Question: What did the Shah of Iran, Cheech and Chong, Leonid Brezhnev, and Idi Amin have in common, apart from being wild and crazy guys? Answer: They all owned at least one Citroën SM each (Idi had seven). Good taste isn’t something we associate with these gentlemen, but in this case it emerged, no doubt accidentally: the SM is one beautiful machine, an artifact for the ages. And its beauty is more than skin-deep.
Named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1972, it boasted the kind of technological innovation Citroën was always famous for, including the hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension derived from that of its parent, the DS (1955—1975); the front-wheel-drive that first appeared on its grandparent, the 1934 Traction Avant, which had been the world’s first mass-produced monocoque (unitized-body) FWD car; the adjustable ride height, courtesy, again, of the DS, as are the swiveling headlights, which turn with the wheels to illuminate the curves ahead; and the SM’s own innovation, a type of variable-assist power steering thanks to which driving into a pothole at speed would not cause the steering wheel to turn, or even twitch, and at rest it would always return to dead center. The wheel itself was, of course, a single-spoke job, like those in all Citroëns.
In all, 12,290 SMs were built between 1970 and 1975, and it was widely celebrated in its day, not least by the likes of the celebrities mentioned above, but it was doomed from the outset, because it was hard to maintain and Citroën, one of the world’s oldest and most innovative automobile manufacturers, was a dead brand walking. In 1974 it went bankrupt and was taken over by arch-rival Peugeot, now known as PSA Peugeot Citroën (and coming perilously close these days to bankruptcy itself) and still building Citroëns, including one cheekily named the DS, which it resembles not at all, nor does it bear any resemblance to a goddess (déesse). But the SM, too, was sui generis, utterly individualistic on every level, including its name, which some say stands for Sport-Maserati, while others, fancifully, suggest Sa Majesté (Her Majesty). I have my doubts, but it was a majestic car, so I’d go with the latter.
Her Majesty and I got together only once. It was in eastern France, near the Swiss border. The year was 1976; the season, spring; the reason, because it was there. It was red, with black leather interior and a Bosch 3-speed automatic, and it was sitting on a dealer’s lot. Only a year old, it had been traded in by a local politician who was changing careers, or so one of the salesmen, a student of mine, told me (I was eking out an existence—yes, a precarious one— by teaching English). In exchange for an extra lesson or a free textbook or something, my student arranged a brief solo spin for me early one morning, before the bosses got in. There was no danger, bar that implied by my own incompetence as a driver: the weather was breezy and warm, and the roads were dry. I set off at 6 a.m. or so and made it as far as the La Faucille pass, some 6700 feet high in the Jura Mountains as the crow flies, up switchbacks and hairpins and just above the treeline into rolling meadows and pastures with patches of snow still here and there. The SM pulled eagerly all the way and clung to the blacktop like a limpet. I came down the mountain just as easily but desirous of speed. It was still early, so I went and found a stretch of relatively empty motorway just over the border in Switzerland (the A1 Geneva-Lausanne autoroute, less horribly congested then than now) and floored the accelerator, with a weather eye out for the gendarmes in their discreet white Opels. I still remember the tingle-inducing snarl of the 3-liter Maserati six and its then-spectacular, now-unremarkable 180 horses that nonetheless got me up to 200 k.’s (120 m.p.h.) in no time: now, that was driving. There I was, an impecunious nebbish in control of a supercar, an automotive masterpiece. I was one with the Shah, Brezhnev, and Idi Amin. (Some distinction, that.) Blessedly unnoticed by the police, I returned the car to the dealership with minutes to spare until the bosses arrived, but I left with a smile on my face, albeit slightly weak-kneed, smitten. My student left his job as a car salesman soon after, whether as a result of my early morning joyride I never found out; he never collected on his promised free lesson. We lost touch, as one does. But I thank him, wherever he is.
The SM died in ’75, having paved the way for the modestly successful CX, but essentially it was a one-off, albeit jointly crafted by two great marques, Citroën and Maserati. If you had the means to keep one in tune, it was a sturdy car, and many, including one proudly owned by Jay Leno, are still running. But at the time, few people had the means or the connections, especially in the U.S., where Citroën specialists were few. Now, of course, the few survivors are the playthings or ornaments of the rich and famous, like Mr. Leno. There was, and is, little chance that I would ever have an SM, so I found a role for one in my recently published novel The Adorations, in which the primary narrator, Gustave, drives one: ”a Maranello-red, restored (by my own loving hands) 1975 Citroën-Maserati SM coupe with the 3-liter V6 engine, power windows, black leather seats, Bosch automatic and no damned air bags.” Unlike his human acquaintances, the SM is his faithful companion throughout the novel, and never lets him down.
With a certain sadness for what might have been, I celebrate this fine car, in fiction as in life, as a symbol of how close a once-great carmaker came once again to greatness.