The cars we loved.
No serious summary of French automotive history would be complete without mentioning the innovate firm Citroen. Having established itself with a long list of innovations like front wheel drive and independent suspensions, all before the 1940s! The company’s products were familiar to Americans after WW II in the form of the cute little 2CV. For those with more recent memories, Citroën is probably best known for its DS sedan, and its derivative the SM coupe.
During the 60’s Citroen was flying high. After the purchase of Maserati, it decided that it would build a coupe version of the DS. Like the DS, it would be front wheel drive and would be a showcase for the configuration’s performance potential. Citroën aimed high from the beginning. The ideal was to use a Maserati V6 and mate it to the advance suspension and engineering of a DS based coupe. The result was a in-house design headed by Robert Opron. The futuristic design incorporated Art Deco, Futurist as well as some American influences, as seen in the blocky Detroit-like rear. It was a sensation when shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 1970. Even today it’s regarded as one of the 100 “Coolest Cars” according to a 2005 issue of Automobile Magazine.
Called the SM (Sport Maserati?), the new sports coupe became Citroën’s flagship car, capturing the public’s imagination with it futuristic design in the process. The SM was often seen as a backdrop in fashion ads as it exemplified European 70’s Jet Set
sensibilities. As a front wheel drive car, it stood in sharp opposition to its rear wheel drive competition from Jaguar, Alfa Romero and Porsche. In much of the world in the 70’s, front wheel drive was associated with cheap little Japanese cars.
Exotic looks were only half of the SM’s appeal. It was after all a true gran tourer capable of whisking its occupants at cruising speeds of 120 mph for hours at a time in relative comfort. That comfort came thanks to a sophisticated automatically ride height adjustable, fully independent suspension, complete with disc brakes all around. The innovations did not stop there, the list includes speed sensitive power steering, rain sensing wipers and headlights that tilted ever so slightly in response to the steering wheel. A feature that even today is not commonplace. All of this technology was accessible in a sleek leather interior that look more like late 80’s than early 70’s, a testament to its avant garde design. In keeping with the theme of sharing with Maserati,
the SM used the dash of the Merak.
There was a range of V6 engines starting from 2.7 to 3 litres making 170 to 180hp. Impressive numbers even by today’s standards. Nearly all the cars shipped to America (Citroën’s largest market) were the Bosh fuel injected 3.0s mated to
either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission. European 2.7 liter cars had Weber carburetors, while US bound cars featured Bosh fuel injection due to emissions standards. Strangely, the manual gearbox was unique to cars coming to America, but all SM came from the factory with left hand drive. Other differences between American and European SMs could be seen in the headlights. In Europe the six light setup was modified to a quad system to comply with US regulations.
Needless to say, a car so capable took the media by storm. With a top speed of 140mph, comfortable interior and a suspension tuned for varying road conditions, the SM quickly became a favorite of automotive journalist. The American publication Motor Trend named it the 1972 Car of the Year, a rare honor for a foreign car. The styling may have been a bit much for some, but there was no doubt of Citroen sucessfully proving the potential of front wheel drive as a performance feature. Innovators often pay a price for out of the box thinking. Despite all the accolades the SM garnered, sales were low compared to its US domestic competition. Coupled with Citroën ‘s financial problems and the looming fuel crisis, the SM model sales ended in the US. Customer complaints over maintaince issues didnt help either. Peugeot bought Citroën and weaned it from its fruitful relationship with Maserati.
Now with the Italians out of the picture, the new owners were anxious to get on with a successor the SM. Many of the SM’s innovations were carried over into a more modern CX sedan. The CX promised improved reliability, but not for Americans, as it would not sold here. The CX continued as Citroën’s global embassador of French exotic design, more likely to be seen in a fashion magazine or music video than on any America road. While the SM is nothing more than a memory now, the potential of front wheel drive struck a cord with the auto industry as more performance carswould use this layout in the following decades.