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.

20 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 !)

    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!)

    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).

  6. Hi Eóin
    This is a very interesting series of articles. So far I had read only partial and probably unreliable accounts about the gestation and the birth of the SM. Now, thanks to your piece, I have the broad picture. Of course it’s more complicated and more unexpected than one might think and than how it was presented at the time.
    I remember quite well its release. I was born in 1944 in Paris. My father had a 1938 11CV Légère he had bought in 1939 and he kept until the early 1950’s. Then he had a Renault Frégate and several DSs until the 1970’s.

    Commercially the SM could only fail:
    1. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s the DS was a commercial success as the executive car of choice. It had no real competitor on the French market at a time when there was still tariffs within the European Common Market. Yet it was viewed by the younger generations like mine as the car for the bourgeois and the elderly. It was an era when a new hero appeared in the social landscape: the “dynamic executive”. He was no longer a bureaucrat like his older counterparts. He had done part of his studies in the US and therefore would speak “American”, was savvy in finance, marketing, management, etc., was overtly ambitious and keen to take up challenges. He was a trend-setter, a role model for the younger professionals. With the opening of the borders he would go for Alpha Romeos, BMWs, Rovers, stuff befitting better his persona and standing. The SM was little more than a DS on steroids, a car for the older generation.
    2. The French automakers since WW II had missed the class about the basic requisites for a luxury model to be successful: one of them being branding. You can’t sell a high-end model in the same dealership and with the same logo and 2CVs and corrugated iron H Vans, dubbed Le Tube ( Renault, Peugeot and Simca consistently failed for that simple reason and never learned from their mistakes. Even VW made the same mistake with the Phaeton.
    3. It had very rational specs: you could drive in a few hours from Paris to Lyon on the brand new autoroute that had no speed limitation and still practically no traffic at more than 160kph in perfect comfort. The question is: who needs that? The buying motivations for a luxury car are different.
    4. If you enter the luxury car market your first model needs to be perfect in terms of both real and perceived quality. Alas, as usual with Citroën, there were many issues and the response was unabashedly arrogant.
    This is only a limited number of reasons why it couldn’t work.

    1. Nicolas, welcome. Thanks for your comment and for your insights from the home market. You make some very astute points as to the shifting tastes of the French business executive and why Citroen may have struggled with upmarket offerings.

      The bibliography list of reference material (see above) is also a very worthwhile source of further reading should you wish to delve further – “Accidental Death of an Icon” is particularly detailed as to the whys and wherefores. You can also find a large quantity of double chevron-related material in the DTW archive.

    2. My father was the typical Citroënist: he wouldn’t buy anything else until the end of his life. He was a good representative of the old school executive, very conservative in his way of doing business. He was not very savvy in marketing, branding, etc. It was technology first then the commercial services had to manage to sell the product. That’s the way the DS and the SM were conceived. It was also a time when most people would stay in the same company for all their career.
      At the turn of the 1960’s/1970’s the new breed of young execs were very much influenced by the American business culture. It translated into their consumption in general and of course in the type of car they wanted to be seen in. Citroën’s range with its 2CV, the car of the poor, at one end and at the other end its DS, the car of the bourgeois, sedate and uninvolving to drive, didn’t have the right image for those guys. So, whatever the quality of the SM, Citroën was not the right brand for them.
      Moreover the company’s CEO would have to park his DS Pallas next to his employees’ IDs that looked more and more like DSs and on top of that one could buy DIY DSisation and even Pallasisation kits that would completely blur the social hierarchy. You had to look at the gear lever to make the difference. The CEO started driving a Mercedes and the dynamic executive an Alpha Romeo. The ID saved Citroën from bankruptcy in the 1950’s but it probably didn’t do much good to the DS in the long run.
      Since the SM was supposed to encroach on the 911’s market share, let’s compare with Porsche’s business model. It’s a car for the young that’s bought by the middle-aged: most the young can’t afford it and the middle-aged buy it because it’s the car they dreamed of when they were young and that’s what they want to be seen in (not to mention the sheer pleasure of driving it). Citroën, the brand for the middle-aged, can only miss this target (not to mention the uninvolving experience of driving an SM).
      The SM was designed to be the halo model supposed to give some pep to a rather boring and chaotic line up but not only it didn’t help selling 2CVs but the 2CV was certainly a handicap for selling SMs. They should have done the equivalent of the Ford Capri, the affordable sporty car that did for Ford exactly what the SM was supposed to do for Citroën. However you bet that Citroën’s equivalent of the Capri could only be FWD with hydro-pneumatic suspension and look like a GS (if designed by Opron). Remember Chapron’s DS cabriolets!
      Citroën had no clue about branding. When Toyota was designing what would become the Lexus brand a poll showed them that their American target customers would rather die than be seen in a Toyota dealership. That’s why they created the new brand with its own dealer network. The other Japanese makers followed suit.
      Neither Citroën, Renault nor Peugeot understood this basic principle.

  7. Hi Nicolas, I suppose you are partially correct, but not entirely. I offer this brief counterargument regarding the USA market. Ford were selling Pintos and Thunderbirds out of the same showrooms, and doing rather well. Similarly, Chevrolet were doing well selling Vegas and Corvettes. Even in Germany a decade earlier, BMW were selling Isettas and 507s… OK the 507 didn’t sell, and as you mention, it was a different time. But back to the USA, Citroën were only selling the DS there. And as far as being savvy in marketing, the SM managed to win (or some say buy) the Motor Trend Car of the Year award for 1972.

    That year I was nine and a friend’s father was considering an SM to replace his Opel GT. I was somewhat disappointed when a gold 911 Targa showed up on his driveway, but it was explained that the SM was too expensive.

    1. Hi gooddog

      You are right, you’ll find many exceptions. Yet for marketing-savvy makers, whatever the type of product they make, branding is considered a key to success. When Mercedes was considering introducing the A Class line up they were rather concerned that, being “low-end” by their standard, it would be bad for the image of the S Class. OTOH, the AlphaSud certainly contributed to Alpha Romeo’s going downhill.

      One of the very interesting thing in the article is this: “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.”
      I had never heard of Claude Alain Sarre before and I completely agree with him. I understand why he resigned. With Bercot’s tyrannical style of management there is nothing else you can do if you have a better insight than his. The first years of the DS were catastrophic and led Citroën to the brink of bankruptcy. It was because of Bercot’s mistakes. He is responsible for the final demise too. What a disaster! And Peugeot just killed Citroën.

      I am amazed Citroën never realized what a thorn in their side was the 2CV and its offshoots, the Ami 6 and 8, etc. It was designed to be the car of the poor: the farmers and the workers. By design you could carry a basket of eggs across a freshly ploughed field without breaking one. Great! Yet I remember quite well in the fifties and sixties you would never see a 2CV in a farm courtyard besides the mailman’s. There was one make for farmers: Peugeot. It was 203, 403, 404, saloons, estates, pick-ups. Why so? The 2CV was so practical, rugged, economical. Well, on a 2CV there was like a banner reading “I am poor”. A poor man doesn’t want make the statement he is poor.

      So the market for the 2CV was mainly:
      1. The people who made a vow of poverty: the priests, the nuns, the hippies, the artists, the people choosing to live on the margins of society, and in general the people who don’t care about what others say. The German Grünen (Greens) would travel in a 2CV fourgonette with the sticker “Atomkraft, nein danke” (Atom industry, no thanks).
      2. The people who really couldn’t afford anything else.
      3. The wife in well-off families. My mother had several… yet at one point she switched to Autobianchi and Renault R6, real cars.
      4. In those families it was the present given to the child who had passed his/her final exam (the baccalauréat). It was the cheapest and the safest a for young driver. Later he/she would keep a fond memory of the car that allowed him/her to go for the first time on his/her own on vacations with boy/girlfriend and buddies. Yet as soon as it was possible he/she would buy a Renault R4 or anything else.
      5. Some people who could afford much better and lived in posh neighborhoods would have one to make a statement, mainly with the special models like the Charleston, and/or use it in their country house.

      Very few people bought a 2CV by choice. Later Citroën based its ad campaigns on the slogan “La 2CV : plus qu’une voiture, un art de vivre” (the 2CV: more than a car, an art of living.) and today fans try to convey the idea that the 2CV was a cult like the Austin Mini or the Beetle. It never happened. You would drive a 2CV either because you had no choice or because you didn’t care, not because you liked it and even less because it was trendy.

      Blue collars would rather go for Renault 4CV, Dauphine, R8, R10, Simca 1000, stuff that looked an drove like a car and that don’t make you look ridiculous. When the Renault R4 was introduced it instantly outsold the 2CV even though it was significantly more expensive. It was the French best selling model several years in a row. It was a real car, not a DIY vehicle. I think that the 2CV actually served the R4 career well: since the 2CV was the car of the poor you could drive an R4 without looking that poor. I am sure that if Citroën had discontinued the 2CV then the title “car of the poor” would have been transferred to the R4. And if they had made a more modern model it would have outsold the R4 too.

      There is something else that always puzzled me with Citroën’s management. For the French, in terms of quality, there are two gold standards:
      1. On the upper end it’s Rolls-Royce. You would say: “The Mont-Blanc pens are the Rolls of the pens.”
      2. On the lower end it’s the 2CV. Of a poor quality, promotional pen made in a third-world country you would say: “It’s the 2CV of the pens.” It started in the fifties and is still used to this day, three decades after the 2CV was discontinued.
      How come Citroën’s management, especially the marketing division, didn’t ring the alarm bell immediately: “One of our products became the reference of low-end, low quality, shoddy goods. Let’s pull the plug on it as soon as possible! And let’s hope people will forget it. Otherwise everything with a double chevron will be impacted.” No, they kept manufacturing it for more than 40 years. And yet it was not a great success. So it helped Renault sell R4s and contributed to the failure of the SM.

      How many mistakes! It’s one of the signs of their arrogance. No wonder the SM didn’t sell well, especially with its own quality issues.


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