Giant group test-drive - Alfa Romeo Montreal vs Citroen SM. Its 1970s Gran Tourism excess, continental style as Martin Port looks for a technical knockout. Just occasionally, cars appear with such a fatal combination of beauty and technology that petrolheads arc drawn to them like moths to a halogen headlamp.
In the early 70s, two such cars fought for our attention, alone with the wallets of the super-rich, and their effect has never worn off. Today, they’re no longer the preserve of the super-rich and both promise so much, yet still carry reputations that terrify potential owners and help to keep values low.
The Alfa Romeo Montreal and Citroen SM are dream cars, brought to reality by firms who clearly believed in the mantra: ‘Don't make sense, make history.’ One looks like a saloon, albeit from another place in time and space, and the other a sports car, but they are both GTs, built to soak up kilometres in a stylish manner that justified their cost. You could have bought a pair of E-types for the price of cither the Citroen or Alfa Romeo in 1971. Then as now, however, the easiest way to make two Jaguar V12 E-types invisible was to park a Montreal or SM next to them.
I vividly recall my first encounter with an Citroen SM, in a well-to-do corner of Essex where you still find the odd rock star. It appeared in a driveway near my grandfathers house circa 71; manna from heaven for a spotty 12-year old armed with a fresh copy of The Observer's Book of Automobile. No trip to Grandpas was then complete without a dash around the corner to see if that ultra-low glass-encased nose was still there. I'm surprised I was never told to dear off; I just hoped for a ride.
Glimpses of Montreal were, until much later, limited to rare flypasts on the M1. Those flashes of lime green or orange spotted from the back seat of a Vauxhall Viva had me ferreting out info and pictures from books and magazines. More than 40 years on, both cars still raise my heart rate. I’m looking forward to this.
Ultimate showdown - Alfa Romeo Montreal
Alfa Romeo Montreal sales material made a big play of the ergonomic seat design, and it was more than just trend marketing speak. The pleated leather buckets really arc comfortable and supportive, and the owner assures me that they still felt that way after his recent round-trip to Portugal.
The rest of the interior has a similar quality fed, from the sculpted door panels with their red inset panels to the wonderfully over-the-top pleated vinyl headlining that looks more like a detail you'd find on a street rod. Then there's the warm glow of the deep lacquer on that Personal steering wheel, deeply dished in period style and with slim horn-pushes set into each spoke.
Only the typically vague Italian column switches anti brave interpretation of Alfa's traditional twin-pod dash design let things down. Stylistically it’s peat The speedo and res counter - circles within the circles - are easy enough to read, but the way the rest of it is broken up for various dials and lights, covered in Italian writing with some partially obscured by the wheel rim, makes it hard to know w here to look.
The imitation rear seats are for stowage only, as hinted at by the sturdy straps, hut you could do short journeys with one passenger cross ways.
If the Montreal has the look of a concept car, that's because it was built to display at the 1967 Universal Exposition in Montreal (see the link?), and designed to the theme: ‘The maximum aspiration of man when it comes to automobiles.' It proved so popular that Alfa Romeo had little option but to put it into production.
Having the right stylist helped: Marcello Gandini of Bertone, whose previous project had been to complete the Lamborghini Miura. Find a photo of one of those and you start to see styling tricks that were carried over to the Alfa, such as the curved door windows and Kamm tail. He had an even neater trick for the headlamps: louvered eyelids that flutter pneumatically' out of the way when the lights are on. But the masterstroke is those rows of dummy cooling vents that suggest a mid-mounted engine yet are purely for effect. They are the sort of joyous touches that lift these cars to superstar status, with a place on everyone top 10 desirable classics list.
You have to see a Montreal in the metal to truly appreciate it though. Whatever you see here, I guarantee that viewed for real the Montreal will look lower, wider, smaller and more breath taking than you expect.
The owner - Alfa Romeo Montreal - Rob Jones
What inspired you to buy a Montreal?
Its an Alfa Romeo! Besides my pocket wouldn't stretch to the Tipo 33 Stradale that shares the same race-bred V8. or the Miura. which for me is the most beautiful car ever produced.
How did you come by it?
I bought it on impulse while visiting a dealer for a screen for my 105 Serifs GT Junior. The best decision I ever made
'In 10 years I only had to restore the fuel pump, upgrade the water pump bearing and service it’
Have you had to do much to It?
The thing I’ve done the most is to drive it Despite rumours about reliability, to my first 10 years of ownership I only had to restore the fuel pump, upgrade the water pump bearing and service it. It could do with some fresh part though.
How much use do you get out of it?
All year round, part an annual trip to Europe for the international Montreal meeting, most recently in Portugal a 2976-mile round trip.
Any memorable moments with the car?
I’ve enjoyed driving my Montreal on some of the most scenic and uncluttered roads available- long may it continue.
Ultimate showdown - Citroen SM
Elaborate chromed handles door takes adult in comfort
US car was rebuilt with European nose
Part traditional, part concept car, it all look so impossibly and expensively stylish inside the SM, but not in the conventional say that Ferrari» and Astons do it. This is the sort of stylish found on boats bobbing in Monte-Carlo harbour.
A row of oval instruments and vents spreads across a brushed stainless-steel dashboard hooded with vinyl that sweeps down towards the passenger side. The wheel feels small after the Alfa’s, with a padded boss connected to the rim by a fat single spoke. More brushed stainless trim decorates the centre console, where you find a chromed slot housing the manual gear-lever that's more object d'art than mechanical item.
The pleated-leather seats are, if anything, even better than the Montreal’s, with a wide range of adjustment in various directions. The base has a proper bottom-shaped curve and the back tilts from waist level. I’ve never seen anything like it on another car, but it works brilliantly: you could sit here in comfort for hours.
The pedal layout takes some getting used to: floor- hinged throttle, top-hinged clutch and a rubber button in between for the brakes. But this is a Citroen, and that means making a whole set of mental adjustments when you drive one.
You have to wonder if Citroen misunderstood the concept of blue-sky thinking. Usually every-one gets together and has their off-the-wall ideas listed on flipcharts, two of which are kicked around for a bet then life continues as before. I reckon that after just such a vigorous session in the late ’60s (what was in that coffee?), Citroen used the resulting flipcharts as a set of instructions, and built the SM. Whole days can be spent joyfully expanding one until the catchphrase ‘Wow, look at that!' becomes so cheesy that you'll think Bruce Forsyth has been using it.
I know it's only a taste of the many fine and bizarre details to come, but you have to start by singling out the cars nose treatment. After all, why not set the numberplate and six headlamps in a full-width glass display ease? Headlamps, ii should be noted, that self-level and two of which steer to shine around corners on main beam.
The sleek lines that flow seamlessly all the w ay to the tail are enhanced by deep side windows, which allow' superb visibility from within. It all looks so aerodynamic that it’s quite a surprise to find that the drag coefficient is a fairly mundane 0.39, some blame for which must lie in the SM's sheer hulk and fairly upright windscreen.
The owner - Citroen SM - Shaun Lillev
What inspired you to buy an SM?
I’ve been into Citroens for years and the SM represents the pinnacle of its achievements. I love the looks, the suspension, the steering and the engine noise. You interact with it in such a lovely way.
How did you come by it?
I found it on ebay six years ago. After looking half-heartedly I reaped that life was too short. The seller was a bodyshop that had sprayed the car four years before but the owner never came back for it.
'I love the looks, the suspension, the steering and the engine noise. You interact with it in a lovely way
Have you had to do much to It?
I changed the crispy-backed original seats and horrible burgundy carpets, and replaced the sodium- filled exhaust valves. BL Autos looks after it and did a fantastic job replacing a front wing and chassis leg after someone ran into it.
How much use do you get out of it?
2500 miles in the past four months, but it does have to share attention with my four other cars.
Any memorable moments?
The 2008 SM International Rally in Yorkshire We had a lovely blast across the moors from York to Whitby.
Dry-tump quad-cam V8 Alfa Romeo Montreal
Both cars weigh in with a hefty dose of credibility in the engine department. The Alfa's V8 was designed by former Ferrari engineer Carlo Chiti. All alloy, with four camshafts, it started out as a pure racing unit in the sports-prototype Alfa Typo 33, but was upsized from two litres to 2.6 for the Montreal while at the same time being detuned via lower compression and milder cam profiles to produce a more roadgoing 200bnp. It did retain the racers dry-sump oil system and Spica mechanical fuel injection, him ever. The latter was quite a big deal in 1970, when few high-performance road cars apart from Porsche's 911E had adopted injection bunks of Webers were still the order of the day.
Fired by twin coils and ignition modules, this is a tough unit with a forged crank anti tungsten-steel conrods. Breakages are rare and some have notched up 200.000 miles. The injection system scares people, but usually only gives trouble in cars that have been standing or neglected.
Even at idle there’s a purposeful note that tells you there's more going on here than with the SM s Maserati V6. On the road there’s a hint of that deep V8 undertone you get with US muscle CMS: subtle, but just enough to turn heads.
Alfa Romeo had no gearbox of its own that would cope with the V8's power, nor die budget to make one for such a snort-run exotic, so it bought an off-the-shelf five-speed manual unit from ZF, the same one used in Aston Martin DBs to be exact. It suits the Montreal well, with a fairly dose set of ratios that are tall enough for long-distance cruising without blunting acceleration too much. The passage of time confirms the benefit of the decision because these gearboxes have proved reassuringly indestructible in standard cars. ZF also provided the limited-dip differential for the rear axle.
With a knob well shaped to fit your palm, the high-set lit quite short chrome gearlever is the ideal reach and is strongly sprung in the second-to-third plane. Yes that's light: first gear is on its own on a dogleg to the left in true spotting fashion - once you get going it’s the least important of the lot. The lever's throw is quite short and clunky, but very positive, and that springing helps you to find your w ay around easily without missing shifts. As a Brit: I appreciate that sort of thing after not driving a left-hooker for a while. In the rest of the world, w here such things arc normal, it’s going to feel just great.
• Lack of use results m internal corrosion of the injection pump, witch can mean sending it to the USA for a £ 1000 overhaul. Beware of recently recommissioned cars that are running less than perfectly
• Bodies are relatively well protected from corrosion, but watch the area below those side vents, plus the boot floor around the battery tray due to leaks
• Make sure that no trim is missing or broken: Montreal parts can be hard to source, and expensive
• Never mind the mile, a car that's been laid up is more likely to harbour costly problems
What to read
• Alfa Romeo Montreal (Essential Companion Series) Bruce Tayfor
• Alfa Romeo Montreal The Dream Come True Bruce Tayfor
• Alfa Romeo Montreal Register
• Alfa Romeo Owners Club 07753 85702ft oroc-ufc.com
THE EXPERT'S VIEW
The pure driving experience classic V8 roar and innovative design make the Montreal one of the classics to own of 120-plus UK cars, roughly half of them left-hookers the Register usually knows of 10 or so for sale. Continental buyers are raiding our LHD stock because the UK is the cheapest place to buy one.
• A fat. detailed history file with bills for all the crucial jobs and regular maintenance
• Have the sodiun-filled exhaust valves been replaced with stainless ones? They need to be and the cost of that job including labour is in excess of £1500
• were the timing chains last retensioned? That adjustment has to be carried out every 6000 miles
• Beware of structural rot and watch for bubbling around the windscreen, which is costly to fix. All body panels are expensive
• A car in regular use will always be a better prospect than one that has been sitting unused for years
What to read
• SM: Citroen‘s Moserati-engined Supercar Brian Long and Philippe Claverol
• Citroen SM Peter Pijlman and Brian Cass
• Citroen Car Club 07000248258. citroencarclub.org.uk
• Semantics se-nonrics.ia.com
There a peculiar offbeat idle from the SMs 90° V6, but in an intriguing rather than unpleasant way. It’s an unusual layout, because a 60° vee is regarded as best for the balance of ‘sixes’, but it offers the benefit of more space between the heads for induction gear. Anyway, Maserati's Giulio Alfieri overcame the balance problem by counterweighting the crankshaft.
Being a Citroen, that’s not the end of its peculiarities. The engine is, in effect, mid-mounted - well aft of the front wheels. Then there's the aircraft style jack shaft that extends forward above the transmission to drive the suspension and air-con pumps, plus the alternator.
Any non-Citroen mechanics not yet cowering behind their Snap-On tool cabinets might now like to consider the fairly inaccessible all-alloy engines four camshafts, driven by chains that run between the cylinders rather than at the end of the shaft, and that need frequent attention.
But when it s all working, this is a wonderful unit, also used in the Maserati Merak and Ligier JS2. And, as in those cars, it comes into its own above 3000mm. That fc the point where the easy-going hum changes into a delicious metallic rasp. Only a Dino makes a better V6 noise. V6's ancillaries are driven by en emotion-type jackshaft.
The elegant chromed tulip of a lever clacks and clunks hypnotically between gears, in an animated Wallace & Grower alternative to Ferrari s chrome-fingered gate. It s not a sound you could possibly object to; in fact, I'd be disappointed if such a gloriously over-the-top mechanism didn’t have a signature noise.
The lever's throw has as much side-to-side as fore-and-aft movement, but it's easy to use and suits the car’s languorous touring nature. And considering how far away the gearbox is at the front of the car. with all of that engine in the way, the shift action is surprisingly precise.
There are five well-spaced ratios in this manual ’box and they are more widely spread than the Alfa’s, but well matched to the power output. Auto u as also an option, though after the manual shifters joys it would be a disappointing one. At the top end, the SM s less blunt shape allows it to match the Montreal despite having significantly fewer horses to call on.
This transaxle was Citroen sown, and went on to be used at the other end of the Lotus Esprit. Here it drives the front wheels, and it wasn’t until the Lancia Thema 8,32 of 1988 that the SM lost its title of the worlds fastest front-drive car. Oval rev-counter chromed surround for prods five-speed.
The expert's view
The SM is the only GT to tick all of the boxes for performance, dramatic bodywork, four proper seats and a comfortable ride The suspension is strong and easy to maintain. Likewise. Maserati fully supports the engine Body parts and trim are potential problem areas, but stocks are still reasonably high.
Montreal handles well on Its basically 10S series underpinnings; steering initially feels heavy, but is well-weighted at speed.
Neither of these cars is so much about out-and-out performance, but die manner in w Inch they convey you. The game is all about making you feel special, not winning races, and that's a game at which the Montreal excels. Thai it actually delivers on the promise those looks make is of almost secondary consideration.
But deliver it does. Off the line the Montreal surges rather than leaps forward, with the nose rising in time to the hollow roar of the V8. There’s no shortage of go, and no let-up in the thrust until you are well into three figures. It’s more than enough to put a grin on your face, bur this is always more tourer than drag racer.
Despite all of the power on offer, this quad-cam V8 is no low-rev logger. It feels happier with plenty of revs on the dial, so you tend to keep it one gear lower than you expect to, from w here it will sweep enthusiastically into action at the merest prod of the throttle.
As the subject has come up. I should mention an issue with the throttle pedal: it's quite heavy, and just a tad over-sprung at the sun of its travel. Combining that with an idle setting that needed tweaking up a bit, I found it rather too easy to stall the car when pulling away. Fare us badge; dummy vents make Alfa look mid-engined.
Though smooth in the way that an Alfa’s steering so often is the Montreal's also feels quite heavy. This does lighten up nicely as road speed increases, yet still comes across as a little out of kilter in what looks quite a small car. There’s a bit of play between locks, too, which could usually IK: ignored, but after driving the SM it feels like a fault, or at the very least a niggle.
There’s nothing at all trick about the suspension, at the rear at least. With no time and money to develop the independent rear set-up that Ain Romeos design engineers w anted, the Montreal rolled out on a live rear axle, located by trailing arms and coil springs. Very well located, it has to lie said, and only on rough surfaces in tight comers docs any lack of sophistication actually show through in its behaviour.
In truth, the handling is surprisingly good and unlike the SM. it all feels comfortingly fandliar and predictable. There a touch of roll and mild understeer as you go into a comer, but you can eyeball a decisive line through a roundabout and follow it to the inch. Grip is abundant, in the dry at least, with no tyre protest even when you push things a bit through a tighter comer, and no feeling that the tail is about to let go. Grip is good on smooth roads, but bumps disturb balance.
1967 Concept car built and displayed at the Universal Exposition. Montreal. It has Alfa Giulia running gear and seven side vents
1970 Montreal launched at Geneva Salon, with a fuel-injected 2,6-litre V8 and six side vents
1971 Right bond drive version displayed at the Earfs Court Motor Show, though some cars have already been sold here after conversion by specialists such as Bell L Cotvill
1973 RHD version finally enters production, with a run of 155 made at Iso's plant in Modena
1974 first factory RHD car sold in UK in May
1975 Build ends, but plenty are still unsold 1977 Montreal removed from Alfa model list
Nothing prepares you for SM ultra direct steering, with two turn lock-to-lock yet you soon adopt the gentle touch it needs
SM leans but grips welt back is narrower than the front
Stylish name badge: SM more than 2ft longer then Montreal
You could drive an SM in the same way as a Citroen DS or Citroen CX and both you and the car would feel happy and rewarded. Adapt to it quirky foreign way» and this is a supremely easy car to drive slowly and smoothly all the better to sec and be seen.
But there’s a lot more to the SM than that. Put the French Connection ankle boot in and the cars whole character changes with the engine note, from a purr to a snarl. The front rises, the variable-assistance steering stiffens and the horizon beckons. It’s no brutal transformation into a sports car, hut a gentle metamorphosis into a genuine grand tourer of unmatched comfort. The faster you go the better the big Citroen feels, and the further you want to drive it. All this seems so effortless, too, aided by the fairly slippery shape. For me it is probably the most perfect continental touring car of all time.
AII that lets the SM down - and gives the cars age away - is wind noise from around the pillars and door seals once you get up to a decent speed. It’s no worse than in a Jaguar XJ-S, though, and may help to serve as a reminder about speeding tickets in a car that is otherwise remarkably easy to go too fast in.
The SM handles comers much better than any such soft-riding car has a right to. Just learn to be smooth and gentle with your steering inputs and it will sweep around bends with a Gallic shrug of disdain. There’s no real sensation of the SM being front-wheel-drive, or anything else familiar tor that matter. The manner of feedback you get from the car is as surreal as the rest of the SM experience. You could equally lie in a hovercraft, a revoking restaurant - or the future.
That ought to be disconcerting, but as long as you've loosened your grip on all those long-held, buttoned-up driving preconceptions, what it does is fill you with confidence. The SM might lean a bit, but otherwise there’s no drama, not a squeak of tortured tyre rubber, it just goes round corners. Only clumsy, sharp inputs - particularly when switching from one lock to the other - can upset the equilibrium. Mid-comer bumps that would cause a twitch in the Alfa (or anything else for that nutter) pass by unnoticed.
The only other way you’ll upset an SM (and your passengers) is by pressing the brake pedal like you would a normal one. That will have everyone on the dash. The gentle squeeze it needs feels ward at first, but soon makes sense.
1961 Citroen starts “Project S” with the idea of producing a more sporty version of the DS
1968 Project gets into gear when Citroen buys Maserati - and gains access to its engines
1970 SM finally breaks cover at the same Geneva Salon as the Alfa Montreal
1971 Optional 3 litre injection engine for the US (where the SM has a round-lamp front end), then later on for automatic Borg-Warner versions in other markets
1972 SM wins American magazine Motor Trend's Car of the Year award
1973 Late in the year new 1974 bumper regulations render the SM illegal for sale in US 1975 Peugeot had acquired bankrupt Citroen in 1974 With sales minimal SM was discontinued
Both of these cars represent conspicuous consumption from the designer end of the market, with the style, presence and engine mite to get you a prime parking spot anywhere on the planet. They also excite classic motoring journos more than any other two cars I can think of. From the response I’ve had about a doing this article you'd think that I’d been granted an audience with the Pope, or Carla Bruni.
The Montreal and SM had a lot to live up to, and though they are very different cars trying to do the mine job, neither disappointed me. It can be dangerous to meet your heroes, hut nor this lime. Both cars still occupy a place on my list of all-time greats but now with substance.
You can’t just jump into the SM and drive it, because it provide more culture shocks than a week in Bhutan. But the Citroen natives are equally friendly and, once you relax and slip into its ways, it all makes perfect sense. You fed you’ve learnt a foreign language and want to express it.
The Montreal drives more normally, and with more pace than the SM. It feels as well engineered, but in a totally conventional manner. For me it's also the better-looking car: classic Italian beauty taken to another level by design flourishes and detail touches that most manufacturers wouldn't dare to use or even consider necessary. Nothing has been watered down.
Yet I surprise even myself by feeling drawn just that little bit more to the SM s wow factor. I’m not sure whether that conviction would stand the test of a real prospective purchase, cheque- book drawn, but I like to think so.
Owners exchange keys
SM owner Lilley on the Montreal
‘It's a very nice looking car. I love the front end styling, the way the lines all come together The dash is really wacky, too -I like that an involving drive, perfect for when you want a blast, and the gearbox has a nice mechanical feel But it is a bit like driving a skateboard after the SM's magic-carpet ride. Why be bumped around if you don't have to be?
Montreal owner jones on the Citroen SM
A fantastic car, the interior is perfect for European touring in comfort Its all so tactile, too. But it would take some getting used to. You have to be gentle with everything it’s so sensitive, especially that quick steering, which is unnerving at first though it starts to feel natural when you get used to it. I'd be happy to have it in the garage next to my Alfa.
FIAT Dino Coupe
Sold/number built 1966-73/7200
0-60 mph 8.7 secs
Top speed 127mph
Price new £3493
Price now £6100-£22.300
Bert one gem that uses the same glorious V6s as the Ferraris. A taste of the exotic, but you wouldn't climb over a Montreal to get to one.
Sold/number built 1970-74/317
0-60 mph 7.3 secs
Top speed 138mph
Price new £772S
Price now £10.600-£24.000
The Bertone-styled lay-lee’ four-seater packs Chevy V8 muscle on early cars then Ford. They cost rock-star money new, but the few survivors of rampant rust look relatively affordable.
Alfa Romeo Montreal
all alloy dohc-per-bank 2593cc V8. Spici mechanical injection system
all alloy dohc-per-bank 2670cc V6 (or 2968cc as in featured car), triple Webers carburetors or Bosch electronic fuel injection system
Max power (DIN)
200bhp @ 6500rpm
170bhp @ 5500rpm (180bhp 3.0)
Max torque (DIN)
173lb ft @ 4750rpm
172lb ft @ 4000rpm
ZF five-speed manual, RWD
five-speed manual transaxle, FWD
front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers
rear live axle with trailing arms, coil springs, coaxial dampers.
Panhard rod; anti-roll bar
front by leading wishbones
rear trailing arms hydropneumatic units, anti-roll bar f/r
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site
I have had both cars since early 80s and I retored rougly a rusty montrela with bust engine and used for 3 years as everyday car - still going great but only taken out ioin dry weather I am soon to do a real good resoration on it and I bought an running and rusty sm in 1987 and used it for 3 years every day I left it up to restore it and 10 years later got around to it.
It took 15 years to complete a full strip down and rebuild but now after 2 attempts at the engine it is beautiful - so I have running for now but will strip the montreal soon - its runs great and looks great but underneath it needs work. I am not proud of how I rebuilt the sills etc originally so I will rework it over next few years - Owen Cooke Dublin.
Comment was last edited about 2 years ago by Igor BozhkoOwen Cooke
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