In 1968 Citroen bought Maserati. It was an odd decision but one that would lead to an amazing creation: the SM. Citroen was known for it’s quirky but seriously advanced automobiles; Maserati was known for being…well, Maserati. Citroen wanted to create a GT car but they knew that they would need something more luxurious and powerful than their wondercar the DS if they were going to be taken seriously. They immediately put Maserati engineers to work designing a new 6-cylinder engine and hired Robert Opron to do the styling.
The end result, was plain and simple, one of the most profoundly cool cars ever built. Even today it still looks futuristic, albeit in a retro-futuristic sort of way. Everything about it is special.
The SM stood for Sports Maserati–though there are many who argue that Sa Majeste (French for Her Majesty) was more apt. The SM used the oleopneumatic hydraulic systems of the DS which meant that the car had hydraulic brakes, steering, and suspension. The suspension system gave the car the same high level of comfort of the DS, though given the system’s propensity for a strong lean in the turns it did take away some of the sports element.
The steering was a revelation. Self-centering with just two turns lock to lock it was capable of varying the feedback based on speed. Brakes were discs on all four wheels with the front set inboard. These were cooled by two vents low under the front grille. Six headlights were set behind perspex covers helped light the road ahead with the innermost two lights turning with the wheels. (In the United States obnoxious legal restrictions prevented forced them to replace these magnificent lights with four uncovered round headlamps which ruined the look of the front of the car.) The car even had rain sensing windshield wipers–in 1972!
It was not quick at 8.5 seconds to 60 thanks to the somewhat low 170hp and 3300 pound curb weight. With a low drag coefficient of 0.33 it could reach a top speed of 140, though some tests showed higher. It’s raison d’etre was not about flat out speed though, it was about long distance, high-speed cruising for four–hence it’s GT status. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable car for blasting from Paris to the Mediterranean.
Motor Trend magazine named the SM Car of the Year for 1972. At a cost of $11,500 in the US and $9,500 in Europe, SMs were owned by a veritable who’s who of celebrities, politicians, and millionaires with good taste. The complex engine would cause a number of challenges for owners however, and by 1975 Citroen could no longer out run the fact that the car had serious reliability problems and production was ended. In the end 13,000 were made between 1972 and 1975. A handful of special one-offs were built as convertibles or sedans, but the car is really best realized in it’s original form.
Sadly the reliability issues of the engine combined with the high maintenance hydraulic system became a big problem for owners, especially those outside of Europe, as it was necessary to have access to both a Citroen mechanic AND a Maserati mechanic in order to keep the car running well. As time passed more and more SMs were left to rot after one too many costly repairs became necessary.
The Citroen SM was a work of art. A sublime moment for automotive design that still looks modern today nearly 40 years after it was first introduced.