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Citroën SM

Published: 21st Apr 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Sleek lines were an SM feature, but it’s also a huge car to punt around, not helped by being LHD Sleek lines were an SM feature, but it’s also a huge car to punt around, not helped by being LHD
Luxurious interior is typically Citroen quirky and most trims will be shabby now, especially door covers Luxurious interior is typically Citroen quirky and most trims will be shabby now, especially door covers
Maserati V6 engine is super and quite sturdy if maintained properly, but watch the valves Maserati V6 engine is super and quite sturdy if maintained properly, but watch the valves
Many parts unique to SM – some even featured advanced carbon fibre bits Many parts unique to SM – some even featured advanced carbon fibre bits
Don’t be fooled by Citroen badge, the SM is a complex car and one you buy on condition Don’t be fooled by Citroen badge, the SM is a complex car and one you buy on condition
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What is a Citroen SM?

Conceived as a sporting, upmarket cousin for Citroen’s legendary DS saloons, the SM was also intended as a means of pushing the quirky French marque (who purchased the ailing Maserati brand in 1968) up market and showcasing the technology and ideas it was pioneering.

When launched in 1970, the SM was seen as fiendishly complicated, and with its mix of a super Maserati V6 engine, powered hydraulics, left-hand drive and E-Type Jaguar-rivaling price, something of a risky, and specialised buy in Britain. Thirty five years after its launch the SM remains a fabulous, avant garde grand tourer, and potentially a very usable car. If you buy a good one that is.

History

The 1960s were golden years for Citroen, with a healthy demand for its uniquely engineered products. Mid deacde it took over and absorbed arch rival Panhard, and had big expansion plans. Development work on the SM, known internally as the DS Sport, began in 1964. It was intended as a modern representation of the fabulous pre-Second World War grand tourers made by firms like Delahaye and Delage. The brief was to make a powerful four-seater capable of lengthy 120mph cruises.

Early prototypes had convertible bodies and upgrades of the already venerable four pot, 2-litre engine fitted to the ID19 saloons. There was also a short wheelbase, fixed head coupe with the five bearing, 2175cc motor destined for the DS21. Long term, Citroen planned to use variations of a family of V4, V6 and V8 motors it had under development, but plans changed after the French firm took over Maserati in 1968.

The Italians had V-engine technology, which Citroen appropriated for its coupe, which became known as the SM (for ‘Sport Maserati’(( now I know-ed)). The SM’s V6 engine was a cousin of the Maserati V8 minus two bores, pioneering things like 90-degree cylinders and interchangeable heads. It was mated to a Citroen-designed five-speed gearbox (a three-speed Borg Warner auto was also offered).

The result was compact, light, in line and drove the SM’s front wheels (the unit was also used in the mid-engined Maserati Merak). Launched in 1970, the SM was stuffed with powered hydraulics for items like the four disc brakes, variable power steering, and all independent suspension. The striking coupe body had swiveling headlamps concealed behind a full width glazed front panel. Some versions had carbon fibre wheels – a massive advancement in its day.

With a 139mph top speed and a 9.3 sec spurt to 60, the car had the performance to match its looks. Citroen did sell the SM in Britain, albeit in left hand drive form (a very few were converted as right hookers), and at £5478, the SM was expensive. It was also doomed. By 1973 massive oil price hikes lead to the first energy crisis, and the specialist, exotic SM became difficult to sell. Citroen was also in trouble over ill starred attempts to develop rotary engined models, recouping development costs for the brilliant GS saloons and engineering the CX big car range, destined to replace for the legendary DS. All were pulling the company under financially in a big way. SM sales were down to a trickle when Peugeot took over Citroen in 1974, and despite pleas from its conquest’s management, logical, conservative Peugeot discontinued this extravagant car the following year, even though several hundred bodies remained in stock. These were apparently crushed… Almost 13,000 SMs were made, but less than 350 were officially imported into the UK. How many survive to this day? It’s difficult to say but many are reckoned to be resting (and rusting) in lock ups and barns!

Driving

Spaceship on wheels might be a good description of the SM experience. The instant retardation of the ‘rubber tit’ floor mounted brake control and strong brakes will be familiar with generations of ‘big Citroen’ drivers, along with the way the variable power steering is ultra light at town speeds, and becomes less so the faster the car is traveling. The automatic selfcentering is another generic feature.

The cosseting hydropneumatic ride which detaches the car’s occupants form the outside world is another generic, although the SM’s handling is sure footed, and it can corner with aplomb, although with some roll –but the car is a grand tourer, not a sports model. The oval instrument dials, and unique Citroen take on ergonomics (no self canceling indicators, single spoke wheel) all contribute to a very individual driving experience.

Prices

These cars are hard to value. A trawl through a variety of old car price guides could lead you to believe £2000 buys a rough SM, £5000 usable example, and £11,00-£13,500 something nice, but classic Citroen expert Andrew Brodie (0208-xxxxxx) reckons spares cars go £5k, you’ll need five figures for a middling SM, and really good ones go to £18,000/£20,000, so it’s a case of scouring the classifieds and driving as many cars as you can – and bidding as low as you can…

What To Look For

  • “A Citroen SM is a straightforward mechanical device. Buy a rust bucket and it will be c**p,” says Andrew Brodie. “But an SM in good condition is a stunning car.”
  • He reckons the SM is actually less complex than the fuel injected DS23 saloons, and by current standards it’s not that unfathomable, but compared to a Morris Minor it’s still a specialised, complex piece of kit.
  • The D-series derived five-speed gearbox is strong and reliable, so listen for the usual sounds of mechanical tiredness (grumbling bearings, etc). A floppy rod and cable gear linkage could mean worn rubber bushes (easy and cheap to fix) or tired cabling, which can be cured with shims, if the cable doesn’t need replacing. The Three speed autos aren’t so robust so beware
  • .
  • Air conditioning unit is driven from the main timing chain, and if this fails a huge load can be put on the chain, with disastrous consequences. A modern sensor needs to be fitted, which will lock out the air con if the gas pressure isn’t spot on. Fitted to most modern a/c equipped cars, it’s easy to retro-fit on SMs. Check if this item is already in place, and have one fitted if not.
  • The original timing chain tensioner was a wear prone, leading shoe item, and for £120/£150 a more sturdy item can be substituted, with the engine in the car. Again, it’s worth asking if this has been done. Get the secondary drive chain tensions checked. These chains are manually adjusted, often not properly, reckons Brodie. The car has doubled up ignition timing components, and often only one has been timed up properly.
  • The SM was sold in both carbureted and fuel injection guises. Both systems work well enough, but watch for the usual problems three decades of use will have created. Brodie thinks that on injected cars in particular it’s important to replace the original, sodium filled valves with solid items. Higher running temperatures of modern fuels will cause the old valves to fail.
  • The famous Citroen hydraulic suspension is long lived if properly looked after and the correct fluids are used. Spheres are still obtainable too, but cars that sink rapidly to the ground when switched off, or are harsh riding, have problems. When starting up, see how long the old girl takes to rise up.
  • Structurally, Brodie thinks SMs are strong, but can suffer stress cracks around the suspension mounts if, especially if they’ve been driven on the bump stops thanks to a suspension problem. These areas are hard to check, so it’s worth getting a car on a ramp to have a good poke about.
  • Bodily, watch for things like wing and door bottom rot. The area round the rear arches is complex, and can be fiddly to fix if it rots out. If pranged, the SM’s all glass front can be vastly expensive to fix. There are plastic lamp cover panels for about £120, but the hydraulics for the lamp swiveling and self leveling mechanisms are virtually unobtainable, and will cost hundreds, if you can find them.
  • Inside, good trim parts will be hard to source, and later cars apparently have problems with collapsing door trim inners, revealed by fabric trim detaching itself from them, thanks to Citroen’s attempts to use less oil in their cheap skate manufacture.
  • Parts supply is surprisingly good, and not always madly expensive. Brodie thinks a replacement radiator would cost £150. When the SM was launched Michelin was Citroen’s parent company, so its products were engineered for Michelin tyres. The SM normally ran on XWX covers, but will accept appropriate high performance radials.

Verdict

With the youngest SM now hitting thirty, an ailing example could be a major headache and a massive financial drain to say the least. Add the man-hours required to put a doggy example (and there are many around!) right and SM ownership could burn a big hole in your pocket. Citroen might not be an exotic name, but this is certainly an exotic car. There again, how much would a real Maserati cost to own and run? The oddball SM won’t appeal to everybody but for a dedicated fan of innovative design, unique style and it has to be said, a slice of motoring history a good one will be like nothing else on the road.

 



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