Jay Leno’s Citroen SM Is an Innovative French Luxury Coupe That Can (Sort of) Hit the Switches
Because it hasn’t had a US presence for some time, it’s easy to overlook Citroen’s cars. However, the French automaker has an extensive history of innovation. The Traction Avant, for example, was the first mainstream car to feature front-wheel drive, 4-wheel independent suspension, and unibody construction. The later 2CV, which is sort of like France’s Model T, was in production for over 40 years. And the DS is still a stunning luxury car today. Then, as Jay Leno describes, in the 1970s, came another forward-thinking luxury car: the Citroen SM.
What makes the Citroen SM such an innovative classic luxury car?
By 1968, the DS was showing its age slightly, Hagerty reports, so Citroen went about designing an even more luxurious grand-tourer. And for good measure, it turned to Italian marque Maserati to help give it a suitable engine. Unfortunately, that meant the planned flagship had to be based around the DS’ chassis.
Still, when the Citroen SM launched in 1970, it quickly drew stares and rave reviews. It’s also the first foreign-branded car to win Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award. Part of that is due to the luxury coupe’s styling, which gives it a lower drag coefficient than the Ferrari 488 Italia, Petrolicious reports. But it’s also due to the SM’s incredible features.
To start, the Citroen SM was the first car with rain-sensing wipers, Hagerty reports. Like the DS, the SM also has swiveling headlights, Automobile reports. But they’re also self-leveling, Petrolicious reports. It has 4-wheel hydraulically-operated disc brakes, with the front ones mounted in-board for less un-sprung weight. And the hydraulic system automatically adjusts the pressure at each brake so the Citroen SM doesn’t dive under braking.
The Citroen SM’s power steering is also hydraulically-operated, Hagerty reports, and can be confusing for some. It has variable assistance that depends on road speed, Mecum reports. At low speed, it’s incredibly quick to make turns easier. But at highway speeds, the assist drops for improved stability. The hydraulics also mean the return-to-center is fast even by modern standards.
But, as Jay Leno demonstrates in the video below, that’s not the end of the Citroen SM’s hydraulic party tricks.
What does Jay Leno appreciate about his Citroen SM?
Like the DS, the Citroen SM has hydro-pneumatic suspension. And like the DS, the SM can adjust its ride height. However, the SM’s ride height range is significantly more extreme than the DS’ range.
The Citroen SM is also faster than the DS. The first examples had a 2.7-liter V6 rated at 170 hp with carburetors, or 178 hp with fuel injection, Hagerty reports. By 1975, the SM offered a 195-hp 3.0-liter V6. And because of its slippery design, it was the fastest FWD production car in the world at the time.
Speed, though, is not what Jay Leno likes best about his 1972 Citroen SM; it’s the comfort. The hydro-pneumatic suspension is on par with, or even better than the best from Rolls-Royce. Automotive Report describes it as “’riding on a cloud.’” The leather seats are comfortable, too. The cabin has plenty of space, with the expansive glass adding to the airy feeling.
The Maserati V6 and hydraulics systems give the Citroen SM a reputation for unreliability and horrendous complexity. However, Jay Leno has owned his SM for 35 years, and he’s “never had a big problem with it.” As long as it’s driven regularly and maintained properly, Hagerty reports, it can and is a reliable long-distance GT car. The biggest issues surround the V6’s valves and timing chain, but modern solutions exist.
Getting one of your own
Due to the 5-mph bumper mandate of the mid-70s, Citroen stopped US SM sales in 1974. And the company’s bankruptcy meant the luxury coupe died the following year, Hagerty reports. Citroen built fewer than 13,000 SMs in total.
The European manual models are the most valuable, as the US-spec ones couldn’t have the swiveling headlights. However, it’s possible to retro-fit the European lights, and many US SM owners have. As for the automatic, it makes the car noticeably slower.
Although the V6 and hydraulics are serviceable, repairs can get expensive. As a result, good-condition Citroen SMs are more expensive, but they’re not unreasonably priced. In January 2020, a 1973 model sold for $64,400 at an RM Sotheby’s auction. But on Bring a Trailer, prices for decent-condition examples hover around $40,000-$50,000.
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