Martin Buckley's Citroen SM
Published in Classic & Sports Car, vol 29 no 8, November 2010, written by Martin Buckley.
Having a white Citroen SM in protective custody has been an emotional rollercoaster that, with luck (and a new clutch release bearing) will come to an end next week when the car goes to its new owner. The process has not been without its stresses and strains, most imagined or anticipated rather than real. When I took the car on, the engine wasn't running, the front wings were off and nobody quite knew what had and had not been done to it. But all of that trauma is long enough ago now for the worst of the anguish to have been forgotten, and I have been using the SM on and off for 18 months. I will be truly sorry to see it go because it has been a privilege to own a dream car that I've lusted after for 40 years.
I can't recall where I saw my first SM, but I do remember a pink Corgi one I had (just bought another from a car-boot sale for £1). I also have vague memories of seeing them going up the M6 at high speed, and Dad coming back from a trip to Paris with a story of a mad Frenchman playing the national game of contact parking and smashing the pricey glass snout.
Then there was that brochure with Sarah Moon photography, a '70s fantasy evoking a journey across an orange-filtered landscape of elegantly languid Afghan hounds and rainy autoroutes. There, the women were always gazing dreamily from the windows with an 'I wish I was somewhere else' look on their faces.
Later in my SM education came an Osprey AutoHistory by Jeff Daniels. It still graces my shelf and I think that book was what ignited my passion for the car, although Daniels was frank about the SM's shortcomings, not so much as a product but as a mistimed design. My lust was consummated in 1995 with a run to Scotland in a green example owned by a Dutchman. The only trouble it gave in hundreds of miles was the cassette deck refusing to return my Oasis tape.
The car had been dead for five years when that Daniels book was written, yet already the SM's 'classic' credentials were being touted, hardly a surprise if you consider that it was a Maserati engined super-GT of dramatic looks and ability. Yet until quite recently, only a few eccentrics have really coveted them: engineers, aesthetes and people with strange pastimes - such as the guy who left his transvestite gear in the boot of a spares car I once owned, complete with size 10 stilettos, fake boobs and silky underwear. These people have either the balls (or breasts) to work on an SM themselves, or deep enough pockets to pay someone else to - such as a pal from Stroud who ran one as an everyday car for 10 years.
Of course the SM is about fantasy, not daily reality, and there are plenty of people out there who fantasize about them. Rarely has a car I've used garnered so much interest, and it's surprising how knowledgeable people are. But when it comes to writing the cheque, they buy a DS, which makes sense: if you want a marvellous, hydropneumatic classic Citroen, why buy one with the added potential headaches of a Maserati engine? Actually, I've never subscribed to that view, because the SM touches many more emotional buttons than the DS, a car I have very little recollection of. As a child of the early '70s, I was brought up on The Protectors and the blue SM driven by the late Nyree Dawn Porter (once described, I believe, as the two worst actresses in Britain). In fact, she refused to drive it because of the famously twitchy steering.
I quite like the steering and I love the engine, but the nicest thing about the SM is the precise, slick-shifting five-speed gearbox with its ideally placed ratios. It's impossibly exotic to look at and the driving experience is a match for the aesthetics. It's the replacement I always had in mind for my NSU Ro80. In fact, as a futuristic, technically advanced car from the early '70s, the SM complements the NSU perfectly and it's not difficult to drive, no matter what Miss Dawn Porter says. Even if I haven't driven it for months I attune instantly to its super-sharp steering and brakes.
The best improvement I made to the car was fitting new Michelin XWX tyres all round to replace the Avons it was shod with when it arrived. They were too low-profile and neither looked or felt right. The SM was pretty much designed around the hunky XWX and Dougal Cawley at Longstone supplied me with a set. They're not cheap, but they really make the car with their deep sidewalls and evocative '70s tread pattern. The light touch has returned to the ride, the bite to the roadholding and I think the cars are becoming valuable enough to mean that getting these details right is important. The day of the cheap'n'cheerful SM is fading: one trader is advertising a restored car for £79,000, and the nature of the Citroen-Maserati market is that people just don't buy cheap ones.
If you ever saw me broken down in the SM, it was only a fuel-pump relay; occasionally the car would just stop, but because I knew exactly what the problem was I resigned myself to lifting the bonnet and groping around in the front-nearside corner of the inner wing to fiddle with the orange relays. When I heard a 'glug' from the Webers, I knew I had touched upon the correct relay and we were off again, although it rather shattered the SM fantasy. I couldn't imagine the girl in the brochure putting up with that.