Citroen SM | The Brave Pill

Citroen SM | The Brave Pill


French soul, Italian heart – and a purple party suit

By Mike Duff / Saturday, January 22, 2022 / Loading comments

Few of us play the lottery at PH HQ, preferring to save our pennies for the slightly stale sausage rolls Greggs sells off cheap at the end of the day. Which is why we rely on the classifieds to deliver adrenaline spiking thrills instead. This week’s Brave Pill is most definitely that, the equivalent of seven numbers on the EuroMillions after a triple rollover. The Pilldar has been scanning for a Citroen SM since the column made its debut nearly three years ago and we’ve finally found a suitable candidate.

Because while any SM can deliver wallet-puncturing levels of mechanical risk, very few can manage to also bring the VFM that Pills are also meant to celebrate. This one can. Yes, it’s a U.S. spec left-hooker, and the price is getting on for ten times as much as it was possible, not long ago, to buy shabby examples for. But values have risen so far that this £29,950 example is not only the cheapest in the classifieds, but seemingly also the least expensive in the country not to have chickens living in it.

The story of the SM’s creation has been extensively told elsewhere, so here is the heavily condensed version. In the early ’60s Citroen dominated the French market but didn’t offer anything bigger than the DS – France’s car taxation regime punishing the large and the fancy. For reasons of national pride it decided to start work on what was initially meant to be a faster DS, which then morphed into a putative Le Mans winner and finally into a grand coupe that would be packed with innovation. The big problem was finding an engine worthy of such a beast, with none of Citroen’s four-bangers up to the job. So negotiations started with Maserati and soon escalated to the point of Citroen buying the Italian firm outright, then putting it to work creating a new 2.7-litre V6 for what would become the SM.

The engine was wrapped with spectacular two-door bodywork designed by Robert Opron, this featuring a streamlined Kamm tail, covered rear wheels and glass fairing at the front, with power operated turning headlight elements behind this. It looked sleek, futuristic and completely different from its conventionally proportioned rivals, but also unarguably Gallic – indeed as French as Serge Gainsbourg setting fire to a deodorant shop. Opron went onto design the Renault Fuego that sits high on many lists of guilty pleasures, also the concept that eventually became the Alfa SZ, but the SM will always be his career highlight.

Technically the SM was off the scale. Like the DS it had hydropneumatic suspension and hydraulically powered brakes, plus headlight swivelling headlight elements that moved with the steering and a clever all-disc brake system which could adjust front-to-rear bias according to the weight over the rear axle. Steering used a fully powered system rather than power assistance, this operating the front wheels through hydraulic pressure (like most fork-lift trucks) and with the physical connection between wheel and rack only there for emergencies.

The fluid steering meant the SM had just two turns between locks, and finger twirlability at parking speeds. But it also meant there was no kickback over bumps or holes, and indeed no natural feedback of any sort – although Citroen engineered in a powerful self-centring effect. While most grand tourers aim for an involving driving experience, the SM’s mission was closer to sensory deprivation, a car designed for effortless 120mph cruising on France’s Autoroute network, which was still unsullied by speed restrictions at the time.

Making the many complex systems play nicely together would have been a demanding task in any car, but Citroen seemed to take perverse pleasure in making the SM as complex as possible. Underbonnet plumbing is seemingly modelled on the Paris Metro system, with details like the all-black wiring loom and a throttle linkage that had to go through an exhaust manifold having passed into infamy. In truth it wasn’t actually much more mechanically convoluted than the DS, but it was definitely a car that required specialist care to keep in fettle. Something it struggled to find on the back of disappointing sales and, after being axed after just five years, rapidly plunging values.

The fact so many SMs have survived to the present day is a tribute to the regard the car has always been held in by its loyal fanbase, especially given the decades that prices spent in the doldrums. I know somebody who bought an unloved example for next to nothing, and who then tens of thousands and nearly 20 years having it restored, the expenditure more than enough to buy a Concours-winner along the away. Even a decade ago it was still possible to buy shabby runners for three grand or less, although a significant number of the truly cheap examples were probably sacrificed for parts to keep nicer ones running.

Our Pill is a 1972 example that was originally sold in America, explaining the lack of the swivelling headlights that weren’t permitted over there. The dealer selling it says it has been in the UK for six years, and before that lived its life in the reassuringly warm and rust-free state of Arizona. The metallic purple colour is the result of a recent respray and the interior has been retrimmed. Although it is now too old to require an MOT, it did get several after arriving in the UK. Three of these resulted in fails, and although none of the listed faults are likely to scare a hardy PHer, many were – to no great surprise – brake or steering related. Mileage doesn’t seem to have increased since the last MOT in 2018, and anyone considering such a rarefied beast will doubtless be doing plenty of due diligence.

While rocketing values for some newish classics look as well founded as those for tulips in 17th century Amsterdam, there was never any doubt that the SM was going to eventually be acknowledged as one of the all-time greats. On that basis this one looks fairly priced for something with such unarguable star power. Vive la difference, vive la revolution – et vive le systeme hydraulique.

See the original advert here

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