In the late 1960s, Citroen acquired a controlling interest in the Italian sports car manufacturer Maserati. The big Citroen SM was the first fruit of this marriage.(SM comes from Serie Maserati)
First shown at the Geneva Salon of March 1970 the Citroen SM was launched in France in August of the same year. The SM was Citroën’s flagship vehicle competing with other high performance GTs of the time from manufacturers such as Jaguar, Lotus and Porsche.
The SM was also Citroën’s way of demonstrating just how much power and performance could be accommodated in a front wheel drive design.
Fast and refined, with excellent handling, once a sensitive touch with the steering and brakes had been learnt, the SM was a consummate long-distance GT, superbly stable at speed and with the magic-carpet ride familiar to DS owners
Designed in-house by Citroën’s chief designer Robert Opron the SM is very much a Citroën in design and execution, particularly with its wider track at the front and emphasis on the front wheels and ’glasshouse’ of lights. In addition, many of the details reflect M. Opron’s American background, notably the truncated ’fins’ at the rear. Power came from a smaller V-six version of Maserati’s long-lived quad-cam V-eight engine. At 2.7 liters, it stayed just the right side of the punitive French tax laws that came down heavily on engines over 2.8 liters.
Like the DS, the SM had front-wheel drive, with the gearbox/transaxle unit slung out ahead of the compact engine. Its 170 bhp through the front wheels was handled by Citroen’s now well-tried hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension, interconnected with the four-wheel disc brakes (in-board up front) and ultra-quick power steering
The SM combined many unusual features - lights that swivelled with the steering, unique self centering and fully powered steering, self levelling headlamps, wiper mechanism that is ’sensitive’ to rain, and many other features that are now common place on cars of today. In fact sitting in an SM today apart from the 70’s interior styling there is nothing that makes you feel that the car is old or out of date.
Much of the technology of the SM was carried forward to the CX - the DIRAVI steering being the most obvious example. The engine (in enlarged 3 litre form - also used in some SMs) was used in Maserati’s own Merak which, together with the Khamsin used Citroën’s high pressure hydraulics.
The SM was never produced in right hand drive although a few prototypes were constructed by Hertfordshire Citroën dealer, Middleton Motors. One of these still survives in the UK. The North American market took 2,400 cars, in the years 1972 and 1973. Eliminating this impact, sales declined a dramatic 43% from 1971 to 1972 and a further 50% in 1973.
The SM was sold with three very similar, small, lightweight engines, all derived from the contemporary Maserati V8 fitted to the Quattroporte. Because of the V8 origin, this engine sported an unusual 90 degree angle between cylinder banks - a trait shared with the PRV V6.
The engines - always mounted behind the front axle were:
- 2.7 L V6 with Weber 42 DCNF carburettors (170 bhp) (1970-1972)
- 2.7 L V6 with Bosch D-Jetronic injection (178 bhp) (1973-1975 - Not available in the US)
- 3.0 L V6 with Weber 42 DCNF carburettors (180 bhp) (1973-1975 - US only in 1973, rest of the world, automatic only in 1974 & 1975)
In 1970 it was a car of the future, the fastest front wheel drive car to be made. It was an example of the car as a symbol of optimism and progressive technology, before the fuel crises of the middle seventies and more recent problems of congestion and awareness of the environment caused the large, powerful motor car to fall from favour. In the USA the SM’s six headlamp set up was illegal and US specification cars were fitted with four fixed round exposed lamps.
There is a story that the first SM imported for a motor show was sent by air freight and on landing during the customs inspection a light exploded due to the changes in air pressure thus the shrouded lights were banned.
Components of the SM lived on - in the Maserati Merak (engine) and the Lotus Esprit (transmission). Nissan made a small three-door hatchback in the late 1970s which used many SM styling cues, including the tailgate. The successful Citroën CX carried forward most of the SM’s dynamic qualities, including the trendsetting speed sensitive power steering.
Leno, Cheech Marin, and Thomas Chong were among other prominent owners of the SM.