Ultimate Car of the Year Finalist: 1972 Citroen SM07/09/2019
There’s no brake pedal. Just a big, black button on the floor between the gas and the clutch. The pictograms on the buttons, switches, and warning lights make no sense. The seats are either reclined or really reclined. The Citroën SM seems like a UFO, making you wonder what our experts made of it in 1972. Except we do know: They made it the first foreign-branded Car of the Year.
It was an illustrious panel, to be sure. Created in 1971 to bring industry expertise to our judging, the Conference of Automotive Research Specialists (CARS) included racer Phil Hill, racer and automotive safety engineer Bill Milliken, automotive engineer/designer/reporter/author Karl Ludvigsen, automotive designer and Art Center design professor Strother McMinn, and MotorTrend EIC Eric Dahlquist.
That the SM was heavily based on the existing DS’ mechanicals was outweighed by the advancement of the technology. A technical dive involving rare access to Citroën officials described enhancements to the car’s hydropneumatic systems, a rework of the DS’ unique control-arm front suspension, an automatic brake-force proportioning system, and a hydraulically powered steering centering mechanism to compensate for the race car-quick steering ratio at high speeds.
Also receiving good-natured scrutiny: the car’s wind tunnel-tested aerodynamics and its new Maserati V-6 with 170 net hp nosed up to the firewall with the five-speed transaxle ahead of the engine driving the front wheels. As American automakers were limping into the malaise era, the Citroën was a technological tour de force. Or at the least it tried to be.
Nearly a half century later, Bill Lundby’s personal 1973 SM is as strange to drive as it sounds. The steering is lightning quick, so you’re often correcting yourself after turning harder than you’d intended. Once you have that figured out, you have to learn to be deliberate as you return the wheel to center. Most cars return to center slowly; the SM’s steering wheel snaps back quickly enough to have you flopping around the cabin.
The brake button is pressure sensitive but has almost no travel, seemingly taking your input and figuring the rest out for itself. The dynamic brake proportioning means the car never dives under braking or squats under acceleration but simply settles or lifts gently.
This body control only applies to longitudinal behavior. Turn a corner and glance out the window, and you might catch a glimpse of the door handle dragging on the ground. The car has a front anti-roll bar, but it’s apparently cosmetic. The motions are controlled and predictable, and the car returns to upright just as nicely. There’s just more motion than needs be.
The highlight, though, is a ride quality that would make Rolls-Royce envious. (Indeed, Rolls licensed the technology in 1965 for the Silver Shadow.) Potholes, speed bumps, cracks, seams, even cattle guards simply cease to exist under the wheels of an SM. They’re heard but never felt, not in the chassis and not in the steering. The multiposition ride height is just a bonus.
That tech would also doom the SM. Citroën did not get the exemption it expected from 5-mph bumper regulations in the U.S., its largest export market, in 1974. That and the need for separate Citroën and Maserati specialists to service the car turned off customers worldwide. The SM was dead by 1975. Only 12,920 were built.
That the car was a moonshot didn’t concern our judges. Rather, it invigorated them. “The cars we evaluated as Car of the Year from  on were looked to as promising directions for the automobile evolution,” we wrote. “Viewed in the perspective of the last twenty-one years, the SM fits more precisely in the spirit of the Car of the Year, maybe better than anything else being made in the world today.”
Read more about our Ultimate Car of the Year finalists:
1968 Pontiac GTO
1986 Mazda RX-7
2013 Tesla Model S
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