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Citroen SM

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Sometimes we propose a car for our Fantasy Garage because of its overwhelming, world-scorching performance. Other times a car gets the nod on the strength of its engine. Or historical significance. Or fond teenage memories. Or maybe just because it is so damn pretty. And in the case of last week's Ford GT, all of the above. This week's nominee, the Citroen SM, is picked on the strength of its owners. Yeah, exactly, its owners. Brezhnev had an SM. As did both Cheech and Chong. Leno still has one. Idi Amin had seven, while the Shah of Iran had but one. So did Lee Majors, Johan Cruyff, Graham Greene and Mike Hailwood. No less a man than Lorne Greene drove a Citroen SM. Still not impressed? What if I told you that His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God drove an SM? That's what I thought. Though, I hope I had you at Idi Amin.


Luckily, for you non-believers, there's a hell of a lot more to the SM than just a litany of celebrity owners. The name stood for "Sport Maserati" (or, en Francais, "systeme Maserati"). This is so because Citroen had purchased the (until recently) beleaguered Italian brand in 1968. Under the SM's extra-sturdy aircraft-aluminum hood sits the 2.7-liter (later a 3.0-liter), four-cam V6 out of the Maserati Merak. Sporting up to 180 horses the SM was able to achieve 0-60 times in the mid 8 second range. Not muscle car fast, but quick enough to keep up with the Joneses of the day, i.e. Aston Martin, Jaguar and Mercedes. Much more impressively, the SM could cruise all day at 140 mph. Let me stress the "all day" part. As Alex Roy related to Davey, his father's OG Cannonball buddy suggested that the SM might just be the car to break the transcontinental record in. Of course, we concur. In point of fact, the SM might just be the greatest GT car of them all.

And why is Citroen's 70s supercar such a brilliant long distance runner? Two words: DIRAVI. Which stands for "DIRection A Rappel AsserVI." What it means is that for five years the engineers at Citroen had been trying to figure out the trick to high-horsepower front-wheel-drive cars. The solution partly turned out to be the world's first variable-assist power steering unit, which offered plenty of assist at low speeds, and essentially none on the highway.


Uglier Four-Headlight American Version. Those Green Balls Are The All Important Hydropneumatic Spheres

What was actually taking place was that the steering featured power-centering so that if you were to let go of the tiller – even when parked – the front wheels would straighten themselves. Unlike today's systems which actually provide assistance when you turn the wheel, the SM's VARIPOWER system only decreased the amount of locking pressure the centering cam was exerting. What's so fantastic about this setup is that the steering wheel is locked hydraulically from the wheels. Which means that potholes can't steer the car; only the driver can. And man, could the driver steer the car as it was just 2 turns lock to lock.


Kamm-Tailed SM Shooting-Brakes Were Very Successful Rally Cars

Also crucial to the SM's Grand Touring status was the hydropneumatic, self-leveling suspension system carried over from the DS. Let me attempt a quick primer. Gas can be compressed, fluid cannot be. Run off a central pump the hydropneumatic system makes use of height control valves to determine how much fluid to pump into the shocks. So, let's say you load up the trunk with several cases of wine. The suspension automatically (because the height control valve is activated) calls for more fluid and the rear is raised to the same height as the front. This is important not only for handling, but it maintains the vehicle's aerodynamic profile as well as the aim of the headlights. Most importantly, the system instantly reacts to road imperfections and adjusts the shocks accordingly. Which makes the SM (and really, all hydropneumatic Citroens) impossibly comfortable, even at high speeds. Most amazingly, the pump that creates enough hydraulic pressure to suspend an entire vehicle is the size of a stack of dimes.


The SM's brakes were run off the same hydraulic system and they featured a few neat tricks of their own. First off, the front brakes were mounted inboard, just like on an H1. This allowed for true center-line steering, a first for a wrong-wheel driver. Like the DS, instead of a brake pedal, one stopped the car by stepping on a zero-travel, mushroom brake button. Depending upon the intensity of your stomp, a specific amount of fluid was fed to the brakes. It sounds weird to our American ears, but to a Frenchman it was as natural as a mistress. And when Popular Science wrung out the SM, it recorded the shortest stopping distance of any car they had ever tested.


"The SM Was Born From Speed And Died With Speed." – Citroen

Even the headlights were hydraulic. No, really. Inside the beautiful glass nacelle sit no less than six headlights, all hydraulically mounted so that no matter what the body is up to (wide speed pumps or equivalent terrain can play havoc with the suspension) the lamps stay level. Even under heavy braking when the nose is diving. And two of the six turn with the wheel Tucker Torpedo-style. Which we so, so love. Sadly, US versions only came with four headlights. Rumor holds that the first SM to come to America showed up with a cracked headlight due to air pressure changes caused by the flight. The SM's lights were banned in the USA.


Obvioulsy, the SM was mega-advanced for its time. So much so that with the exception of the radio, nothing about the car seems out of date (though Davey's girlfriend exhorts that the SM "smells like the 70s"). In addition to all of the above, the SM sported rain-sensing wipers (which were also run off the hydraulic system), sodium- filled valves, optional carbon fiber wheels which weighed less than half as much as the standard steel units. Sadly for you junkyard rats, the composite wheels won't fit on any other car. We especially dig that the SM was designed to seat two men up front and two women in the back. It only smacks of misogyny outside of France.


Matched Luggage Was One Of The SM's Only Options. And Yes, They All Fit

And while, to again quote Mr. Davey G, the SM may in fact be "needlessly complex," no one can argue its sexy good looks. Designed by Robert Opron (who also designed the Renault Fuego), the SM is his masterpiece. Because of its narrower rear track, viewed from above, the hottest of all Citroens looks like a teardrop. The long, well-formed hood and large greenhouse give it classic E-type proportions – even though the front wheels are the driven ones. You may also notice that SM's sit fairly close to the tarmac. But that's an illusion. Once the engine is off, there is no pump to keep the shocks filled, so the SM floats to the ground. This aids egress and ingress. Turn the key and in about 30 seconds the SM raises itself up to its true height. The rear of the car is especially fantastic once raised. And who doesn't love the raised chrome mini-fins? Don't forget that you'll be swaddled up to your ascot in voluptuous leather while gripping an oval, single-spoke wheel and looking at oval dials.


The SM was sadly killed off in 1975 after a 5 year run and 12,920 cars produced due to a combination of oil crises and idiotic American bumper regulations. Citroen tried to replace their most-awesome-ever coupe with the CX, but the magic was just gone. Downsides? Were you to own one in a non-Fantasy Garage situation you would need a French mechanic for the hydraulics, an Italian mechanic for engine, a British mechanic for the transmission (it was sourced from Lotus) and an Irish bartender for the headaches. However, since our Fantasy mechanic is the best there is, the SM has no downsides. Therefore it is perfect. So if you vote against the SM, you're making baby Jesus cry.

Burt Reynolds Hooning An SM In The Longest Yard. Be Sure To Note The Mushroom Brake In Action


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[The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage appears every Tuesday. Readers vote the cars in or out. The idea is that we'll have 50 cars in our Fantasy Farage, the world's greatest mechanic and endless wads of cash. Would you like to nominate a car for the Fantasy Garage? Write with the subject line "Fantasy."]

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