Posted in Matchbox

Citroën SM – the car that killed a company

Once upon a time, gas was cheap. Once upon a time, Britain had credibility on the world stage. Once upon a time… France made good cars. If you’ve already seen my post about the Citroën CX, you know I go crazy for wacky French cars. First there was the DS, then there was the SM, then there was the CX. The C6 was a beautiful nod to that heritage. But Citroën seems to have since retired from the European luxury sedan market, finally defeated by the relentless aggression of Germany. No matter – the space in our hearts for the goddess and her majesty goes to infinity and beyond, and that includes their scale replicas.

La Voiture: Citroën SM

I’ve heard jokes about the name of this car, the “SM” before. And if, like me, you’ve experimented over the years, you’ll know what SM stands for. If not, I’ll enlighten you to the world of sadomasochism (the joy of inflicting and receiving pain), of which the French, and unsurprisingly, their motoring world, has a flavoursome bounty. Bugatti, Delage and Delahaye were gone. France needed some motoring prestige. It already had the DS. Now it was time for the Ultimate Citroën – a car that suffered much pain, and caused plenty in its four brief years of life.

Think 1960s France, and two cars spring to mind – the woeful, abysmal, dreadful, symbol of everything wrong with the country, the 2CV (yet the second greatest car France produced) and the fantastic, beautiful, gorgeous, daring, bold, outrageous, and futuristic DS (the greatest). Think of the cars Citroën dared to produce, and you can imagine the executives of British Leyland and Detroit spitting out their tea and Budweiser at such economically unsound thinking. We can just picture that French luncheon in 1968, where they’re all dizzy on their Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, revelling over the kinkiest thing on wheels, that wild and outrageous design they just know will be lusted over and sit unchallenged for decades. Because why not? Fifteen years after its debut, the DS was still the most revolutionary thing on wheels. And that was a middle-class, family car.

Great image, but what Citroën set out to do next was to fill a gaping hole in the French engineering lineup – the performance, the sporty grand tourer. There was the E-type Jag, the Aston Martin DB5, the Ferrari 330, the MGC, the Jensen Interceptor… how on earth could Citroën enter into a market dominated by such names?

The answer apparantly lay in Citroën’s acquisition of Maserati, one of the more peculiar takeovers in motoring history. Behind the scenes there was a stake in Fiat being sold, financing the acquisition.

Both companies benefited from this arrangement – Citroën got some performance engineering, and Maserati got a much needed cash transfusion. And within a few weeks, Maserati chief engineer Giulio Alfieri and his team had an all-new 2.7 litre, 170 bhp V6 engine to deliver into the waiting arms of the French, ready to sweep aside the lacklustre four-cylinder engines Citroën called their own. With the work of the Italians out of the way, the French had their job – half done – which was to make the DS slipperier than ever. Jacques Charreton and Robert Operon completed the design of the SM – lower than the DS, sharper angles, space-age styling inside and out. It was like nothing that had ever existed before or after. It was bizarre. It showed utter contempt for popular opinion. It frightened the conservative. It was truly a Citroën, through and through.

Nobody is really quite sure how the name SM came about. Some cite it to mean Sport Maserati (“Project S” seems to have been used for a while) while others have taken to calling it “Sa Majeste”. Majesty may be more appropriate, because at the 1970 Geneva motor show, the car was an utter sensation, and the press was once again wowed.

The new car cost the same as a Ferrari Dino or a Cadillac Eldorado at $11,000 but was an instant hit, shifting almost 10,000 models within the first two years. It was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1972 despite its lower performance figures than rival sports cars.

Four disk brakes stopped the car at a touch, hydro pneumatic suspension gobbled up road bumps, and that fantastic styling meant that, even with the lower horsepower rating than most other cars, the SM could glide through the air at 140 mph. Self-centring variable assist steering reached lock-to-lock on two turns, twice as quick as its contemporaries. Six headlights were concealed under glass faring, and like the DS, the inner lights swivelled with the wheels to illuminate road bends. Critics loved the long, swooping nose, but the sheer rear was less favourably received. Like a dominatrix in a leather puppy costume, the SM was eyecatching. Whether she was beautiful was down to the urges of the customer.

Celebrities queued up to grab the model – Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, U2’s Adam Clayton, the Shah of Iran, and Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin had seven!

Luxury it may have had. Handle well, it may have done. Comfortable may have been the ride. But reliable was not the car. A car built by the Italians is likely to be patchy – a car built by the French is a breakdown guarantee. A car built by both spells disaster. The complexity of the engine meant problems after a few months. Adjustments to meet US emissions regulations actually led to engine fires, and those wonderfully eccentric swivelling self-levelling headlights concealed under the glass nose were forced to become fixed-beam for the outdated lighting regulations of the US market, costing Citroën millions. The 1973 oil crisis (gosh, not this again) side-slammed companies like Citroën, who had just invested in larger engines with poor fuel consumption. No wonder in 1974 Citroën finally said “Non merci, ça ne m’intéresse pas” to the yanks, upped stakes and left their market altogether. You win again, Detroit.

Not to mention the fact that Citroën’s investment in a Wankel rotary engine went awry, Fiat pulled out of its stake in the company, and the company continued to haemorrhage money. A bankruptcy declaration followed thereafter and Citroën as we knew it was at an end. Peugeot took command of the sinking ship, killed off the SM and DS together for good in 1975, and a luxury sports car never emerged from a Citroën factory again.

le jouet – Matchbox Superfast No. 51 Citroen SM

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While I think Majorette may have done it better (I don’t have the model yet – it’s on my ever growing wish list) Matchbox have given it a good shot. And what better way to celebrate that wonderful smooth ride than with superfast wheels?

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I found the model in an Antique store, which is an accurate use of the word. There were some great cars in those cabinets. This Citroën just sprang out though, with its metallic red paint. The condition is great, and comes with the same quality you’d expect of any Matchbox of the 1970s.

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Matchbox got the character of the car just right, minus, if I’m being persnickety, the nose. I think making it solid metal as part of the chassis wasn’t the right thing to do. Majorette used a piece of plastic there to act as the glass farings. Matchbox’s offering may be more substantial, but trust Majorette to go the extra mile.

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Play value would have been added via the opening doors, which don’t distract too much from the model’s overall shape.

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The metal base has a plastic tow hook attachment at the rear, which is a nice reminder that the French are caravan obsessed, and as such their model cars should reflect that.I think Matchbox could have done a better job at capturing the rear lights, but I like how it fits together.

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We can probably attribute the DS to not only the SM – the British BMC 1800 Pininfarina was adopting that eccentric French style, too. Funnily enough, only one of these cars was considered for production by the crew who designed it…

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I’ve praised it enough already, but with that fantastic styling, a car rapidly approaching fifty years old still manages to look like it was designed yesterday.

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I’ve showcased the Citroën CX before, and here next to the SM, you can see the similarities in design, but also the vanilla path down which Peugeot was dragging the once brilliantly eccentric automaker.

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The Matchbox SM comes with nice clear plastic windows and a yellow interior, so the model feels light and airy – no stuffy, dark colours here.

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The car comes in an absolutely beautiful colour, reflecting everything you place it near. My only criticism of the profile view is that front wheel – the gap between the wheel arch and the tyre is just too big.

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Matchbox managed to capture the slick look of the Majesty beautifully – that angular rear window juts away from her sloping hips just right.

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Hooked up to a Saint-Tropez caravan, you begin to envision the French dream.

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Not built for speed, this is a highway cruiser that demands a driver as unique as she is.

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Thankfully most models of the SM are of the European specification – we get that wonderful concealed snout, rather than that vacant, lobotomised glare demanded by the US highway standards.

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Once again, a melancholy reminder of two things that were lost to the ages: quality Matchbox cars, and Citroën.

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Thanks for reading!

Featured image: Citroen SM at Anet. Wikimedia Commons. By Charles01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source

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Author:

Graphic designer, writer for Classic American auto magazine, journalist.

6 thoughts on “Citroën SM – the car that killed a company

  1. This was my absolute FAVE Matchbox car. I had one over 40 years ago, and I treated it better than any others in my collection. If it still exists (and it might), it would only have a small chip or two in the original paint. I’m a fan of the actual car, as well. I would have loved to have one, but would have no idea how to keep her running. I saw one for sale in Utah in the 1990’s. The body would have been relatively rust free, but the engine and electrical system would have been too much for me to handle.

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    1. I had the pleasure of sitting in one at the Birmingham NEC recently. Itchy brown velour and a very, very low roof. Can’t say I’d have enjoyed driving it. But it was utterly sensational!

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      1. ‘Itchy’ velour? I usually prefer cloth to leather in a car when I have a choice (usually I don’t). I’ve owned a variety of cars made in the USA from the ’70’s to ’90’s. While the quality of the cloth is not always the best, I’ve never had one that made me itch! As for the low roof, I leased a Saturn SC2 from ’93-’97. It had about a 5cm ‘chop’ from the sedan that it was based on. I tested one with a sunroof, and decided against that option, as my head kept hitting the headliner during the test drive. I stand 178cm (not exactly a giant). Was the SM anything like that?

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      2. Maybe I was imagining things then! Though have you ever sat on 1970s cloth and shag with bare legs?

        I banged my head on the SM getting out of it, partly because I’m more comfortable being high than low in a vehicle. I’m over six foot (a giant…) so, that could have been the reason! Then again, I have plenty of room inside an Austin Mini…

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      3. I learned my lesson about bare legs on seats from a car my parents once had. It was ’72 Chevrolet Townsman (Bel Air) estate wagon, almost identical to the one in this pic (http://www.americandreamcars.com/1972chevywagon.jpg). It had an all black vinyl and plastic interior. When the temp was above 30, and it was parked in the sun, the seats turned into a fry pan. It wasn’t a greenhouse, it was more like hell might be. Speaking of car seats, I once owned a ’70 Cadillac in the early ’80’s with these seats (http://automotivemileposts.com/cadillac/images/1970/cadi1970devillegolddynastycloth.jpg). Tacky even by US standards, but they were comfortable.

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  2. Having owned a DS I always lusted for the SM and came frighteningly close to actually buying one! I grew up with a wrench in my hand but even I was put off by the alarming complexity of the alluring goddess.Plus the fact that parts in the US were / are nearly non existent. The Matchbox version seems the most practical way of owning one by far…

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