The Story That Lead To This Unique Tangerine Citroёn
Photography by Máté Boér
What does a car nut do before adding a new piece to a collection of classics? Whatever their tack may be, it probably starts (or in some cases, ends) with a detailed study of the specific model’s technical aspects, its historical relevance as a car and its own history as an individual car, and of course, the cost of ownership. Since vintage cars are often seen as investments these days, further research into the market’s trends and trajectories is a prudent move too; it’s just another step in the process of falling in love with certain machines.
The Citroёn SM is often one of those, especially if you like your automobiles with some French flavor. I won’t retread too much ground in describing what makes the SM especially unique—even within Citroёn—but there are some key notes to hit when talking about this car all the same. When conceiving of the follow-up to the immense success that was the DS (dubbed the “Goddess” after the English translation of the model’s phonetic pronunciation, Déesse, or “goddess” in French), one of the major upgrades to be made involved replacing the rather lethargic inline-4 power plant. In pursuit of this, Citroёn purchased the then-struggling Maserati to make use of their engine-building capabilities; contemporary journalists at Autocar lauded the DS’s state-of-the-art technologies, but complained that “the least impressive part of the DS [is] the engine.”
After many rumors surrounding the open secret that was the upcoming “Maserati-Citroёn,” the SM made its debut at the 1970 Geneva Auto Show packing a V6 built by Maserati under the hood. The combined efforts from France and Italy helped the car stake its claim as the fastest front-wheel-drive passenger car ever built: 0-60mph took a quoted 8.9 seconds, and the SM could reach a top speed of almost 140mph. This was also France’s only 6-cylinder car at the time of production. As Claude-Alain Sarre, Managing Director of Citroёn at the time, said of the SM, “[it] had to combine performance and comfort, it’s a sports car anyone could drive.” The result is a fast GT car that carried with it some of the uniquely comfortable driving experience of the outgoing DS.
Almost everyone interested in the French manufacturer has a keen curiosity for the Maserati-engined GT car, and the owner of this car (who has owned many other models, from the DS to the CX) is no different in that regard. Where his SM does break from the mold though can be seen in its striking tangerine paint. While doing the due-diligence mentioned earlier, his in-depth research led him to Marc Sonnery’s Maserati – The Citroёn Years 1968-1975, a must-have for anyone interested in both manufacturers’ stories, as it includes everything there is to know: technical details, interviews, never-before-seen photos, and everything else related to the pairing that brought about the SM. One of the stories led to this originally blue SM being repainted in its bright orange hue seen today.
Marléne Wolgensinger was one of the people profiled in the book, and was the first woman to run a major manufacturer’s competition department. Until her husband René Cotton’s death in 1971, the department was successfully led by the couple; among some other strong results, a notable triumph was the competition SM’s victory at its first event at Rally Morocco, with Jean Deschazeaux and Jean Plassard. Marléne became the head of the competition department in September of ’71, and worked predominantly on the shorter and lighter versions of the SM geared toward rallying, especially the longer distance events. In addition to her role, she was also a government adviser to Pierre Messmer. At this point you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the orange SM in the photos.
When she arrived at her Parisian government meetings, Marléne often stepped out of an SM, and on one such occurrence, the car’s paint matched her blue suit. The arrival of an SM was already a sight, so to see a strikingly tall blonde lady in a matching suit behind the wheel of one was only more intriguing. She told bystanders that she always borrowed a Citroёn to match her outfits, and to give credence to this idea she showed up to a subsequent meeting in a suit the same color as the tangerine SM she’d driven up in–it was the only one in that color, and belonged to the PR director at the time. Her colorful arrival blew everyone away, and still does to this day, or at least when it comes to the owner of this originally blue SM who subsequently had the car redone in the same orange hue at his workshop after reading the stories about Marléne.
Driving an SM is a special experience in both how it feels to actually do it, and in how everyone else reacts to it. People peer and crane to follow the car down the streets after they catch their first glimpse–it’s as if they’re seeing a UFO! Especially in this totally ‘70s color, the people around me in Budapest definitely take notice of the car that continues to divide enthusiasts and non-car people alike. Many are interested in its advanced technological features like the hydro-pneumatic suspension and swiveling headlights, and of course anyone who’s driven one can attest to the utterly unique experience therein.
In my time with the car–whose owner was kind enough to let me borrow it for a while–I came to view it as the perfect vehicle for traveling. The low-speed smoothness and pliability of the Maserati motor complements the power that it makes at the top-end, and the SM’s fuel capacity is a sizable 90 liters, which means you’ll probably be stopping for food and rest more often than fuel. On the other hand though, I can understand why some may be scared off by the car’s eccentricities like the aforementioned suspension, and the DIRAVI (Direction Assistée a Rappel Asservi) self-centering, speed-sensitive power steering.
None of that can deter the fans of the SM though, and thanks to its fame and in spite of its issues, these are highly sought-after classics now, especially the European-market models with the six self-leveling Cibié headlamps up front. To illustrate the surging popularity, the prices of fully-restored examples increased by almost twofold between 2005 and 2015! Clearly this is a car that has staying power in the minds and garages of vintage car collectors and fans alike, and for good reason.