The technically complex Citroën SM has never lost its ability to amaze onlookers and drivers alike. But be prepared for big bills if you don’t buy wisely…
Settle behind that quirky wheel and gaze at the sweeping instrument panel. Check out the pedals, and notice that there’s a rubber button instead of a brake pedal. Fire up and feel the car rise on its suspension. This could only be a Citroën, couldn’t it?
It’s quite a big car, but doesn’t feel like it on the road. The ride is superb and the cornering grip much better than you’d think, with only the poor lateral support of the seats discouraging spirited driving. You’ll need time to adjust to the high-geared, but very quick, power steering and the car’s width (you can’t see the right-hand front wing from the driving seat), and you will stand the car on its nose the first time you brake. Only then do you realise that you must caress the brake button rather than stamp on it.
However, there’s a delightful snarl from the V6 (which is more pronounced on carburettor cars), and a feeling of ‘rightness’ that’s difficult to describe. In absolute terms, it’s not terribly quick, but it has plenty of torque and so it feels fast. You’ll soon be dreaming about those long stretches of French autoroute, where you could really let it have its head…
Power (bhp@rpm) 170bhp@5500rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 170lb ft@4000rpm
Top speed 135mph
Gearbox 5-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
As you’d expect, rust can be a problem. It will be obvious if there is any corrosion in the front wings and wheelarches, in the door bottoms, or in the rear wheel spats. Also obvious will be corrosion in the leading edge of the bonnet panel, which is made of Citroën’s favourite duralumin, but suffers from electrolytic action because it carries a metal trim strip. However, you will need to dig a little deeper to reassure yourself that there are no really nasty problems lurking out of sight. Check the floor of the boot, and get underneath to look at the platform-chassis and the undertray.
The power steering can mask some problems, but the car should always track straight. If it pulls to one side or the steering does not self-centre, suspect trouble with the servo motor at the bottom of the steering column. Another cause of steering pull, and especially of bump-steer, can be damaged suspension arms. If you discover these, take the hint and look carefully for other damage that has been poorly repaired. If the car’s been in a front-end smash, it’s likely the front chassis legs have crumpled and the evidence will still be there.
Your first concern should be with the engine. Filter out the assorted noises from the rest of the car (which should be nothing more than the hydraulics and air conditioning doing their respective things), and listen for odd noises from under the bonnet. Timing chains need to be adjusted every 10,000 miles, and rattles mean they haven’t been and could fail at any moment. Listen, too, for excessive tappet noise. The sodium-filled exhaust valves tend to fail on little-used engines, although fitting aftermarket solid valves cures the problem. On injected engines, the injectors have been known to leak and catch fire! Not surprisingly, the permanent solution is to fit more modern injectors.
When you fire the engine up, the hydraulics should immediately lift the car to its normal ride height. There will be plenty of clicking, hissing and whirring, but that’s normal. If the car doesn’t rise properly, or it sits unevenly, expect trouble with the hydraulics. Although they are fine if properly maintained and the right fluid (LHM) is used, pipes can corrode, seals can blow and spheres can leak.
Most (but not all) SMs were fitted with air conditioning, and for some unfathomable reason it can’t be turned off. Many owners find it prohibitively noisy, and internal failure of the system can have expensive knock-on effects on other under-bonnet components. As such, you’ll often find that a previous owner has fitted a DIY ‘off’ switch, or
that the quieter system developed by Andrew Brodie Engineering has been substituted. Either way, that’s a good thing.
The manual gearboxes are pretty tough, but can suffer from weak synchromesh. Re-building isn’t a particular problem, though. The automatic is also long-lived, being the special two-shaft version of the Borg Warner 35 that was built for Citroën and used in the DS. Spares and re-building shouldn’t be a worry.
Most cars have leather seats, but there was also a nylon fabric upholstery option, which wears through. A full re-trim is the only answer. The front seat backrests have been known to break, too.
The SM exerts a strange fascination unlike that of any other car. Driving one is always an occasion, and the car turns heads wherever you go. It’s quite addictive, although you’ll need a little time to get accustomed to it. Once the penny finally drops, you’ll probably find every other car somehow inferior.
It must be emphasised that we don’t think the SM is a car for the feeble of wallet. It’s a hardcore enthusiast’s car that’s at its best when used for long-distance runs in the grand tourer tradition. It’s left-hand drive (although three were converted to RHD in the UK), which is a drawback and you wouldn’t want to use one for the school run or your weekly visit to the supermarket. It’s not really a family car, either, and the poor rear legroom makes it little more than a big 2+2.
But if you use it as a classic toy, who cares about such trivialities?
Visitors to the 1970 Geneva Motor Show were astounded when they first saw the Citroën SM. The company had been itching to build a grand routier for years, and its acquisition of Maserati in 1968 had given it the means to do so. In essence, the 2.7-litre V6 engine comprised three-quarters of a Maserati V8, with reduced bore and stroke to keep it under
the 2.8-litre French tax break.
The shape was astonishing. It tapered sharply towards the rear, while six headlamps – the outer pair of which swivelled – gave it an unmistakable front. With Citroën’s characteristic front-wheel drive and full-power hydraulics operating the brakes and suspension, it drove like no other car. Cruising at 100mph was easy, while 135mph was within reach.
The original triple-Weber engine gave way to an injected version in 1972, and then the triple Webers returned for a bigger-bore 3-litre version of the engine harnessed to an automatic gearbox in 1973. This was mainly for the US market, but Citroën was already losing interest, and the oil crisis did the rest before the car was finally canned in 1975.