Citroen’s creme de la crème. With a rare opportunity to sample Chapron’s glamorous drophead version of the SM, where else could we go but the French capital? Mick Walsh packs his phrasebook. Photography James Mann. Just one glance at the spectacular gold Citroёn SM Mylord is enough to confirm that this is a cherished car. Arriving by taxi, we spot the rarity casually parked, top-down, on a Paris street where it glows among the bland moderns like a setting sun in the late afternoon. Beneath the creeping shadows of the ’60s flats on Boulevard des Freres Voisin in the 15th arrondissement, the original interior and faultless, crisp bodywork reveal the loving care that this rare coachbuilt SM has received from the same family over the past 42 years.
Above: late-night run down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees and past the Grand Palais, home of the Paris Salon until 1961 – converted Citroen rides well even over the pave. Right: offset bonnet vent is an SM signature.
Clockwise, from main: gold Mylord and Tour Eiffel both dazzle at night; peace of Place Dauphine; subtle badge; superbly presented all-alloy Maserati V6. You can imagine it motoring around alsace or cruising down to provence.
“It was bought straight off the Chapron stand at the Geneva Salon by a Citroёn dealer based in Mulhouse, and his mechanics kept it in immaculate shape,” says Pierre Novikoff, enthusiastic specialist from Artcurial, which is to sell this car at its Retromobile auction in the capital in February. “The French are not traditionally good at looking after old cars, but the owner of this SM made full use of his dealership facilities. The colour was changed very early because his wife didn’t like it; he switched it to a warmer metallic, which I think really suits the car.” Noting the low mileage of just 79,239km, I can just imagine it motoring around the Alsace region or cruising down to Provence on heavenly summer trips. As we admire the supremely stylish open cockpit, I spot a collection of old tapes stored between the seats. Intrigued to see what soundtrack accompanied the Maserati V6’s sweet exhaust rasp, we unearth a batch of homemade compilations featuring Fats Waller, Manitas de Plata, Lionel Hampton and Jack Teagarden, conjuring a vivid impression of the jazz-loving original owner. For me, however, those classic grooves don’t suit this exclusive cruiser. Jean Michel Jarre or Cerrone would better match the Mylord’s bold looks and magic- carpet ride; it’s easy to picture French electronic hit Supernature blasting out as it cruises through the atmospheric Parisian underpasses.
We’ve convinced Novikoff to take the SM Mylord out for a night drive around Paris to make the most of its individual style, but before we venture into the city centre he’s keen to show us another Chapron-bodied car. We pull back the security doors to the underground storage, switch on the lights, and inside is an Aladdin’s cave of automotive treasures all scheduled for the Retromobile sale. In one corner sits a sleek 1937 Delahaye 135 Roadster with two-seater drophead bodywork in unrestored condition. The famous Paris coachbuilder produced some of the prettiest bodywork for the 135 chassis and this tatty survivor is one of the most rakish, with low ’screen, long tail and countersunk spare wheel. Owned by the same family since 1961, the car’s timewarp state indicates its colourful history, right down to the check-painted radiator grille. “I love searching out original cars and couldn’t believe this one,” says Novikoff. “We even found shots of the 135 being used during the liberation parade in Nancy.”
The Chapron works in Levallois Perret, a suburb of north-western Paris, was highly successful in the ’30s with more than 300 crafts-men employed in the workshop. At its peak, Chapron was producing upwards of 500 bodies a year, and Artcurial will also feature a handsome 1931 Delage D8S cabriolet, thus presenting an impressive trio with the Mylord showing the evolution of the coachbuilder’s distinctive style.
As a young apprentice harness-maker, Henri Chapron cycled all over France and Algeria to find work before his military service in WW1 and he was rightfully proud of his self-made success. The glamorous beauties he created were far removed from the firm’s first work, converting war-surplus Ford Model Ts into saloons and torpedo roadsters in his newly opened business in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1920.
Clockwise, from above; at rest by La Seine with the backdrop of Notre Dame; stylish interior features single-spoke wheel by Dargent; simple pressed hubcaps; inner lamps turn in unmistakable glass nose; Kamm-style tail helps low Cd of 0.39.
It’s a wrench to leave the attractions in the store, which also include a Kellner-bodied Duesenberg Model J with ‘Scaphandre’-style coachwork and a sexy black Alfa 6C-1750, but we’re on a mission to tick off as many Paris land-marks as we can in one night. Like us, Novikoff is a big fan of the SM and in the past he has had plenty of fun in the capital with other coachbuilt models. “Afewyears ago we had a superb replica of the Presidentielle converted by DS restorer Vincent Crescia in Switzerland. I enjoyed using it around Paris for a few days, and several of my friends who were Jacques Chirac supporters rang up and demanded a ride in the limousine. It was fantastic to drive but difficult to park with its lengthened 11 ½ ft wheelbase.”
Just leaving the boulevard named after legendary French aviator and car manufacturer Voisin is a challenge because locals are equally smitten by the gold Citroёn. Even production SMs are rare on these inner-city roads, but the Mylord is one of just seven soft-top conversions by Chapron, so it’s not surprising that everywhere we stop admirers want to be photographed with the 1971 sensation. This was the first car built and, following the historical pattern of Chapron’s DS decapotable, it filled a niche because Citroёn MD Pierre Bercot wasn’t interested in building a production SM drophead.
Despite the chilly winter air, we agree that the Mylord should tour with the top down. The name has several associations, ranging from an early horse-drawn carriage with convertible phaeton-style body to a sophisticated dandy – both of which suit the car. “We’re going to look like a bunch of French drug-dealers going to a Barry White concert,” laughs Novikoff as the SM purrs off into the evening rush hour.
There’s a hole in the exhaust and the 2.7-litre, 178bhp Maserati quad-cam V6 sounds very fruity. “Just watch the brakes,” advises Novikoff, no doubt anticipating lead-footed use of the discs sending him face-first into the windscreen, but thankfully I’m used to the super-sensitive powered anchors. Just as impressive is the way the Mylord rides over the rougher sections of the Paris back-streets: even pave doesn’t cause any scuttle shake. Clearly Chapron’s extra stiffening of the cut-down body is well engineered.
Above: preparing to brave the 12 exits of the Arc de Triomphe roundabout – rear is less resolved than the coupe. Below: dramatic Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
Our first planned stop is the embankment close to Notre Dame, where the mission is to emulate the wonderful mood of the original brochure photos. Novikoff is convinced that Helmut Newton shot those images but, as appropriate as it sounds, I’m not convinced. The German fashion icon certainly did some fantastic promotional work with the DS, but the thought of the sophisticated SM inspiring his erotic style is almost too much.
We motor through high-rise ’70s developments to Quai Andre-Citroёn (formerly Quai de Javel) and over Novikoff’s favourite bridge, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, an amazing structure that combines pedestrians, road and rail, with the track supported by Deco-style uprights that could have inspired Fritz Lang. It later featured in several movies including Last Tango in Paris, so we can’t resist a stop here for a photo.
As we set off along the Rive Droite, the dark-ness closes in and Novikoff can’t believe how quiet the roads are. Flashing along the riverside dual carriageway, past the magnificent Trocadero and sweeping through the underpasses, the Mylord is in its element. Until its demise, the SM was the world’s fastest front-wheel-drive production car, and today its smooth perform-ance-0-60mph in 8.3 secs, and 139mph flat-out – easily keeps pace with the most impatient of Parisian drivers. You just have to watch in the rear-view mirror for drivers on their mobile phones, not expecting a classic to stop so sharply.
The high-tech temptress sweeps through clear bends with viceless poise.
Eventually, we find an open gate to allow the Mylord down to the riverbank but, just as photographer Mann gets his lights set up, the police arrive. The uniformed pair has no interest in the classic, and we are swiftly moved on. Having a local as a guide is a great help, though. Although I thought I knew Paris well, Novikoff continually introduces new sights. After the charge through the rush hour, we head for the sanctuary of his favourite square, the Place Dauphine at the western tip of Ile de la Cite. Over a great glass of red with Alexis Nabokov, the owner of a superb art gallery on the idyllic square, we reflect on the SM’s appeal.
“I remember being amazed when Bernard Pivot made reference to the SM in an article about great wines,” recalls Novikoff. “He was a respected intellectual, and it really impressed me that he’d mentioned this cool car. The DS is brilliant but the SM looks more statuesque and noble. Robert Opron did a fantastic job.”
The Mylord’s open top brilliantly highlights the fantastic interior by Henri Dargent, in particular the contoured hammock-type seats that could have come straight out of a Milan furniture exhibition. You can imagine that Barbarella was a favourite movie for Citroen chief of interior design and the staggered front seats, with the passenger positioned ahead of the driver, was no doubt envisaged to admire a pretty lady companion. Frustratingly, however, there are three blokes in the car tonight.
Although the Mylord clearly lacks the purity of the production coupe, and the rear deck with its raised boot section to increase luggage space is less resolved than Opron’s 1970 beauty, this exotic rarity continues to captivate us throughout the night. No doubt it was presented with the top folded at its launch, because the otherwise neat conversion doesn’t look quite as chic with the snug cloth hood raised. The Chapron badging is discreet – limited to chrome script on the dramatic snout, just ahead of the front wheels – yet the convertible was outrageously expensive when it was unveiled at the 1971 Paris Salon. Visitors to the Chapron stand must have choked on their complimentary champagne at the Ffr130,000 price-tag, which was double that of a standard SM. But when you discover how convoluted its transformation was, that figure is less surprising. The SM shell was transported to Chapron’s workshop in the suburbs, where it was cut and strengthened before being sprayed in primer. The Mylord then returned to Quai de Javel for the engine, running gear and electrics to be fitted before the project moved back to the Levallois coachworks for paint and upholstery, plus the final stages of detailing and testing.
Four cars were originally sold in France, two went to Spain and one to England, although Brian Cass of SM club SeMantics and renowned specialist Andrew Brodie have no record of the import. At Retromobile, the best of the seven survivors is expected to make € 1/2 million.
Inspired by the lyrics of Marianne Faithful’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan about riding in a sports car through Paris, I’m determined to drive up the Champs-Elysees in the open ’70s supercruiser. With the spectacular Christmas decorations on the famous boulevard, it feels yet more surreal. Even with the top down on a cold night, the Mylord is toasty with the heater on, but the challenge of getting around the busy Arc de Triomphe roundabout is unnerving with the SM’s super-sharp Varipower steering. The tinted glass of sinister-looking local C-class Mercedes makes the circuit even more intimidating in this beautifully preserved machine, but when the route is clear you can appreciate the delicate two-finger steering, and the sweet thrum of the V6 as it snarls away from the lights.
Close to midnight, the city roads are all but empty and the Mylord couldn’t feel more at home as it undulates above and below ground through the network of tunnels. Here, the high- tech temptress powers through the clear, fast bends with viceless poise, the yellow lighting adding to the experience. The following morning I buy a French magazine that lists the ‘13 cars you should drive before you die’ but, amazingly, the SM isn’t included. In my book, no motoring life is complete without experiencing this Latin- Gallic wonder, and there’s no better place than Paris in the middle of the night.
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