Jay Leno's Citroën SM Is the Best Car France Has Ever Sent to America
At 50, this Maserati-engined GT still feels and looks like the future.
Despite being one of the most innovative carmakers of the previous century, Citroën just never had the cash flow to develop a sporty engine worthy of its bigger cars. In 1955, the classy DS was supposed to launch with a new air-cooled flat-six engine based on the 2-cylinder 2CV block's design, only to end up with an upgraded four-cylinder lifted straight from the old Traction Avant. When it came to developing a much more luxurious successor to the DS, Citroën solved its engine problem by acquiring troubled Maserati instead, mostly to get its 2.7-liter 90-degree four-cam Tipo C114 V6 engine for its most ambitious 2+2.
Following that transaction in 1968, the Citroën SM launched in 1970, combining all the technical innovations of the DS in a much more sophisticated package, all designed with the American customer in mind. This GT resulting from the French company's "Project S" featured a 170 horsepower V6 with front-wheel drive, a precise five-speed manual that's a real joy to use, inboard brakes for minimum unsprung weight, and a patented Hydro-pneumatic suspension that provided power to the steering and brakes. The center-mounted headlights would even turn with front wheels to help drivers see better through the corners. What's more, if real trouble hit, the SM would still continue on on three wheels, just like a DS, and a number of more recent Citroëns.
While you could indeed write a letter to the Citroën Cars Corporation in Englewood, New Jersey, or at Beatrice Street, Los Angeles, the French made a number of few errors while targeting the same customer base as Mercedes-Benz. First off, the SM's headlight system was deemed illegal by the federal government. That may have been easy to delete for the U.S., yet due to its integral variable height suspension, the car also did not get an exemption from the NHTSA's 5 mph bumper regulation introduced for 1974. That meant after just two years on the market, Citroën found its SM banned from America.
Mechanics more used to Fords and Chevys had no clue how to service these cars either, yet even standing still, Robert Opron's brilliant design made the SM the absolute star of any boulevard. Futuristic yet efficient with its low-drag body and large glass hatchback, the SM is a 140-mph tourer that can also be used off-road.
Having purchased it some 35 years ago, Jay Leno's 1972 example shows 110,000 miles today. It's been maintained by specialist Jerry Hathaway, retrofitted with the European headlights, but otherwise kept completely original. With its mushroom-operated brake system, always re-centering steering, and unbelievably comfortable ride, it's never given Leno any trouble at all.
Meanwhile, Maserati's latest V6 is a 621-horsepower affair.
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