New Frontier (Part Twelve)

America is waiting.

1972 SM in US market spec. Image Favcars

Unquestionably, 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.[1]

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 undergoing unprecedented flux, 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 – the 114-series unit having the advantage of being sufficiently efficient to allow it to meet federal emissions regulations until 1975.[2]

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,[3] 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.[4] 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. Firstly, in the US, manual transmission was primarily an enthusiast buyer’s choice, associated either with performance cars or small economy models. 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. [5]

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, and retrospective.

Because the ride height of all hydro-pneumatically suspended Citroëns altered constantly as the system adjusted for load and speed, and when stationary, system depressurisation sank the car to its bump stops, the post-1973 SM was no longer deemed to be legal. While initially, the importer was confident that a sensible accommodation could be reached, it soon became apparent their optimism was misplaced.

In his imprint documenting the SM’s demise, Author, Stuart Ager recounts that in February 1974, a batch of new SMs arrived in New Jersey, but were impounded for failure to meet regulations, marking the end of the SM’s brief US career. The cars were ultimately re-routed to Japan and sold there. The North American market, making up at least 20% of SM sales, was forfeit and its loss would be keenly felt.[6]

Meanwhile back in the old world, Citroën had promised a right-hand drive SM for 1971, but this failed to materialise.[7] Because initial demand for the car was strong (see below), 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 European and US markets had been accounted for. However, Citroën was looking at moving some SM production to the Ligier facility to take up the slack.[8]

1972 saw the first significant changes to the European market SM, the major news being the debut of a fuel injected version. The Injection Electronique SM retained the same 2.7 litre capacity, but came with a Bosch D-Jetronic system, which resulted in cleaner tailpipe emissions, improved cold-starting, docility and a boost in mid-range torque.

Autumn 1973, and Citroën, now severed from PARDEVI-FIAT, finally 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.[9] Like its US market equivalent, it came fitted with the 2965 cc version of the 114-series engine. However, global events saw this being delayed yet again.

And what events: A month later, the Arab oil embargo turned the automotive world on its head. Virtually overnight, demand for expensive, indulgent and thirsty cars like the SM evaporated and the case for the SM too began to melt away. By the beginning of 1974, the situation was dire; the wholesale collapse of European demand being one thing, but coupled to the car being effectively banned from the US market, and its ultimate demise became an inevitability.

SM Production figures:

1970 – 868
1971 – 5032
1972 – 3992
1973 – 2619
1974 – 294
1975 – 115

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 by far (5509), followed by Italy (2070). Germany ordered a comparatively modest 971 cars, while Britain took a mere 327 – Citroën’s failure to provide a RHD version costing them dear in Blighty. The United States received 2037 SMs, while 396 were exported to Canada. [Source: Peter I Pijlman.]

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

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.

Citroën had been working on making the 114-series compatible with 1976 emission regulations when the plug was unceremoniously pulled. [Source: Brian Long]

[1] The DS model had been offered in the US for some time and there would later be an abortive attempt to federalise the GS. [Marc Stàbel]
[2] Source: Stuart Ager.
[3] Canadian SM buyers were spared this visual horror, with the standard six Cibies retained behind glass.
[4] A small number of manual transmission 3.0 litre SMs were built for US/Canadian markets. Curiously, the three litre was never fuel injected. [Source: Brian Long.]
[5] Also damaging the SM’s sales prospects were similar engine-related issues that bedevilled European models.
[6] Ironically, the contraction in demand as a result of the oil crisis was comparatively minor in North America – the SM being viewed as quite fuel-efficient for that type of car.
[7] Frustrated at Citroen’s tardiness, UK main dealer, Middleton Motors offered to convert SMs to RHD, signing an agreement with Citroën to supply all RHD markets – believed to be around 500 cars a year. Three prototypes were built at a purpose built factory in St Albans, but this also fell prey to the crisis at the double chevron. [Source: Stuart Ager/ Peter I Pijlman]
[8] A disputed number were built by Ligier in Abrest during 1974/5. [Source: Peter I Pijlman.]
[9] Author, 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 PARDEVI-FIAT, so as not to step on the toes of their rival’s 130 Coupé model, which sold primarily in automatic form.

Read the series in full.

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.

15 thoughts on “New Frontier (Part Twelve)”

  1. I am fascinated by the US’s headlamp regulations, which mandated two types of sealed beam lamp/bulb unit, one round the other rectangular. The logic being that if there was only a choice of two then even the smallest gas station would be able to carry both, so if you needed to replace one en route and you didn’t have a spare you could easily buy one. Why sealed beams? Is there really so much misalignment between and ordinary bulb and it’s housing?
    Why didn’t European manufacturers make more effort to accommodate these regulations? The Volvo 240 always looked particularly beady eyed with it’s square sealed beams. I’m only aware of two European cars that had ‘Federal’ lamps from the outset as part of their design; the TR7 and the Maserati Biturbo, the latter made a positive styling feature of them. With US lamps the SM looks very ungainly.

    1. Good morning Richard. The US headlamp regulations in force at the time of the US launch of the SM permitted only round headlamps, either two 7″ (178mm) or four 5 3/4″ (146mm) units. It wasn’t until 1974 that the option of either two or four standardised rectangular units, the latter in pairs, either side-by-side or stacked vertically, was introduced.

      That said, I think Citroen could have made a rather better job of the US-market SM’s front end if they had placed a third 5 3/4″ round headlamp either side (even if regulations dictated it had to be a dummy):

    2. Those regulations were really counterproductive for safety, I can’t believe those ridiculous rules took presedence over real safety factors. Like how MG found out the headlamps position were too low and instead of a very costly redesign of the front fenders simply raised the suspension on the Midget and MGB so the lamps could reach minimal height. I think that takes the cake in ludicrous submissions to regulations…

  2. La Sm, en France, est un peu vu comme le Concorde ou l’aérotrain … produits magnifiques d’ingénieurs mais ratage commercial …
    + d’info sur l’aérotrain (422 Km/h en 1969 !)

    https://www.carjager.com/blog/article/bertin-aerotrain-1-2-i80-250-et-hv-les-trains-fantomes-de-la-grande-vitesse.html

    The Sm, in France, is seen a bit like the Concorde or the aerotrain … magnificent products of engineers but commercial failure …
    + info on the aerotrain (262 mph in 1969!)
    https://www.carjager.com/blog/article/bertin-aerotrain-1-2-i80-250-et-hv-les-trains-fantomes-de-la-grande-vitesse.html

    1. Not sure about the legality of that front number plate, Freerk!

    2. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to obscure your number plate, Daniel.

  3. Volume European car manufacturers didnt prioritise good looking because their american competition were by no means lookers 😅.

    Sports cars didnt really have any competition from the Americans anyway.

    As an aside, the sealed beams were mandated before World war II, and were probably as good as they got in their day. Regulations however didnt change with the times

  4. Is it just me or do you groan when you read the word “Blighty “ in article published in the 21st Century?

    1. Isn’t it just a rather affectionate, if archaic term? We have (British) acquaintances who use it in conversation without meaning any slight.

    2. I didn´t know it was a term that attracted attention. The only place I recall reading it unironically is in automotive articles from the UK.

  5. In addition to insuring that the inner surfaces remained clean and uncorroded over the life of the lamp, there was a standardized aiming system which included three “nubs” on the outer surface.

    1. Yeah, my understanding of the asinine sealed beam mandate is that it was motivated by fear that replaceable-bulb headlamps would suffer from internal contamination/corrosion.

      Of course, that doesn’t explain why, after the sealed beam mandate was dropped in 1984, we retained a requirement for truly awful unshielded transverse-filament lamps (essentially mimicking the optical of the antiquated sealed beam, and producing similarly awful illumination and glare).

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