In 1961, Citroën began work on 'Project S' — a sports variant of the revolutionary Citroën DS. As was customary for the firm, many running concept vehicles were developed, increasingly complex and upmarket from the DS. Citroën purchased Maserati in 1968 with the intention of harnessing Maserati's high-performance engine technology to produce a true Gran Turismo car, combining the sophisticated Citroën suspension with a Maserati V6.
The result was the Citroën SM first shown at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1970. It finally went on sale in France in September of that year. All produced were left-hand-drive, although three official RHD conversions were done in the UK, and recently also Australia.
The origin of the model name 'SM' is not clear. The 'S' may derive from the Project 'S' designation, the aim of which was to produce what is essentially a sports variant of the Citroën DS, and the 'M' perhaps refers to Maserati, hence SM is often assumed to stand for 'Sports Maserati'. Another common alternative is Série Maserati, but others have suggested it is short for 'Sa Majesté' (Her Majesty in French), which aligns with the common DS model's nickname 'La déesse' (The Goddess).
The SM was Citroën's flagship vehicle, competing with other high-performance GTs of the time from manufacturers such as Jaguar, Lotus, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and Porsche. It was also Citroën's way of demonstrating just how much power and performance could be accommodated in a front-wheel drive design.
The SM introduced a new type of variable assist power steering that has since spread throughout the vehicle population. DIRAVI as it was called, allowed great assistance to the motorist while parking, but little assistance at motorway speeds. The steering actually had the same "assist" at all speeds — the steering was hydraulically locked against steering movement of the wheels from the road ("feedback") up to the capacity of the unit. Hitting a pothole at high speed would not turn the steering wheel in the driver's hands. The reduction in 'assist' was achieved by a piston/roller pushing on a heart shaped cam geared to the steering shaft (hence the one turn to full lock), which was fed with system pressure so that as its pressure rose with increasing road speed, the steering assistance seemingly reduced and the steering centering effort rose. However, full steering wheel turning was available at all speeds, though considerable force was necessary to turn the steering wheel at high road speed. Enough pressure was admitted to the centering unit to return the wheels to the straight ahead position when the car was not moving. The centering pressure was regulated by a flyweight centrifugal governor driven by the pinion (secondary) shaft of the manual gearbox and by a proportioning valve connected to the fluid pressure in the automatic gearbox, which pressure was proportional to the speed of the output shaft. The pressure increased all the way to 120 mph (190 km/h), and a subsidiary function of this feed was to turn off the air conditioning fans above 50 km/h (31 mph).
Contemporary automotive journalists were most effusive about the SM's dynamic qualities, which were unlike anything they had experienced before. The SM provided a combination of comfort, sharp handling, and high performance not available in any other car at the time. The magazine Popular Science noted that the SM had the shortest stopping distance of any car they had tested.
Unfortunately, the SM did not find a sufficient customer base in the European GT market, but much of the SM's technology was carried forward to the successful Citroën CX, launched in 1974 the DIRAVI steering being the most obvious example. The same basic engine in enlarged 3.0 L form (some in Italy had 2.0 L) was used in Maserati's own Merak which, together with Maserati's Khamsin and Bora, used Citroën's high-pressure hydraulics for some functions, and the Citroën gearbox in the Merak, during the Citroën-Maserati alliance.
The look of the car, although easily identifiable as Citroën, is quite distinct, with a shape that even today looks futuristic. The car was even used in a 1999 television advertisement for British Petroleum of Spain, where 'a futuristic car was required'. Designed in-house by Citroën's chief designer Robert Opron, the SM bears a vague family resemblance to the DS, especially in retaining the latter's rear-wheel spats. Seen from above though, the SM resembles a teardrop, with a wide front track tapering to a narrower rear track.
Many of the details reflect Opron's American background, notably the vestiges of 'fins' at the rear. Opron worked on aircraft body design and aerodynamics while in the USA, and the SM benefited from this experience. It was unusually aerodynamic for its era, with a very low drag coefficient of 0.26. The ventilation intake is located in a "neutral" area on the hood, which makes the ventilator fan regulate the interior ventilation at all road speeds.
European critics marveled at the resulting ability to travel for hours at 200 km/h (120 mph) in comfort and with impressive fuel economy on the large 90 l (20 US gal, 17 Imp. gal.) fuel tank.
With its distinctly modernist influence, the interior styling of the SM is as dramatic as the exterior. The small oval steering wheel is matched by oval gauges. The manual shift lever 'boot' is a highly stylized chrome gate. The seats are highly adjustable buckets with centre padding composed of many individual 'rolls'. High-quality materials are used throughout. The bonnet is aircraft grade aluminum, while the external bright work is stainless steel, rather than ‘cheaper’ chrome (except for "plastichrome" "SM" trim at the rear base of the rain gutter).
The SM's design placed eleventh on Automobile Magazine's 2005 "100 Coolest Cars" listing.
In 1970, it was a car of the future and the fastest front-wheel-drive car, with a factory-quoted top speed of 220 km/h (140 mph), and independent tests achieving as much as 235 km/h (145 mph). It was an example of the car as a symbol of optimism and progressive technology, similar to the SM's contemporary, the Concorde aircraft.
The SM won its first competitive outing, the grueling 1971 Rallye du Maroc. Citroën continued rallying the SM, eventually developing a "breadvan" short-wheelbase racing variant.
SM World, a marque specialist in Los Angeles, California, produced a turbocharged SM, which set the land speed record for production vehicles its class in 1987 at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah — traveling 202 mph (327 km/h).
The SM combines many unusual and innovative features, some of which are only just becoming commonplace on cars of today. It borrows heavily from the innovations introduced on the DS, by including hydro-pneumatic (oleopneumatic) self-leveling suspension, and self-leveling lights that swiveled with the steering (except in the USA where these were illegal at the time).
The steering is self-centering and fully powered (as opposed to hydraulically assisted). This feature allows the front wheels to run near-zero caster, and means that there is no camber change as lock is applied, and also ensures that the maximum amount of tyre area is in contact with the road at all times. The system also adjusts the hydraulic pressure on the steering centering cam according to vehicle speed so that the amount of steering feel remained almost constant at any speed, counteracting the tendency of manual and ordinary power assisted steering to feel light at high speed. Thus the car turns easily at low speed, emphasized by high gearing given two turns lock-lock, and relatively more effort is required at higher speed. Many contemporary reviewers remarked that this system would take at least 50 mi (80 km) of driving to become familiar, but once the driver is accustomed to the system traditional steering feels old-fashioned.
The wiper mechanism is 'sensitive' to rain, by measuring the current needed to drive the wiper motor, while the steering column is adjustable in both height and reach.
The braking system, adapted from the DS, employs disk brakes at all four corners (the DS has drums at the rear), with the front brakes being inboard, and cooled via large ducts on the front underside of the car. The hydraulic braking pressure front to rear balance is self-adjusting according to the weight in the rear of the car.
Standard wheels are steel with stainless trims, but a factory option was available for lightweight wheels made of composites. These wheels weigh less than half the standard weight and are possibly a unique application of composites on a production vehicle.
The main export market for the SM was the U.S. In the U.S., the market for personal luxury cars was much larger than in Europe, with competitors like the Cadillac Eldorado, Lincoln Mark IV and Ford Thunderbird alongside a large selection of Italian, British, and German imports. Nevertheless, the unique design of the SM made quite a splash and won the Motor Trend magazine Car of the Year award in 1972: unheard of for a non-US vehicle at the time.
The SM's six headlight set up was illegal in the U.S. at the time and consequently, U.S. specification cars were fitted with four fixed round exposed lamps. Also, the separate glass windshields of the headlights were illegal in the USA after 1967, which is why the DS did not get them on USA cars when it was restyled for 1968, and the VW Beetle and Vanagon/Kombi and Jaguar XKE lost their headlight glass windshields at the same time.
Despite initial success, U.S. sales ceased suddenly — Citroën expected, but did not receive, an exemption for the 1974 model year 5 mph (8.0 km/h) bumper regulation imposed by the NHTSA. The integral variable height suspension of the SM made compliance impossible. The final batch of 134 now illegal 1974 U.S. model SMs were shipped to Japan.
The SM was sold with a small, lightweight engine in various forms, designed from scratch by Giulio Alfieri but capable of being assembled on existing V8 tooling. Because of this, the engine sported an unusual 90° angle between cylinder banks — a trait shared with the later PRV V6. It was a very compact and innovative design that allowed the use of just one pattern for the cylinder heads and an intermediate shaft extended out to drive the auxiliaries.
The engines (always mounted behind the front axle) were:
- 2.7 L V6 with Weber 42 DCNF carburettors, "C114-1" (170 bhp) (1970–1972)
- 2.7 L V6 with Bosch D-Jetronic injection, "C114-03" (178 bhp) (1973-1975 - Not available in the U.S.)
- 3.0 L V6 with Weber 42 DCNF carburetors, "C114-11" (180 bhp) (1971-1975 - U.S. only in 1971, rest of the world, automatic only in 1974 & 1975)
The size of the 2.7 L engine was limited by French puissance fiscale taxation, which effectively banned large displacement vehicles. The engine was also used in the Maserati Merak from 1973 to 1982 (later versions for the Merak SS had much larger valves and a reputed 220BHP) and the Ligier JS2 sports car. The final SMs were produced in the Ligier factory in Vichy. Fuel consumption was 15-17mpg.
5-speed manual and 3-speed Borg Warner fully automatic transmissions were fitted early on, but with the rest of the world outside North America only getting the fully automatic in 1974-1975.
After the 1974 bankruptcy of Citroën, Peugeot took ownership of the company and in May 1975, divested Maserati. Peugeot decided to stop building the SM, as sales were minimal in that year.
Observers often attribute the demise of the SM to the 1973 oil crisis and economic recession. While the oil shock certainly affected sales, it is useful to note that many far more profligate cars were introduced at the same time the SM ceased production. Peugeot even introduced a V6 powered car of similar displacement and fuel consumption in 1975, the 604. In the U.S. (the main export market for the SM), the SM was actually an economical vehicle relative to its competitors. However, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) imposed new automotive design regulations in 1974, effectively banning the Citroën from the U.S. market.
As illustrated under production numbers, SM sales declined starting in 1972. This appears to be attributable to maintenance issues. The early ignition breaker cassettes are very unreliable, and the timing chains cause catastrophic engine failure if not adjusted at 60,000 km, faults that were corrected long after production ceased. The 90° engine timing was unfamiliar to mechanics in 1970s.
Most vehicles require only generalist maintenance, where any competent mechanic can properly maintain the vehicle. Certain vehicles — like Citroëns and Ferraris — require specialist care due to their unique design. While a sturdy car if maintained rigorously, the SM did require two sets of specialist care — Citroën specialists, which are widespread in Europe, and a rarer Maserati specialist, to keep the engine in tune. Once potential buyers began to realize this, sales dropped precipitously.
Components of the SM lived on — in the Maserati Merak (engine, transmission) and the Lotus Esprit (transmission (both mirror image)). 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.
A total of 12,920 SMs were produced during its lifetime. The production figures for individual years were:
- 1970: 868
- 1971: 4988
- 1972: 4036
- 1973: 2619
- 1974: 294
- 1975: 115
The North American market took 2,400 cars, in 1972 and 1973. Eliminating this impact, sales declined a dramatic 43% from 1971 to 1972 and a further 50% in 1973.
The factory always produced just one body style — a LHD two-door fastback fixed head coupe, but the design did inspire a variety of variants, none produced in any quantity.
Coachbuilder Henri Chapron from Levallois-Perret produced seven convertibles (SM Mylord) and eight sedans (SM Opéra). Original copies of these rare models are very valuable — some SM owners have made their own copies of the SM convertible in particular.
French Presidents from Georges Pompidou to Jacques Chirac have enjoyed touring Paris in the two 4-door convertible Citroën SM présidentielle models, also prepared by Chapron. These manual transmission cars have special low gearing suitable for parade use.
In 1971, Heuliez also produced two examples of a targa top convertible, the SM Espace.
Just before the SM's demise, Citroën produced several short-wheelbase racing versions with squared-off rear sections and highly tuned engines — known as the "breadvan" model.
'SM World' in Los Angeles, California has created an extended SM pickup truck, similar to the Chevrolet El Camino. Within the capacity of the rear suspension, this truck rides level no matter what load is carried in the bed! Yet it has the ride of the normal car. As the rear suspension swing-arm pivots of the SM are boxed in like those of the D break/station wagon, a very strong frame is already present.
UK sales were always disproportionately low, amounting to just 325 cars, because the SM was never produced at the factory in right-hand drive. Three official prototypes were constructed by Middleton Motors, a Citroën dealer in Hertfordshire, England. At least one of these prototypes still survives. Twelve Cars were converted to RHD by Chappel Engineering in Melbourne, Australia for Dutton's (the Australian importer of Citroën at the time). Cars are still being modified with RHD controls and dashboards for the Australian market, where RHD is mandatory.
Frua also proposed a concept car based on the SM, a front-wheel-drive car that closely resembled the mid-engine Maserati Merak.
In the spring of 1974, Maserati created a special 4.0 L V8 engine based on the latest C114-11 engine variant. This engine, installed in a standard SM, tested over 12,000 kilometers. The engine then removed and saved, the car destroyed by Citroën. The SM Club of France created an exact replica of this car using the actual engine from the original and displayed it at Retromobile 2010.
Unfortunately, the intended recipient never received this V8. The Maserati Quattroporte II was a Maserati-badged, 4-door variant of the SM, with an angular body and lengthened floorpan. The six headlights were retained and the later 'SS' version of the engine fitted. This model was introduced at the time of Citroën's bankruptcy in 1974 and only thirteen were produced between then and 1978.
Appearances in art and famous owners
Like the Citroën DS, the SM has made prominent appearances in several films and TV series, and has had many celebrity owners. Emperor and Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia had an SM, while Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had seven of them. The Shah of Iran drove an SM. Actors Lorne Greene and Lee Majors, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Leonid Brezhnev, composer John Williams, author Graham Greene, and former Mauritian QC and Politician Sir Gaetan Duval (1930–1996), football player Johan Cruijff, drummer Charlie Watts, Cheech Marin, Thomas Chong, Mike Hailwood and composer John Barry all owned SMs.
- Burt Reynolds escapes a fleet of police cars behind the wheel of an SM in the 1974 film The Longest Yard. In the film, having driven the car to a quayside, Reynolds gets out of the car and nudges the car into gear, causing it to drive itself into the water. In real life, he liked the car so much that he gave an SM to his friend Dinah Shore. Also in the Movie "The Longest Yard" As he's leaving the house, keys in hand, the female owner of the SM shouts "don't take my Maserati!"
- Janet Jackson appears in an SM with a red leather interior in the music video for the 1998 song I Get Lonely from the Velvet Rope album.
- Patrick McGoohan drives an SM in a 1975 episode of the American television series Columbo ("Identity Crisis", Season 5, Episode 3), while Gerry Anderson's 1971 television series The Protectors featured a platinum blue SM.
- Ben Stiller is kidnapped in a green SM in the 2001 film Zoolander, and an SM is also used in an attempted kidnapping in the 1975 Charles Bronson film Breakout.
- Sven Väth and Miss Kittin drive a modified Citroën SM in their video from the single "Je t'aime... moi non plus".