It might be hard to imagine now, more than 30 years later, but in 1972 a French-designed and built automobile was widely regarded as the best car in the world. If one discounts the Panhard et Levassor models of the early 1900s this might be the one and only time a French vehicle was acknowledged as the best on the globe, and that is unsurprising since French cars usually enjoy the same esteem granted to Scottish cuisine and Mexican banking practices. How did the planets align in favor of the Citroen SM? Well, that is a story indeed.
It begins with a man named Andre Citroen, the son of a Dutch diamond broker. Born in 1878 into an upper middle class home, he attended technical college and, studious on new techniques, he obtained a license for a Russian process of machining gear teeth. Citroen's gears quickly gained a reputation for strength and silence, and his business became so successful a prominent French automobile manufacturer Mors asked him for technical assistance.
A mid-World War I visit to the gigantic Ford River Rouge plant moved Citroen to propose a post-war partnership with Henry Ford to build cars in France. But Ford said no, so Citroen decided to out-Ford Ford at least on the Continent. He teamed with Jules Salemon and together they began building cars in what had been the artillery shell factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris. Given Citroen's aspirations, it is not surprising that the enterprise's first vehicle was a tiny "people's car." Dubbed the A Model, the car had a 1.3-liter engine that produced just 10 horsepower.
By aiming low, the first Citroen was a success in the marketplace and the double chevrons that represented Citroen's gear-making venture became a familiar sight in France. The A Model was followed up by the 5CV "Trefle" and it, too, was a hit in the marketplace.
Not only did Citroen build inexpensive but reliable cars, Citroen also had a gift for promotion. A 1925 publicity stunt saw the Citroen name in lights on the Eiffel tower, but public endurance tests were his trademark. His C4 model was treated to a drive through the Canadian Arctic, but that was nothing compared to the B2, which was fitted with tank tracks instead of rear wheels and driven across the Sahara desert.
Through the Twenties Citroen, man and company, were on a roll, but the Depression following the 1929 stock market crash proved devastating to both. Sales took a huge dive, and Citroen was forced to turn to one of his major suppliers, Michelin, for help. Before the Thirties were over, Michelin would own 60 percent of Citroen.
The front-wheel-drive Citroen Traction Avant helped start a rebound. Introduced as the Citroen 7, the car was substantially re-worked and re-introduced as the Citroen 11 in July 1934, and the car proved to be so good that it remained in production until 1957.
Andre Citroen died in 1935 passing the baton to Pierre Boulanger, who found post World War II success with the Citroen 2CV, the fabled and much-maligned Deaux Chevaux. The 2CV was actually developed in the Thirties but the Second World War and post-war chaos conspired to prevent the car from reaching serious production until 1948.
The 2CV and the continued success of the Citroen 11 Traction Avant finally landed the company on a solid footing in the Fifties. Always willing to march to its own beat, Citroen then shocked and amazed the auto world with the introduction of its DS sedans in 1955. These spaceship-inspired cars used an astonishing complex hydraulic system to power steering, brakes, gear changes and suspension.
With the ever-ready 2CV supporting the company from the bottom of the market and the DS giving middle-echelon buyers something unique to spend their money on, Citroen posted decent results for its parent, Michelin, into the Sixties. But there the company came a cropper again.
President Pierre Bercot inexplicably decided to go on a merger-and-acquisition spree that netted the company Panhard, Berliet and Maserati. None of these acquisitions was a particularly good business decision, but gaining control of Maserati did have a positive benefit as far the as SM goes, because Maserati would eventually donate the engine to this esteemed automobile.
That, however, is a little ahead of the story. The SM resulted from a seemingly endless stream of development cars intended to prove to the world at large that performance and front-wheel-drive were not oxymoronic. Andre Lefebvre, who designed the Traction Avant, was the original leader of this charge, and by the time it was through respected engineers Jacques Ne and Walter Becchia also contributed to the project.
After the acquisition of Maserati, though, Bercot decided to turn his back on Becchia's various engine designs and look to the Italian company for a powerplant. Maserati's chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, fulfilled the assignment by creating a small, reasonably light V-6 that could be wedged into the SM's confined engine bay.
When it came to the production vehicle, though, the hastily developed Maserati powerplant wasn't all that wonderful. Oh, it was small and tough, producing about 180 horsepower at a busy 6250 rpm, but because it was a 90-degree design rather than the preferred 60-degree configuration, it was a rattler. Power was, of course, routed to the front wheels via a front-mounted five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.
As you might guess, the SM had many other similarities to the DS as well. For example, the vehicle used the famous Citroen high-pressure hydraulic system to provide both springing and shock-damping functions. Fabulous when it wasn't leaking, the system also provided adjustable ride height and self-leveling functions. In fact, many SM drivers would raise their cars to the highest ride height to ford (you should pardon the expression) puddles.
Brakes also were powered by the central hydraulics. As in the DS, the front disc brakes were mounted inboard, which was strange enough, but the strangest part of the braking system was the mushroom-shaped bulb that took the place of the brake pedal. Foot pressure on this button activated the brakes. The more foot pressure applied the greater the braking action with front-rear bias adjusted by a proportioning valve.
Steering was as strange as the braking. The steering rack varied steering boost according to vehicle speed, which is relatively common these days, but uncommon was the SM's strong self-centering action and its super-quick two turns lock-to-lock. Because of this, driving the SM took a learning curve that often resulted in early uneasiness at the wheel.
Exterior styling also bore a strong kinship to the DS models, but the cars were penned by different designers. Flaminio Bertoni is credited with the DS, but he had the misfortune to pass away before the completion of the SM project, so Robert Opron took the reins. He drew up a car that was clearly a Citroen, but at the same time different than the DS if no less weird.
The 1970 Geneva Show was the place of unveiling for the SM, and it took the automotive world by storm almost before anyone could drive one. When magazine test drivers finally did get to test it, they loved the car, for all its oddities, immediately. As we said in the opening paragraph, it was widely proclaimed to be the greatest car in the world. Motor Trend magazine named the newly introduced American version its "Car of the Year" for 1972.
But the seeds of disaster were already flying through the air like pollen in Kansas on a hot August day. Amazing as the car was technically it was just as complex to keep running properly. Like the Cord 810, a vehicle with which the SM had more than one similarity, the French car got a reputation as temperamental. Then the 1973-74 oil crisis hit, and even though the SM could attain 20 miles per gallon, the turn from performance cars quickly made the SM a has-been. In the end just 2,000 or so SMs made it to the United States, a sad conclusion for what for a brief time at least was a shining French star.