What’s The Unluckiest Car Company?

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The Citroën SM is one of the great cars. It is comfortable, powerful, stylish, and technically unique, in part because was orphaned the moment it came into being.

The SM wasn’t exactly the end of Citroën’s run of iconic hydropneumatic-suspension cars, but it was maybe the high point. Certainly it fits into the myth of the company’s old ways. Citroën wasn’t the richest car company, it knew it didn’t have the money to be cranking out new models every year. It wasn’t General Motors, after all. If Citroën could only afford to come out with a new car every decade or so, each car would have to be so bold, so groundbreaking, that the rest of the car industry would only just be catching up to it those 10 or so years down the line. That was its character; that was its business model.

In the 1930s, Citroën gave the world arguably the first successful, mass-market front-wheel drive car, the Traction Avant. It also designed France’s people’s car, the 2CV, which made it into production after the war.

In the 1950s, Citroën followed up with the DS, with futuristic aerodynamics and suspension that used orbs of hydropneumatic fluid. Charles de Gaulle survived an assassination attempt when a shooter blew out a tire in the DS he was riding in; the car’s self-leveling suspension made it to safety on three wheels alone.

In the 1960s, Citroen just updated the DS, it was readying another more distinctive car.

That car debuted in 1970, the SM. While the DS had up-to-date aerodynamics and suspension, it still used a carryover engine, a weedy little four-cylinder. Citroën had the money to make most of a groundbreaking car back in the 1950s, but not everything could be all-new.

The SM gave Citroën’s design the power it needed, with a V6 engine designed by Maserati,which Citroën had recently purchased, and wrapped it in a stylish two-door coupe body.

The only problem is with all of that power, all of that prestige, and cost, and horrible fuel economy, going on sale just in time for the Western world’s first energy crisis was not an ideal business plan. The OPEC embargo hit in 1973, and the SM was toast. Citroën as an independent company didn’t survive much longer after that, even with its beautiful four-door follow-up the CX.

I’ve driven an SM, ran through the gears with its not-exactly-gated shifter, figured out how to master its … plush … ride. It’s not like the SM was a bad car, it just came out at the wrong time. In the 1960s, the world was ready to dump money into big, expensive GTs. In the early 1970s, it wasn’t. It’s not like it was Citroën’s fault. It just bet big and got unlucky.

In the context of the car industry, Citroën was still one of the luckier ones. After all, it’s still around today. Somebody bought it up, saved it from going totally bust. What car company do you think was even unluckier?


Nina Zatulini

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