Vive la Différence: 1972 Citroën SM

Citroëns, much like escargot and foie gras, are an acquired taste. This is particularly true with the early 70’s SM model. Their styling was like nothing else; and with mechanicals such as front wheel drive, a high-pressure central hydraulic suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes they were in many ways far ahead of their time. Maybe too far. Never sold in large quantities in the US, this rare example is located in Mendocino County in Northern California and is listed here on Craigslist with an asking price of $5,700.

Hailed as a technological wonder when it was released in 1970, the SM was nonetheless plagued by reliability problems that hampered sales. New bumper safety standards ended the model’s appearance on US shores by 1974, and rising gas prices and slow sales killed it everywhere in 1975. Further concessions to US standards included the 4 sealed beam headlights, which replaced a much more attractive 6-lamp system sold elsewhere. The seller states this car was purchased new in San Francisco. On the subject of bodywork, the seller continues: “There are some areas with heavy surface rust, some rust in the sunroof panel, and a few bubbles in the quarters.” On the upside, glass and trim appears largely complete. The seller further mentions this was one of fewer than 100 that were equipped with a sunroof.

Under the hood, the green spheres are part of the pressurized suspension system. Underneath lies a Maserati 6-cylinder engine that was also used in the Merak.  The engine is partially disassembled (and has been for some time), and the seller mentions that the previous owner also stated that a cylinder liner is cracked. The triple Weber carbs are located in the trunk.

Peeking inside, we see this was equipped with an automatic trans (Borg-Warner) and a/c. Also, note that there is no brake pedal per se, rather these cars had a large, mushroom-shaped rubber button to stomp. The steering is self-centering, and Citroën’s odd single-spoke steering wheel was meant to provide a clear view of the gauges.

While clearly needing a full restoration, enthusiasts will find very few of these on US soil, and show-quality examples now fetch high prices at auction. As the French say, “Apres la pluie le beau temps” – every cloud has a silver lining.

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  1. Kevin Harper

    The French copy no one, and no one copies the French. SM’s are an intense car and make working on a jaguar xjs seem simple. On the plus side there is a good support and SM World in Santa Clarita has a good a selection of parts.
    This one is going to take some work, patience and money. I think it is overpriced and would prefer a manual, but drive a good one and it may make this one worth fixing at the right sale price

    • Sam61

      The first sentence of your comment should be carved in stone.

  2. Sam61

    I remember one of these on the used car lot of the local Buick/Opel dealer in the late 70’s….thought it was the coolest car ever…mid high school.

    This also made me think of how Burt Reynolds gave one a viking funeral in the Longest Yard.

  3. Vance

    The French never cease to confound me, their wacky designs and their troubled engineering. They are an acquired taste is like that of the fruit durian. A combination of pig manure, turpentine, rotten onions, and a gym sock. The air suspension looks like my mother’s old sewing box. There is a good reason why there is so few over here, nobody was foolish enough to buy one.

  4. JP

    I was foolish enough to buy two of these, and I can attest that they’re really great cars. There’s nothing wrong with the engineering – in fact many of the standard features found on modern cars, such as speed sensitive steering and directional headlights were pioneered on Citroens. The hydraulic system, so feared by the ignorant, were easy to repair and not expensive. The only real weak points were rust, engines sensitive to unleaded gas, and a truly poor Borg Warner auto. This car clearly needs an engine rebuild which won’t be cheap, and considering it’s an automatic I’d definitely pass. But when they’re running and driving no car is smoother or more comfortable than an SM or DS. They can handle rough roads or speed bumps better than any car on the road – then or now.

  5. James P Bandy

    Cher Amis,

    This car…Citroen SM is worth maybe $1000.00. I have had seven SM…Just sold a 5speed running and driving…still have one..AN ENGINE REBUILD!! Get outta-town..There was an automatique sold at Goodings or someone in California for $83,000.00!! Yes, $83,000.00 (Check it out)…better to pay that than $5000.00 for this one…..but who knows…it is funny

  6. James P Bandy

    Have to follow up on “JP” He is exactly right…mechanics of the French…very diffeent, but muchly “avant garde” and the SM is actually an old car…the hydraulic system started in l955, the Maserati engine is a chopped of two cylinders of an eight cylinder engine…and the Borg Warner…well they were used in Mercedes, Jaguar (I drive a XJ6 with one), Saab’s, and all of the American cars….so go figure, not a great one for certain performances…but. Why Citroen did that….was they figured (wrongly) that Americans can’t drive stick shift…so?? I do drive an Automatique…neat touring car, must say….

  7. Jon Pankin

    Yes, that B-W trans. was used by many makers who didn’t have their own, and is relatively easy to rebuild and maintain, but still a power and performance hog. Citroen, as James states, had been building hydraulic systems for quite awhile and had pretty much perfected the system. The engine is strong and generally trouble-free, but the valve seats tend to deteriorate with unleaded, and the crank shaft, in some cases, was defective from the get-go. But man, these are great touring/cruising cars. Nothing really like them.

  8. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    Well you guys seem to know, so I am sure you can help me. At the bottom of the steering wheel, it looks to me like some sort of switch or buttons? Am I seeing things? Thanks, Mike,

    • JP

      There should be a brass plate with a Citroen logo there. You’re just seeing some glue points or something…

      • leiniedude leiniedude Member

        Thanks JP, I can see it now. Take care, Mike.

  9. glenn

    in san francisco huh looks like it was in teh bay for a while, this is a money pit but i love these quirky cars so much i think id rather have a earlier one or the later futuristic one

    • JP

      Only two model years were imported – ’72 and ’73. And the whole production run from ’70-75 looked the same.

  10. Fordfan

    I follow a Canadian guy on YouTube who is restoring one of these .
    He has a bunch of old interesting cars that he and his friends work on
    Check him out on YouTube ” cold war motors”

    • nrg8

      Scott has fabrication abilities out the yang. Dog is the real star of the show though.

  11. stillrunners

    Still a rare sexy beast….where are the LS1 swap arm chair boys ?

  12. Kevin

    Problem is, the North American spec models had to have those ridiculous round headlamps. Have a look at the European spec cars, exceedingly better looking.

  13. angliagt

    The seller,Allen,wheels & deals in a lot of these
    kind of cars.He’s in Willits,CA.
    He’s post one of those annoying ads on craigslist –
    “Looking for…..,with a vague location.
    I hate those postings,as they’re almost always posted
    by a flipper that looking for a great deal,just to make money off of.

  14. Dolphin Dolphin Member

    Very interesting discussion, especially since it went both ways depending on peoples’ experience, or …. not so much experience. I think what we can count on with these SMs is that people will have opinions.

    This was one of the most interesting discussions lately. Thanks guys….

  15. Doyler

    This one has been on Bay Are craigslist for a very VERY long time. Caveat emptor, and all that.

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