Citroen SM — Allez
I wanted a Citroen SM when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I bought one in 1999. This is the story of me and my car, and I will update it as I gather pictures and details of the car online, and decide on it’s eventual destination.
After 19 years with Allez, I’m not driving it often enough, and feel that it’s a good time for someone else to enjoy the car [Update: sold the car in January 2020]. It’s in great mechanical condition, and is probably worth investing in a restoration, it could use a new paint job, have the bumpers taken off to fix a few accumulated dings, and have the interior leather replaced. I want the car to go to a good home, preferably in Northern California, so I can see it at events from time to time. I don’t have an asking price, and I’m not in a hurry. I’m going to collect offers and pick one, if that doesn’t work out I will pick another one. Allez will be with me and Laurel in the Monterey area at the end of August 2018. We will be in Carmel for the Thursday lunchtime Pebble Beach tour, Pacific Grove and Laguna Seca Raceway on Friday, on the green at Concorso Italiano on Saturday, and parked with everyone else while we attend Pebble Beach Concours on Sunday. I will have a note on the car with a link to this post, and my twitter DMs @adrianco are open for discussions and questions.
I first became aware of Citroen’s as a child when my father pointed out a Citroen DS and told me about it’s advanced aerodynamics and technology, including the hydropneumatic suspension system. I was fascinated, and looked into the car, but felt that it was let down by a boring engine. In 1970 the Citroen SM was launched with a Maserati engine and even cooler two door body style, but they didn’t make it in right-hand drive for the UK market, so they were extremely rare to see on the road as I grew up. I had one as a toy car, and even painted a picture of one for art class. At some point I came across a history of Citroen, Maserati and the SM called “French Show with Italian Go”, which was published in Playboy magazine in 1971. Much later a friend with a similar obsession about the SM gave me a copy of the magazine in return for a drive of my car. In the late 1960s Citroen bought Maserati and the Maserati Bora and Merak contain some Citroen technology. The Merak and SM share the same quad-cam V6 engine, although its tuned up more for the Merak and is installed in the back as a mid-engine rear wheel drive, while in the SM it’s installed in the front, driving the front wheels. Citroen sold Maserati in the late 1970s and it ended up owned by Fiat. While I lived in the UK I owned several hydropneumatic Citroens, a 1976 Citroen GS,1981 Citroen GSA,1984 Citroen BX, 1988 Citroen BX 16V (my favorite, a very sporty car), and steel sprung 1982 Citroen Dyane, 1989 Citroen AX (as second cars), but I always wanted an SM.
A total of 12,920 Citroen SMs were sold between 1970 and 1975, mostly in European markets. The USA market version had a few changes, a simpler headlight system with four round lights without a glass cover, and a rubbing strip along the side to protect it from door dings in parking lots. Earlier cars had a carburetor based engine, later ones had fuel injection, and there was a 2.7liter or 3.0liter V6 engine with automatic or 5 speed manual gearbox. My 1973 car is silver-grey with black leather interior, a US-spec body that has had glass headlight covers added, with a 3.0liter carburetor engine and 5 speed manual gearbox. The engine is rated at 180bhp and 180lbft.
I think I saw my car on the streets of Palo Alto once, a year or two before I bought it. The license plate “Allez” which means “Go!” in French has been on the car since it was new, and I remember noticing that plate on one of my rare sightings of a Citroen SM in the wild.
In May 1999 I had just separated and moved to the USA on my own, I had bought a 1975 Fiat 124 Spider as my daily driver, which seemed to be working out, and I was hanging out with my car-buddy Richard McDougall at his house, when I decided to take a look at the San Jose Mercury cars for sale section. I saw an ad for “1973 Maserati SM” and decided that I’d at least like to look at an SM close-up and test drive it, even if I didn’t buy it. About a week later it was my car. My policy at the time was to have a “redundant array of impractical cars with issues” in the hope that at least one of them was going to get me to work each day. The Citroen’s kid-sized back seats, large trunk and long distance cruising capability seemed like a good compliment to the Fiat.
Allez was bought in 1973 by a director of Lawrence Livermore Labs who lived in Pleasanton California. He drove it a lot. At some point in the 1980’s it had some minor accident repair to the front wing and had a complete re-spray. It wasn’t done all that well, and nowadays some of the clearcoat is crazed or peeling in places. It looks good enough at a car show and to enjoy driving, but isn’t going to win any prizes. After about 100,000 miles the engine failed, and was completely replaced. The story is that Citroen had stored two crated brand new engines in Los Angeles at the end of the production run. The engine number on Allez is at the end of the possible range, which supports this story. I got the car with about 130,000 miles on it, and it now has 169,000 miles, so the engine has done 69,000. The original owner retired, and eventually moved to Florida and sold the car to local SF Citroen Car Club member Ralf DiTullio, who already had two SMs. Ralf kept the car for a year or so, then sold it to me, as he was out of space. The car came with a big binder of maintenance records since it was new, and along with my records of the last 19 years, the full history of the car comes with it.
I have made a few changes to the car since I got it. I managed to buy a set of glass front headlamp covers on eBay and get them mounted over the round US headlamps. I upgraded the head unit and speakers in 1999 to include a radio/cassette with an external CD changer that is tucked under the passenger seat. The head unit is mounted vertically between the seats and modern units are too deep, so it has spacers to make it fit. The car was running on red hydraulic fluid when I got it, and I got it converted back to the original green Castrol LHM. Suspension and braking spheres have been swapped out and are currently in good condition. I had a starter motor relay added, and Lumenition electronic ignition was installed before I got the car. The air conditioning valves were replaced, it was re-charged and it blows cold air nicely. I bought the correct Michelin XWX tires fairly recently and they are in excellent condition. These tires are hard to find, a historic spec that is also used on the Ferrari Dino and other cars of the period with high top speeds. The leather seats are serviceable but have a few cracks and tears. At some point I bought a full set of replacement leather skins for the seats, but never got around to having them fitted, they are boxed and come with the car. I also had a crazy plan at one point to use the SM to tow another very small car to car shows, and went as far as getting the parts for a tow-bar. Not really much use, but it also comes with the car.
The SM is a quirky and unusual car to drive, the steering is very light and direct at low speeds, and gets heavier with speed. It’s common to over-steer the car at first. The brakes are pressure sensitive, the pedal doesn’t actually move much, it pushes back on your foot the harder you press. It’s also common to over-brake at first. The engine sounds odd at idle due to it’s uneven firing pattern, its smooth at speed and pulls well though. The gearing is high and there isn’t an impression of speed, so it’s easy to end up going faster than you think you are. I’ve had a couple of speeding tickets in this car, and it’s a great car for going far and fast apart from the lack of cruise control. The ride is incredibly soft and absorbs all bumps, the self leveling is needed to maintain the ride height and activates even when filling the huge 24 gallon gas tank. It gets 16–20mpg, and is relatively better cruising at high speed than other cars due to it’s aerodynamics, but worse around town. The low fuel warning light starts flashing as fuel sloshes around when there’s about 10 gallons left.
Allez has been on some great road trips. The longest in 2000 along with Richard McDougall in his Lotus Esprit was to Solvang in southern California, then on to Phoenix Arizona and Red Rocks at Sedona for a wedding, and back via the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.
We had fun at the Palo Alto Concours (also in 2000), doing a synchronized suspension tricks display alongside a second white SM.
The Fiat America club ran the Fiat Mille, a 1000 mile tour of northern California a few times, and I took Allez once. Chasing Fiat X1/9’s through the mountains was fun. They took the corners faster but I caught up on the straights. We also took the car to Oregon with the Fiat club, and toured Crater Lake, where I took the photo shown at the top of this story. I also have a bunch of photos taken at our home in the Los Gatos Mountains.
The Best of France and Italy car show in Van Nuys California is a favorite for Citroen SMs, since they are exactly on point for the event. I’ve taken Allez there several times, and once saw eight different SMs, and got to know some of the owners.
In 2009 the Maserati club created an event called La Dolce Vita, and Allez was parked right next to the land speed record turbo SM and it’s trailer. The lack of crowds meant we got some great photos of the cars.
Laurel and I have taken Allez to many events with the SF Citroen Car Club over the years. We had a scenic setting in August 2014 at Fort Baker, by the Golden Gate Bridge, with a lot of interesting cars.
Allez has been to Concorso Italiano several times, but the only time it has won a contest was at the Concours d’Lemons in 2015. I entered it in the Unmitigated Gaul class, but since no-one turned up in any Italian cars, I was voted winner of the Needlessly Complex Italian class. We bribed the judges and anyone else who walked by with shots of Limoncello, and Jay Leno stopped by to tell me that my car was much too nice to be at the Lemons show. I shook his hand but we were too surprised and didn’t think to ask for a photo!
One of my favorite pictures was taken indoors lit by a skylight at Cowden Automotive in San Francisco, during one of the Arcane Car Club’s annual meetings.
Since I don’t drive Allez very often nowadays, it’s usually sitting for a few months between outings and I’ve developed a checklist to get it going reliably.
- Disconnect the battery tender (keeps the battery charged up), and while the hood is up, check the water and oil levels. Rotate the spark plug wires in their socket at the distributor end, in case any corrosion has got in. This helps avoid an annoying misfire that took a while to find the cause of and comes back from time to time. The distributor is unique, as the 90 degree V6 has an un-even firing order, and there are two coils and two incoming wires feeding it.
- Starting the car is tricky, as the starter motor is fairly weak and the electrical system over-all is old. Turn off the interior fan and AC to make sure there’s no competing current draw while starting. Turn on the ignition and listen for the fuel pump, it will run for a few seconds and stop. Turn the ignition off and on again several times, until you hear the fuel pump sound different as it finally gets fuel pressure. There’s no point cranking the engine over until there’s some fresh fuel in the carbs. I don’t use the choke, it doesn’t seem to help. Pump the throttle a few times, and turn the engine over for a few seconds. Repeat until it fires, and hold the engine at about 2000 rpm once it gets going.
- You will hear the hydraulic system pump starting to pressurize the system. After 10–20 seconds, lightly press the brake pedal, it will make a loud noise as the fluid releases, if the car hasn’t run for a long time. Eventually the car will start to raise up. Don’t ever try to move or steer the car before it’s risen, as you are sitting on the bump stops, the brakes aren’t at full pressure, the steering is un-assisted, and the tires may catch on the front wheel arches. When the car is fully raised and at full pressure, you hear the pump cut out.
- Check the the ride hight level adjustment to the left of the drivers seat. I usually run the car slightly below the normal setting, since I live in the mountains with very twisty roads and it reduces roll with the very soft suspension.
- I usually take the car on a short “round the block” drive to warm it up and see how the brakes feel. If there’s any delay before the brake pedal takes effect, the front brakes need to be bled to let the air out. The air gets in if the system isn’t driven often, and it sits depressurized for a long time. The two bleed nipples are just behind the radiator in the center of the engine bay, since the front brakes are in-board, mounted on each side of the gearbox, not on the wheels like most cars.
- While the suspension is up, the tire pressures can be checked, the rear wheels are partially covered, so the car needs to be moved back and forth to get at the valves.
Allez was maintained by Peter Koine in San Francisco in the early years, and more recently by Lon Price in Santa Cruz. It’s always been garaged. The only thing that needs fixing at present is the brake pedal return spring, for now some sponge under the carpet holds the pedal up, otherwise the brake lights stay on all the time. It’s been driven a handful of times since Lon’s last service about 2 years ago, where he worked on the hydraulic system and the car’s heater.
Update — I sold the car in January 2020 to someone I met at the SF Citroen club Holiday Dinner. He took it to Peter Koine to get it serviced and has been putting some miles on it and enjoying the car. I’m happy that it went to a good home.