Citroen SM

That SM tag wasn't meant to suggest pleasure from pain. But, says Brian Sewell, the point of this Citroën can only be explained in terms of those who find suffering satisfying
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If ever a car stole a Motor Show, it was the Citroën DS in 1955, in Paris - indeed, it seemed to steal the city too, for Citroën was canny enough to let the few completed cars be seen, night and day, on the Champs-Elysées and in the never-ending swirl of the Etoile, so that a dozen seemed a thousand.

No other car designed for production in great quantity had had so revolutionary a shape, nor had concealed within its hull such and so many innovations as power brakes, front wheel disc brakes, power steering, semi-automatic gear changing, hydro-pneumatic all-independent suspension with automatic level control, front-wheel drive and a significantly wider track at the front than at the rear.

In only one respect was it not the car of the future that all must imitate, but that was its fatal flaw. Under the shark's-nose bonnet lay, not the fuel-injected flat-six Boxer engine that had been planned for it, but the gruff, old, long-stroke, four-cylinder lump of only 1,911cc that had powered front-wheel-drive Citroëns since 1935.

All those years before, it had produced only 46bhp; 75bhp was persuaded from it in 1955, and there it stayed over the next decade or so until, in 1966, Citroën began to phase it out, though replacing it only with another four-cylinder engine (short-stroke) of 1,985cc. This great car never had the engine it deserved.

The DS spawned only one significant derivative, the SM - initials that do not stand for the sado-masochism of which the car inevitably reminds its driver. In one sense, its engine, designed by Maserati (hence the M), it remedied the flaw of the DS, for it was essentially the DS chassis with all its high-speed road-holding advantages, equipped with a 2.7-litre, race-bred V6 unit producing 170bhp at 6,250rpm.

Alas, instead of tinkering a little with the DS body and giving it this engine to transform its race-losing performance, Citroën headed for bankruptcy by building a two-door coupé that seated only two in comfort, yet was longer, wider - and worst - the weight of two lusty rugby forwards heavier than the DS. The Jensen Interceptor was always one of Britain's sillier cars and this under-powered French response to it was sillier still.

The year was 1970. Eighteen months earlier, Citroën had snatched a majority holding in ailing and failing Maserati. Citroën wanted (for French road tax reasons) an engine of under 2.8 litres, and Maserati gave it one it had prepared earlier by reducing a V8 to a V6. Over-square, this engine was as modern as earlier Citroën engines had been old-fashioned, and, in slightly later fuel-injected form, it gave 178bhp at 5,500 rpm - enough to haul the SM's unladen weight of a ton-and-a-half to 140mph. Citroën claimed a 0-60mph figure of eight seconds but few independent testers could do better than 10.

What was the point of the SM? Its nearest English equivalent in folly, discomfort and performance was the Jensen, with an engine twice the size that perfectly demonstrated the old saw that a large lazy engine working lazily is often a better choice than a smaller, highly efficient unit working flat out to move much the same weight and bulk.

Why does it weigh a ton-and-a-half? Why is it only a two-seater, with room in the rear for sausage dogs and a silly little boot? Why does it, with the much-vaunted suspension of the DS, transmit so much racket from rough roads? Why does the DS in every regard, other than outright performance, seem so superior? At the time of the SM's launch Citroën itself said: "The SM is neither a sports car nor a luxury limousine'' - that much we could see. What we needed was to be told precisely what Citroën thought it was.

It made 12,920 SMs in the five years of its production. In 1970, they cost £5,000; by 1975 the price was £6,700. Meanwhile, Citroën had fallen into such a decline that a progressive merger with Peugeot had to be arranged in 1974 and, as that cost-conscious fix was not prepared to lose money on every SM made, production halted.

Now, 30 years after the last and most improved examples of this monument to Citroën's ingenuity, idiosyncrasy and idiocy rolled off the line, it seems an oddly ugly car. Inside and out, this mannered car now looks shabby, even cheap, and nothing about it suggests any real distinction.

Will the SM ever be a classic? Perhaps, when 12,900 of them have been dumped, it may be worthwhile to tinker one of the surviving dozen into better than the original condition that was never good enough; but there must be better cars on which to risk the fearsome sums of money that restoration always costs - cars less hydraulically, pneumatically, electrically, electronically and unnecessarily complicated.

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