either ignore or default to the ‘pub bore’ style of received wisdom.

      Which is why I am somewhat taken aback by Eóin Doyle’s willingness essentially ‘rip off’ Stuart Ager’s book. Stuart Ager is not an established writer or backed by a large publisher. This is his first book and exists because clearly, he decided that this was a story that needed telling. I would encourage anyone who enjoyed Eóin Doyle’s series to go to Ebay and buy a copy of the original from the author.

      Meanwhile, I would have expected a Driven To Write contributor to pick their own subject for an iconoclastic examination, while finding room in their blog to bring writers like Stuart Ager to a wider audience. I don’t understand why an independent writer would not want to applaud the work of another who is seeking to bring some originality and wit to a field which is somewhat staid, stuffy and based on orthodox thinking. Vivre la difference!

  4. Even though the Wankel engine was a blind alley, perhaps including the likes of Mazda and Mercedes-Benz (based on their own efforts with the Rotary engine) in such a joint-venture (with Citroen and NSU in a lesser financially precarious position) would have been a better path, along with not prematurely releasing the engine as a mainstream powerplant but instead waiting for it to be properly developed and reserving it mainly for sportscars.

    Since an air-cooled Boxer was said to have been considered as a conventional alternative to the Wankel in the Ro80, it would have made sense for Citroen and NSU to collaborate in other joint-ventures with the Ro80 for example possibly forming the basis for a last-gasp Panhard 24 replacement powered by something like a 90+ hp 2-litre air-cooled Boxer (whether from the AML, a doubled-up Panhard Flat-Twin or another design).

    If Projet Y was intended to share the 127 platform, is that to imply the latter was capable of being adapted to fit the 2CV and GS Boxer engines as was planned with Citroen’s Projet L and the so-called Lancia Ammiraglia (which became the Gamma) ?

    1. I don’t agree that the Wankel Rotary was a blind alley.

      Very few technologies are fundamentally flawed. The Wankel Rotary Engine is a great example of this narrative. NSU collapses and is taken over by Volkswagen because their star technology is fundamentally flawed. This is a narrow, Euro-centric view. Approached from the point of view of an American car buyer, Mazda rotary cars were both a huge commercial and an engineering success. Like most Japanese manufacturers in the 1970’s Mazda recognised the importance of differentiating themselves in a crowded market, of gaining customer loyalty by being different. Mazdas did not go through engines like NSU’s because Mazda figured out how to make the technology work.

      I have read comments here that the Wankel is not simpler than a conventional piston engine and no easier to build. In comparison to modern engines, Wankels appear to us to be thirsty and unreliable. That may be true of some iterations of the Wankel principle, but there has to be a reason why so many manufacturers considered it to be the next big thing.

      At that time all car companies were under pressure to develop cleaner powerplants. Engineers of internal combustion engineers basically have two choices when wanting to clean up an engine – improve combustion in order to produce fewer pollutants or clean up the exhaust gases post-combustion to achieve the same thing. In the early Seventies the technologies which make engines clean today – catalysts, electronic fuel injection and management, improved breathing through multi-valve cylinder heads, were all exotic, under-developed or in their infancy. If you were running GM or Mercedes-Benz you would be very wary of investing huge amounts of R&D in any of these options in case they proved to be blind alleys. Yet here was the Wankel. Forget NSU, Mazda was busy putting Wankel engines in everything from sports cars to saloons to buses, they were already cleaner than American V8’s without fuel injection and catalysts and they were selling like hot cakes. Wankel was a good bet, and in the US it was a bet that would very likely have paid off.

      But then the Big Three car manufacturers in Detroit lobbied Congress and got the forthcoming clean air legislation paired back. That can be seen as another good bet, spending money on politics is often a sound investment. Meanwhile NSU releases a poorly-developed version of the Wankel in a mass-market car and for a number of reasons it fails the consumer reliability test. Mazda was barely established in Europe when this happened, few there were going to make the intellectual leap that they had made the Wankel work, therefore it was OK to buy a Wankel Mazda. Wankels are unreliable, thirsty, they use too much oil; selling an engine which confounded this established wisdom was going to be a tough ask. So, the manufacturers turned their investment to the collection of hugely complex bolt-on technologies which are (just) keeping the internal combustion engine viable today. Catalysts, engine management, fuel injection, ignition coil packs, turbocharging, tighter tolerances, massively improved lubrication, eight-speed gearboxes, variable valve timing, variable compression ratios, cylinder shut-off, electric hybridisation, engine stop-start, the list goes on and on. Add up all that R&D and spend it on Wankels and we would still have the inherent advantages of that design in terms of low weight, small size, and yes, mechanical simplicity.

      Have you taken a look under the bonnet of a modern car? Peel off the plastic shrouds and the average internal combustion engine is completely encased in pumps, pipework, black boxes, sensors and other gew-gaws and complexities. Forget the Citroen SM, engine compartments today truly are a nightmare of plumbing and electronics. Cars today are like the steam locomotives of the 1940’s and 1950’s, retro-fitted to the gunwales with gadgets to stave off the inevitable, that there is a new motivational technology coming which is developing at break neck speed now that some money is being directed its way. Imagine what the electric car will be like when we all have one, when we forget how great they are compared to the internal combustion cars of the past, when we go to a car show and are grateful that we don’t have to breathe their fumes any more. Finally, imagine what our streets and neighbourhoods will be like when we don’t need gas/petrol stations any more. Hydrogen cannot make that commitment, and for that reason alone the electric car is the future of personal transportation.

  5. Charles

    Yes. Ceramics were introduced by Mazda for the apex seals. Those solved the wear problems of the seals and the surfaces they ran against (no more chatter marks). A reliable 650bhp is obtainable from twin-rotor engines now as a result. For example, the time to height record for GA aircraft is held by a Harmon Rocket powered by a Racing Beat rotary engine rated 650bhp (~100 seconds from ground roll to 10,000 feet AGL). Weight for weight there is not a piston engine available which can do the same.

    In Canada a University (I don’t recall which one it was) built a Stirling cycle rotary engine which contained ceramic components (HX).

    The story of the Wankel rotary engine was decided by politics, governments, willful ignorance, inside dealings, bureacratic incompetance and malfeasances etc. It is reminiscent of the present electric boondoggle (which is even worse). Interesting stories which happen to fall into the category analogous to “he whose name must not be spoken.”

    The Rolls Royce was impressive for its time. BSFC well under 0.5 in prototype form in a package which was very light for its output. It was also a multi-fuel engine. One of the ideas behind this engine layout was to overcome the rotary engine’s lowish thermal efficiency (casued by high suface to volume ratios in the combustion chamber) by having ignition, combustion and initial expansion occur in a second stage rotary (which had reduced surface area available for heat loss).

    Pulse Performance in Wanganui have an in-line six rotor rotary engine design available to purchasers. One of them was recently used to up-engine a BMW M-series coupe.

    A very smooth engine.

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