By Gladstone J Gunner
In the last 10 years, the job of a car designer has been a frustrating one. Marketing departments and product managers constantly tampered with their creative whims.
Times they are a changing.
Recently, designers’ concept cars have made it onto motor show stands and from there, in many cases, with little alteration into the showroom. Take a look at the evolution of VW’s New Beetle and Ford’s Ka. The power of the customer clinic has waned as worldwide manufacturers have gained confidence in themselves to go out on a limb – push the game on a little bit further.
Citroen have always been regarded as avant-garde and future focused. They have placed on our roads some truly remarkable creations – and they’re moving on in great leaps and bounds – marked by their commitment to styling, design, engineering and technology. The combination of self-confidence and arrogance allowed them to bring to the buying public some truly exceptional vehicles – even though they weren’t always as well executed as they should have been.
Eventually the party had to stop – it did when they were bought out buy Peugeot in 1974. From then on, Citroen’s products have become more and more mundane. The pinnacle of their foresight and the most visionary car to hit tarmac last century was the Citroen SM.
The Citroen SM was launched in 1970 to great applause (Peugeot sent it to the guillotine in ‘75). The SM was designed in the genre of a GT, a grand tourismo (grand tourer). Perfect to transport its glamorous occupants from city appartment to their country retreat at great speed, safety and comfort.
Citroen refined the suspension system that it had used in it DS model, while its purchase of Maserati in 1968 gave it access to high performance engine technology. Structurally, and in layout, the SM and DS were sisters under their skins. As beautiful as a DS was to behold – it was the frumpy sister when compared to this Haute-Couture glamour model. Yet much like today’s catwalk stumblers – catch the SM at the wrong angle or the wrong location (the Supermarket car park) and it can look out of sorts.
However, don’t even bother to question the SM’s IQ. Compared to its contemporaries (even cars 20 years its younger) it is packed full of space age features. Speed sensitive, self-centring and super-direct powered steering. Self-levelling and steerable lights (the SM can literally see around corners). The SM even had rain-sensitive windscreen wipers.
All this combined with the self-levelling suspension and a design/engineering brief that, ground up, meant that the SM was built for speed. Audi may have made a great play on its aerodynamic achievements with the CD (drag co-efficient) value of 0.30cd attained by its new 100 model in the ‘80’s, but Citroen made less fuss over the SM’s figure of 0.25cd, over 10 years earlier.
Piloting an SM for the first time is a very nerve-racking experience. The SM’s controls require measured and minimal efforts. Steering and braking are directed more by the mind than physical movement. This car is the cerebral motorist’s ultimate driving tool. Once mastered – the SM is a delight. On the move, the SM feels immensely rigid and secure, its ride and handling the perfect balance for its intended GT role. The gear change, a mechanical delight – the quality and styling of its interior is far above that of the DS. The soundtrack of the V6 – 2.8 litre Maserati engine provides the in-car entertainment, urgent and strong. It is a pedigree item. Its 170 bhp powers the SM to a top speed of 140mph.
Stepping out, you realise just how fantastically self-indulgent the SM is. It was designed, ultimately with only one journey in mind – one at which it excels even today. It is the King of the AutoRoute, the ultimate GT, without question. That over 12,000 where sold is a triumph. Pressed too hard in the corners or weaving through narrow city streets the SM can become unruly. Its supermodel persona does not respond to rough handling – it requires wining and dining
For those with the sensitivity to appreciate and command it – all other vehicles are mere public transport. The Citroen SM receives and demands devotion from its owners. SM ownership is more often than not a long-term relationship where financial matters are not discussed. Technical support is provided through a network of specialists who are immensely knowledgeable and devoted to these cars.
The SM should be celebrated for the era that it represents – Citroen set out to build what it perceived as the ultimate road car – without consolation. As an answer to the brief it set itself – maximum points. Today, such single-mindedness would never make it to the factory presses. Yet we should be grateful that some new talents are being recognised as manufacturers slowly begin to make our automotive world richer and more diverse.