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Classic Test Drive: 1972 Citroen SM

[Jay Ramey continues to impress us with his tales and images. This time he takes us for a spin in a 1972 Citroen SM — Redusernab]

A few days ago I got to make a trip to Wayne Carini’s shop, F40 Motorsports in Portland, CT. Immediately, I knew that one does not simply drive over to Wayne Carini’s just in some random commuter car. One has to arrive in the full sense of the word, preferably in something that will surprise the staff of his shop. Thanks to a friend, we had just the car for the trip along Connecticut’s B roads.

Penned by Robert Opron and released upon the world in 1970, Citroen took advantage of its purchase of Maserati some two years earlier in building the SM. This particular SM hails from 1972, and is powered by a Maserati-designed 2.7 liter V6, good for 170bhp. The V6 in the SM came in two displacement sizes, the 2.7 and the 3.0, either with Webers or Bosch Jetronic injection. This is an earlier car with a 3-speed Borg Warner autobox, which was available alongside a 5-speed manual. This car has been in the owner’s stable since the early 1990s, sharing space with a 1971 5-speed SM, among other classics.

At speed, the SM’s ride is cushy and forgiving, though not overly floaty. Citroen’s famous hydro-pneumatic suspension absorbs the biggest bumps that country roads can throw at it. The SM also features a self-centering power steering system called DIRAVI, which is quite helpful on the twisty back roads, getting the front wheels back to center for you. The car also has tilting and telescoping steering, which is more than could be said for some other 1970s GTs and coupes.

The SM competed with other mid-priced GTs of the era, like the Alfa Romeo Montreal, Fiat Dino Coupe, Jensen Interceptor, and the BMW 3.0 CS. Though, I’m sure many of your will agree that the Citroen did not really “compete” with any other cars of the time, being in a segment all by itself. And that segment was called Citroen. You either bought a Citroen, or you bought something else.

Since this is a French car, I am required by federal law to talk about “quirks.” I’ll start off easy. For one thing, the turn indicator doesn’t self-cancel. That’s okay, other drivers are too distracted by your car to use their own signals anyway. Another interesting engineering decision is the unique placement of the battery in the engine compartment. Even though there is quite a bit of room underhood, as the V6 sits behind the front axle, the battery is located just behind the headlights, and cannot be removed through the hood. Rather, one either has to remove the entire front right wing, or use a little trap door in the front right wheel well placed specifically for battery removal (after removing the wheel, that is). Thankfully, the somewhat awkward placement of the battery does not prevent one from accessing it through the hood when one needs to jump start the Citroen.

The center of the dash is dominated by a giant cyclopean warning light, which comes on and glows when there’s something wrong with some system, and commands you to stop your voiture immediately! That really tells you quite a bit about priorities in French automobiles, but at least the car’s always upfront about its mechanical well-being. It doesn’t have some tiny little symbol waaaaay off to the left of the gauges that looks like an assortment of boxes with a propeller. (In American cars, I am told, that symbol indicates that the oil has not been changed in the last 50K miles, and that you’ve got another 20K miles max before you really DO have to change the oil).

Finally, the brakes operate not via a traditional rectangular pedal, but a small black rubber button on the floor that looks and feels like a racquet ball. The same setup exists on the DS, and it’s actually quite clever. The button sits immediately to the left of the gas pedal, so you don’t have to lift your right foot up in order to mash the brake. Instead, you can just let your foot slide off the gas and on to the button on the floor. The brake button is quite sensitive and takes a little getting used to, but the brakes feel very firm and it doesn’t take much of a stomp on the racquet ball to get the car to halt. One must also be careful not to mash the button during a turn, as the rear of this front-wheel drive car will come around the side and slap you in the face.

Since Connecticut is one of only a few places in North America where you can encounter another French car while driving your own French car, only 45 minutes into the trip a Peugeot 505 V6 STX sedan flies past us. The US was the single largest export market for the SM, with more than 2,400 cars out of a total of just over 12,000 cars coming to our shores. The SM even snagged Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1972. However, the SM’s looks suffered somewhat from the DOT-mandated sealed-beam headlight requirements, hence stateside SMs came with a very different front fascia, without the swiveling six headlight setup in its home market. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Peugeot’s takeover of Citroen in 1975 that brought an end to SM production, as the car was deemed to be too niche for Peugeot’s mass production tastes. Just a little over 400 cars were built during the last two years of manufacture.

Despite their relative rarity, driver-grade SMs are not that expensive, with solid examples still in the $20-25K range. Even Alex Roy is a fan, having bought an SM just a couple years ago. I was there when he took delivery of the car, a nicely kept gold-colored example.

Even though the coachbuilder Chapron, well known for DS Decapotables that have recently surged in values, handbuilt a small number of wonderful sedans based on the SM called the Opera, it fell to Maserati to create a luxury sedan based on the SM. That enterprise ended up going virtually nowhere, as only a few Quattroporte II prototypes were built on the SM chassis. As a result, one of the enduring disappointments among French car fans was that no sedans based on the SM were manufactured commercially, if one discounts the CX’s modest raid of the SM parts bin. Chapron and another coachbuilder by the name of Heuliez also created a number of bespoke convertibles based on the SM, but they’re not seen often (unless you pick up a copy of this month’s Octane magazine, as there’s a huge profile on the Heuliez SM targa).

Even though Wayne Carini was out of the shop at the time, he’s seen our Citroen before just a few weeks ago. Mike Roberts, the sales manager at F40 Motorsports, runs outside to take a look at the freshly detailed SM. “You don’t see too many of these every year!” he exclaimed. We spot a Citroen Mehari in the shop’s backyard, awaiting restoration, as well as a number of other rare automobiles. But that’s a story for another time.

  • Another wonderful tale with lust-inducing photos. Great job!

  • OA5599

    "Despite their relative rarity, driver-grade SMs are not that expensive, with solid examples still in the $20-25K range. Even Alex Roy is a fan, having bought an SM just a couple years ago."

    This is Redusernab. It's a bit jarring to read "not that expensive" in the same sentence as "$20-25K". A lot of our driver-grade cars don't even have a K in the price.

    • While I agree, I see where he's going with that. The average new car transaction today is somewhere north of 30k – making a 20k new car pretty cheap in comparison. Sure, it's not new, but the SM is not by any means common. So to me, paying the equivalent of a decently-equipped economy-grade new car for a rare classic like this is a "not that expensive" purchase.

      • OA5599

        Again, this is for the Redusernab readership, not AOL Autos. None of us with twenty grand to spend would put a brand-new economy-grade car in our top 5 choices.

        • skitter

          Which is why I'd say the description is appropriate. $25k to a hoon means a ridiculously awesome car, or 50 slighly less awesome cars.

        • True. Though in the overall pantheon of cars, 25k is probably the lower quarter. So maybe that would be a better descriptor. Or to read the sentence with the emphaaaasis on "that"

          "driver grade SMs are not *that* expensive"

    • I think the implied meaning is that a driver-grade car is below the "solid" examples.

      Also, we bought a 2012 Mazda5 brand new in 2011.
      …but is was only 19k.

      In general, the reason we feature sub-10k vehicles is that that's all it takes to pick up decent examples of most non-exotic classics. By extension, teens-to-twenties prices for exotics still makes sense. I lump a Driver Grade SM in there with driver grade Panteras, Espadas and various "R" Jags.

      • Just like with a Jag, the purchase price of an SM should be considered a down payment….

    • Jay

      Real-world values for the SM are kind of funny, and I revised that figure upwards at the last minute. In today's market, $25-30K will pretty much get one a concours-condition SM, while rough drivers can start at as low as $8K. The ceiling for SMs is a bit weird, cause an acquaintance of a friend was recently trying to get into a recently-restored SM from the UK where the asking price was around $60K, a completely unheard of concept. He had effectively found the most expensive way in the world to get into an SM, and we were all shaking our heads. In reality, $20K is plenty, and I have yet to see a car that warrants more than $30K. I see about 50 examples of the SM a year, and the vast majority of them are in driver condition. I don't really see any babied examples, as owners do enjoy using these.

  • I drove an identical one (except with a 5-speed manual) that an acquaintance of mine owned. Hands down the coolest car I've ever driven. The brake "button" takes some getting used to as does the self-centering steering.

  • dukeisduke

    I've always thought SMs were way cool. I can remember going into a cylinder head shop years ago, to have some Olds 455 heads redone. On a stand in the shop was a Citroen SM engine, being torn down for a rebuild. Wicked looking.

    So what was going on with that '58 Corvette?

    • Jay

      Dunno about the 'vette, but the Lancia was spewing all sorts of blue smoke. Strangely, not from both pipes, but just one. You can kinda see it in the photo.

  • DIRAVI = DIrection a RApel aserVI. Which translates to Steering with powered centering.
    It was the first speed sensitive power steering system.

  • Byaryoga

    Is she Denis Foley's?

    • Jay

      The one that Alex bought is. That's Denis in the photo with him.

  • scroggzilla

    Nice car….but those Lancia Flaminia Pininfarina Coupe tail lights in the last photo got my attention.

  • jeepjunkie

    You will never forget the first time you have the opportunity to pilot a Citreon. My Father bought one from a dealership in St. Louis back in 1970…Traded a brand new Buick Electra 225 for it…craziest looking car you will ever see…hydraulic suspension allowed it to be raised 9 inches…great for Dad driving through the hay fields of SWMO farm country….he used to count the cows from the driver's seat after returning home from a long trip….said it was much more comfortable than the old Dodge Power Wagon farm truck…when it finally broke down in 1974 I remember Dad hiring a guy to come to the USA just to fix the damn thing….he used to refer to it as his money pit after that….finally sold it in the late 70's to a guy in Denver just for the camel hide interior….yea, Dad was a Hoon…..

  • Van_Sarockin

    Always loved them, since I first saw one. First time I camped at Watkins Glen, I put my head out of the tent in the misty predawn light, and there was a silver one just down the meadow, having arrived in the night. Otherworldly, they are. Stylish couple with it, too.

  • Brad D.

    Good story Jay, sounds like a fun trip. Any time I get an opportunity to drive a quirky car I jump on it!

  • joshuman

    I tried to resist the pull of autotempest.com and failed. There is a DS for sale 30 minutes from where I sit right now. It only leaks a little bit. …

  • cmaglaughlin

    I remember test driving an SM up and down the crazy hills of Pittsburgh. Never felt so safe since I was a new born at my mother's right breast! There's just got to be SM's in heaven!

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