With a Maserati V6 underhood, the Citroen SM was the French marque's halo car in the 1970s. And plenty found their way to the States.
New England has a reputation for offering up four distinct seasons -- a bit of a rarity in the U.S. -- and for taking all four seasons to the extreme. Winters can be sudden and brutal, causing roofs to cave in after a yard of snow falls overnight, while summers can be best described as punishing and subtropical. Walk around NYC in July and you'll know we're not making this up. And spring, that seemingly joyous season, has been relegated to weeks of thick fog that would make Old England seem bright and cheerful.
But lately fall has been a little hard to find. Temperatures in the 80s with almost 100 percent humidity have made October in New England indistinguishable from October in south Florida. While Halloween trick-or-treaters in Michigan and the Upper Midwest are forced to wear a few layers of North Face and endure jokes about all dressing up as MacReady from the 1982 John Carpenter remake of "The Thing," it can be a little too warm in New England to wear any kind of elaborate costume, aside from The Dude from "The Big Lebowski" with some flip-flops, pajama pants and a tan bathrobe. Indeed, fall foliage calendars have been throwing curveballs for some time, staying green way past their expiration date and then being shredded off by a sudden Nor'easter that will knock out power for a couple of days.
In short, fall has become a gamble.
So it is perhaps fitting that for our tour of southern New England, we've decided to survey New England in a car created by an automaker also known for taking design and technology to the extreme, and never shying away from either. That car is the Citroen SM.
The SM was the last Citroen officially sold in the U.S., even though CXA Automotive continued to import subsequent models and federalize them until the early 1990s.
To be fair, this French marque had a reputation for doing things its way long before this spaceship-styled luxury coupe debuted in 1971. The Citroen DS sedan, which seemingly emerged from a time portal to the future in 1955 with an alien design and a similarly futuristic oleo-pneumatic suspension, has become as much of a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower a symbol a Paris, rivaled only by the Citroen 2CV. The DS represented more than an entire era for Citroen, dominating the postwar years well into the 1970s until a similarly futuristic SM arrived in 1970 to carry the baton of the top French car available at the time.
This top French car available at the time was not entirely French -- SM unofficially stands for Sport Maserati -- reflecting the Maserati-built 3.0-liter V6 underhood. Citroen purchased the often-unsteady Italian marque, gaining access to Maserati engines while continuing to develop its own suspension technology. When the SM debuted at the Geneva motor show in 1970, it represented one of the first true domestic luxury grand tourers -- French automakers had not fielded anything in this class for some time with the exception of the still-smaller Panhard 24. But the generous 2.7- and 3.0-liter displacement of the Maserati V6 certainly placed the SM into an elite club.
The car that we're driving to survey what New England fall offers is a 1972 example, equipped with a 3.0-liter engine paired with a BorgWarner automatic transmission. And it's a little different from the European model. OK, it's a lot different: Due to DOT regulations' disdain for swiveling headlights, Citroen restyled the entire front fascia, getting rid of the lovely set of rectangular lights behind an aerodynamic glass screen that turned along with the wheels. Beefier bumpers and rectangular side markers are another reminder of DOT concern for Americans' safety and lack of concern for foreign car design.
Citroen received access to Maserati engines following the purchase of the Italian automaker, which is why the SM has a Maserati V6 underhood.
Safety is very much on our minds as we take the Citroen through the narrow roads of southeastern Connecticut, in the woods that this car has called home for a couple of decades. The SM can look delicate in photos, with its high-profile tires creating the impression of a small body, but it's not a small car by any measure, even if it is absolutely dwarfed by American luxury coupes of the day. The narrow, winding back roads offer a chance to size up the handling of the SM, with the suspension permitting us to float along without the coupe shifting its weight all that much. Still, there is plenty of body roll as we round corners, but the trick here (as with rear-engined cars) is to stay on the power through the curve, lest the tail come around and slap us in the face.
This means driving the SM requires a little practice before we're comfortable enough to push it a bit through the twisty roads just north of the town of Old Lyme. The narrow roads slice through a forest dotted with short stone walls, with these forgotten mazes covering much of the state, but it's not long before we find slightly wider roads.
Our destination is Lime Rock, in the northwest quadrant of the state, but there is no easy way to get there from ... pretty much anywhere. Lime Rock is nestled among the hills, but getting there from Boston and New York City takes plenty of patience and some navigation skills, no matter which way you go. For a state that's two hours wide and one hour long north to south, a trip from the southeast corner of the state can easily top two hours. Since we're already just south of Portland near the center of the state, we let the SM out on to the highway a bit to get up to just south of the state capital of Hartford. From there, we take Interstate 91 down to Meriden and then west to Waterbury -- relatively congested parts of the state -- and then grab Route 8 north from Waterbury past Thomaston and Torrington until the terrain starts to look a bit deserted.
The wide and long coupe prefers the autoroute, but with some finesse it can be persuaded to handle on forested back roads.
The SM seems to like this part of the journey -- it's a car that loves highways -- but opening up the Maserati V6 does not really produce a soundtrack from 1970s Italian action films. The SM was built to float along in near silence in the city, which goes well with its magic suspension, but it's not a car that will bark at other cars when downshifting. In fact, the SM has stayed rather quiet since starting up in the morning with a catlike purr. Letting it stretch its legs for half an hour of freeway speeds reminded us that it was meant to be Citroen's grand tourer, the car to take down from Paris to the Riviera via the autoroute, floating past slower traffic.
There was plenty of slower traffic back in the day in France -- the SM boasted the biggest engine of just about all mass-produced French cars of the time -- but the ability to flex its muscles on the autoroutes and autobahns was one of the things that its designers had hoped for, giving the CX sedan a lineup of much milder engines, for the most part. It was the CX that battled the German sedans for two decades straight, offering an unique-enough experience, packaging and design that it found plenty of its own fans without duking it out with locomotives like the Mercedes-Benz 6.9 or the Neue Six BMW cars, managing to stay in production for an impressively long time with a few updates here and there.
But the SM remained a much more exclusive car and only as a coupe, despite some experiments in cabriolets and sedans by coachbuilders Heuliez and Chapron.
Yet the SM offers a very sedan-like experience, we conclude as we approach Lime Rock Park. Perhaps it's the suspension, ready to soak up everything including speed bumps, or the impossibly long hood that could probably house not one but two Maserati V6s. One thing that's for sure is that it's not a city car in the same way that a CX sedan is, and despite their similar looks, an SM is not too far from the dimensions of a four-door itself.
As we roll into Lime Rock we find that it's perfectly deserted this time of year, or rather day of the week. There's no racing on Sunday, and that leaves the track a park in itself that, absent the sound of engines, showcases the colors of the neighboring hills. There are plenty of colors to see, and plenty of opportunity to discover the rarely seen pockets of the track, with mystery barns holding old machinery. This green corner of Connecticut lights up in the fall, but always on its own schedule.