(Dis)missed Opportunity

Citroën suffocated France’s oldest carmaker in what seemed a needless fashion. Could it have ended differently?

Image: The author

At the official June 1963 presentation of what would be Panhard’s last new car introduction – the 24 – Jean-Pierre Peugeot was among the attendees. Having inspected the new car he took CEO, Jean Panhard aside and said to him: “How fortunate you are to have such talented designers – we’re forced to Continue reading “(Dis)missed Opportunity”

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 Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Twelve)”

New Frontier (Part Eleven)

Politics dominates at Quai André Citroën. 

Image: citroen-sm.uk

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 Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Eleven)”

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 Continue reading “New Frontier – (Part Ten)”

F is for Failure

There’s little new in the world.

An artist’s render of the upper-level version of Projet F. (c) citroenet.org.uk

The news earlier this week that JLR cancelled its Jaguar XJ programme, believed to have been close to production-readiness was greeted with varying degrees of dismay by the commentator and enthusiast community. Many questioned the financial logic of taking such drastic action so late in the developmental programme, suggesting that such profligacy was madness.

Whether folly or expediency, it was certainly not unique, BLMC rather notably electing to cancel the Rover P8 programme at huge expense in 1971, for example. However, perhaps the most glaring and possibly the most financially damaging instance was that of Citroën, when in April 1967, President, Pierre Bercot took the decision to Continue reading “F is for Failure”

New Frontier – (Part Nine)

High drama amid the champagne flutes at Geneva.

Geneva 1970, the SM makes its debut. (c) sm.uk

Spring 1970, and for months now the prospect of a new high performance Citroën flagship has become something of an open secret amid the motor-press. A concerted proving programme by Citroën engineers has been completed, although the chosen name is something of a late in the day affair. Nevertheless, and regardless of what Monsieur le Président is said to have originally wanted, the SM is ready to take its bow.

A prerequisite of the 1968 PARDEVI alliance with FIAT Auto was the creation of a new Citroën SA holding company, a development which saw Pierre Bercot Continue reading “New Frontier – (Part Nine)”

New Frontier – (Part Eight)

La Fluidité.

Image: autoevolution

While there may have been some disagreement as to the conceptual nature of Citroën’s 1970 flagship, the matter of its appearance seems to have been more assured. Certainly, there are comparatively few observers who could cogently argue that the SM’s styling was not a success – indeed it remains probably the car’s defining feature – still a futurist marvel, despite a half-century having elapsed since its introduction.

Within Citroën’s Bureau d’Études the Style Centre was hidden away in an unkempt and dingy section of the Rue de Théàtre facility. Overseen by longstanding Citroën design chief, Flaminio Bertoni, he alongside his small team of fellow designers and put upon artisans would Continue reading “New Frontier – (Part Eight)”

The Eloquence of Life

“He who has not seen the road, at dawn, between its two rows of trees, all fresh, all alive, does not know what hope is.”

All images: The author

This phrase, translated from French by Georges Bernanos is but one of several accompanying the evocative images in the beautiful and highly sought-after Citroën DS Décapotable brochure. These poem fragments are also virtually the only words to be found in the booklet, which represented a hitherto unseen and fresh way of publicizing a car, thanks to the combined creative genius of artistic manager Robert Delpire and photographer William Klein.

The DS, convertible or otherwise, was of course not just any car (and Citroën not just any carmaker) so the fact that the stars aligned so perfectly to Continue reading “The Eloquence of Life”

New Frontier (Part Five)

My friends all drive Citroën’s… Oh Lord won’t you buy me a … Porsche? 

Image: lautomobileancienne

After all this, they have created an enormous car; I wanted a Porsche.” These are the words of none other than Citroën President, Pierre Bercot, spoken at the time to delegate-Maserati administrator, Guy Malleret.[1] Quite some statement to have made; one which flies in the face of virtually every known document of the SM’s gestation. After all, the commonly held version of the SM’s creation saga is that Projet S was schemed almost entirely to Monsieur Bercot’s specification.

Jacques Fleury was the Citroën director responsible for factories, production and acquisitions. Amongst his responsibilities therefore was the Maserati factory in Modena and by consequence, the SM engine. According to his account, the prototype Maserati unit, having been tried in a DS saloon was deemed not only too powerful for the chassis, but that any resulting DS flagship model would have to Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Five)”

New Frontier (Part Four)

What prompted Citroën’s buyout of Maserati?

Maserati’s Viale Ciro Menotti works during the early 1960s. Image: norskmaseratiklubb.no

By 1967, Pierre Bercot had secured an engine supply deal with Maserati for Citroën’s forthcoming Projet S. Yet within a year, not only would he have taken over the Modenese atelier in its entirety, but inked a far more wide-ranging deal with FIAT Auto in Turin. But was the Citroën-Maserati takeover a symbiotic coming together, or simply Monsieur le President’s Victor Kiam[1] moment?

Having traditionally confined the lion’s share of their sales effort domestically and within Europe, the pull of the US market became too lucrative for Maserati to ignore. However, by the mid-’60s, the regulatory environment in the US was becoming increasingly hostile, with stringent crash testing mandates and emissions regulations, which for such a tiny outfit would ladle enormous costs upon an already stretched enterprise. By mid-decade, Maserati’s owners were already seeking a means to Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Four)”

New Frontier (Part Three)

Citroën didn’t have an engine worthy of their nascent 1970 flagship, but it wasn’t for the want of trying.

Image: The author

The highly unusual structure and operation of Citroën’s Bureau d’Études may have created a number of technical masterpieces, but it equally resulted in a number of serious operational drawbacks; perhaps the most serious being the lack of a cohesive singularity of purpose. Not only did the nominal Rue de Théàtre headquarters lack an effective figurehead (notably so in Lefèbvre’s wake), but the bureau itself was apparently scattered across a number of locations around Paris, each very much in effect its own personal fiefdom.

Of these, perhaps the least regarded represented the double chevron’s longest standing and most glaring weakness – engine development. This department, led by Italian former Fiat racing engine designer, Walter Becchia, seemed a largely forgotten outpost; the last meaningful programme to Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Three)”

New Frontier (Part Two)

Just as Citroëns were not like other cars, Automobiles Citroën itself was unlike any other car company – especially in conceptual engineering terms. 

Image: racingcars-wikidot

It might be convenient from a narrative perspective to suggest that the SM came about as part of a carefully considered product plan, but that would not only be inaccurate but also misleading. In fact, the model came into being almost by accident or at least osmosis; primarily at the behest of company president, Pierre Bercot, but at a more fundamental level in response to another man’s determination to prove a principle.

Few carmakers operated quite like Automobiles Citroën, not only during the tenure of the company’s eponymous founder and chief architect, but equally in the years that followed the carmaker’s initial cashflow crisis, collapse, and takeover by Michelin in 1934. Michelin had placed Pierre-Jules Boulanger as company President, under whom existed an environment which permitted Citroën engineers a great deal of freedom to Continue reading “New Frontier (Part Two)”

New Frontier (Part One)

Over a series of articles, we examine yesterday’s vision of the future – the incomparable Citroën SM.

(c) stubs-auto.fr

Observing events through a half-century old prism can make for a faulty tool; contemporary visions of the future appearing to modern eyes, slightly naïve and somewhat inaccurate. Not necessarily a consequence of inexperience or ill-thought execution; certainly not in this particular case, it is as likely to pivot around the manner in which socio-economic factors, and customer tastes evolve, to say nothing of the relentless march of time itself.

Has any carmaker done more to Continue reading “New Frontier (Part One)”

Non-Conformist (Part One)

The future arrived in 1970. It was called GS.

(c) citroenorigins

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 Franco-Italian feature film, The Conformist is billed as a cinematic masterpiece. Set during the 1930s fascist-era Italy, its themes of politics, betrayal, and psycho-sexual guilt, framed within Vittorio Storaro’s lavish cinematography remain as provocative today as they were when first screened in cinemas half a century ago.

As the 1960s gave way, France had witnessed a stark moment of unease in the Spring of 1968 when the conformism of French society was violently challenged in the streets of Paris by a younger generation, determined to Continue reading “Non-Conformist (Part One)”

An American in Paris

As Citroën’s SM turns 50, we trace an unlikely inspiration.

(c) Conservatoire Citroen

During a cocktail party at the French consulate in Detroit in 1960 – it is not known if any Ferrero Rochers were served – Citroën president Pierre Bercot met a man by the name of Henry de Ségur Lauve. Present as an interpreter because of his excellent command of both French and English, de Ségur Lauve was soon engaged in animated conversation with Bercot as the Citroën boss discovered that the Franco-American had considerable previous experience in car design.

Born in 1910, in Montclair, New Jersey, Henry de Ségur Lauve’s family had roots that went all the way back to the French colonists who Continue reading “An American in Paris”

Theme : Hybrids : The French-Italian Connection

Cars no longer differ from country to country, but once they had definite national characteristics. What happened when two nations met – collaboration, collision or confusion?

Maserati Khamsin (c) bestcarmag

We now seem to have reached a consensus that the type of car most should be is ‘Germanic’, being lazy shorthand for something efficient, hard riding, fast enough and, usually, a bit clinical. Some sports cars remain, possibly, more traditionally ‘Italianate’ in spirit, being nervy, noisy and involving to drive. Nowadays, though, car making is truly a global industry where an Italian car maker might produce a model exclusively in Poland, and where the designers and engineers come from scores of different nations. Nearly fifty years ago this wasn’t the case.

American manufacturers found that they couldn’t Continue reading “Theme : Hybrids : The French-Italian Connection”