The JET setters
Cultured coupés #Jaguar
XJ-S VS #Citroen #SM
. One a collector’s piece almost before production ceased – the other a British GT that took years to be appreciated on its own merits. Savoir faire v bulldog determination, what 2+2 is for you?
With the Citroën SM or the Jaguar XJS, you enter not the 1970s but the uber-1970s – Mayfair casinos, fi ne dining and three gallons of Hai Karate aftershave. But will FWD Franco-Italian engineering win over British traditionalism?
WHICH ONE TO BUY?
The SM is, quite simply a car of sublime appearance, bestowing upon its owner the air of an International Chap or Chappess of Mystery. Its origins date to the mid-1960s when Citroen’s chief engineer Jacques Né urged the company to build a new flagship model.
The demise of the #Facel-Vega
marque in #1964
meant that there was no French car in the Grand Rouitier class but in January #1968
, Citroën acquired a controlling interest in Maserati. In a six month period the Italian firm created a lightweight 2.7-litre (a larger size would have fallen foul of French tax laws) V6 engine for the SM – or Special Maserati – Coupé.
Transmission choices were fivespeed manual or three-speed automatic and much of the other running gear was taken from the DS. The coachwork was from Robert Opron, the famed designer of the much underrated GS.
The SM débuted at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show where it caused an utter sensation, from its six headlamps to its Kamm tail. For 1973 the original engine was augmented by a larger 3.0-litre unit that was not available in the US whilst the 2.7 litre plant gained Bosch fuel injection. The price for the UK model was a steep £5200 – or the price of two XJ6s – and Citroën never offered a RHD conversion (although three were made) – but the main challenge with the SM was not so much its cost as its unreliable engine with its complex timing chains. Worse still, the #1973
Fuel Crisis had a devastating effect on the sales of nearly every prestige car and Citroën was facing bankruptcy after years of overambitious expansion. Negotiations for a take-over by Peugeot commenced in #1974
and the following year the SM was gone. Just as the last #SM
was leaving the Vichy works (production was now turned over to Ligier), Jaguar was preparing to launch its first Grand Touring car since the pre-war SS models.
The XJ coupé was handsome but the XJS, which had been under development for seven years, was flamboyant, down to the flying buttress rear pillars that actually improved stability. The coachwork was largely dictated by fears that Jaguar’s crucial US export markets were going to outlaw convertibles on safety grounds and so the XJS was sold in coupé only form until #1983
Transmission were three-speed #Borg-Warner
Model 12 automatic – replaced by #GM-Hydramatic
– or a fourspeed manual albeit only available until #1979
. Initially only the E-type-derived V12 was offered, albeit in fuel injected form, but by the mid 1980s six-cylinder ‘AJ’ engines became almost the default choice due to their good performance and economy. After the curious-looking SC cabriolet enjoyed a short day in the sun, proper convertibles came on stream in 1988 , three years before the entire range was cleverly facelifted which saw out the range until it was replaced by the XK8.
Logically speaking the Jag has to be the better buy by dint of their weight in numbers and the choice of body styles and engines.
are perhaps all too common and still don’t shout ‘classic’ like they should considering the car is 40 years old. When did you last see an SM Ultra rare sights, they are not cars you’d forget easily although a beauty was at the recent NEC show.
WHAT’S THE BEST TO DRIVE?
CHALK AND CHEESE BUT SAME END RESULT
As you’d half expect given that it’s essentially a more delectable DS, the key to the SM is its effortlessness, which is why they were such a hit with well known racing drivers who needed a fast but easy car to thrash across the Continent to the next Grand Prix meet! The ultra-light #DIRAVI
power steering offers very little feedback.
Similarly the special high pressure hydraulic brakes can also be initially disconcerting – the ‘pedal’ is the supersensitive rubber ‘mushroom’ pad taken from the DS. All of which makes the SM not exactly a car you can instantly jump into and be comfortable with, more so if you don’t particularly like left-hand drivers. That said the Citroën belies its considerable size but the remoteness of the steering and brakes means that care and attention must be paid at all times and it’s hardly a classic you can let friends simply ‘have a go’ in.
But on the right roads the SM is peerless. The 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds remains respectable enough while the 140mph top speed a testament to the coachwork’s aerodynamic properties, rather than its 170bhp (178bhp on post 1971 fuel injected cars) power, but the SM is at its best insulating the occupants from the cares of the outside world. The headroom is generous, although it helps if rear seat passengers are short, the hatchback is practical (a word not often applied to the SM) and it is difficult to resist a car equipped with rain sensitive windscreen wipers or that typically quirky Citroën dashboard with a speedometer that also indicates stopping distances!
Meanwhile, an early XJS reminds you that Simon Templar had exceptionally good taste. It would have been too easy for Jaguar to have created a pastiche of ‘good taste’ with overuse of walnut veneer but in fact the cabin (pre-1980 anyway) is low-key in the manner of an aircraft cockpit. As with the Citroën, it helps if the rear seat passengers are Ronnie Corbett rather than John Cleese-sized although as a suave 2+2 the Jaguar has few equals in terms of feelgood factor.
While opinions will rage about the Jag’s looks and character (insofar it was never the #E-type
replacement many thought it would be), few can argue how a good an #XJS
still feels. The shortened #XJ12
platform was hugely acclaimed in its day for its prowess and refinement and so long as the suspension is in good order (bushes and IRS wear negates a lot of the above) the Jag still feels a remarkably cosseting coupé. Given the pace of the AJ engines, especially in later 4-litre form, unless you yearn for a V12 you’d be silly to actively seek out one. Apart from performance that doesn’t lag the V12 too much, these six-cylinder engines can return surprisingly good economy – almost 30mpg on a run some owners claim – while the novel J-gate selector design on the automatics provides manual-like control so there’s really no need to seek out a five-speed shift-it-yourself ’box unless you really detest automatics. Overall, the XJS is the better driver than the SM for the vast majority of enthusiasts, although Citroën devotees will love the feel of this sportier #DS
with its superb composure that shames many moderns. Once they have attuned themselves to the car and let it flow rather than the usual ‘scruff of the neck’ hard driving, that is.
OWNING AND RUNNING
It stands to reason that an XJS is going to be easier to run and own, given its larger club and specialist support and we wager somewhat cheaper than any SM. Also, due to their lack of popularity, XJSs remain incredible value still with only the very best models broaching £20,000 – reckon on half this or less for most reasonable examples. Superb SMs now sell for £30,000 (the actual model and year makes little difference), but like the Jag, you can buy one for a third of this, especially in France. But like the XJS, you largely get what you pay for. Andrew Brodie Engineering is the mainstay for this model and other Citroëns, and says the car’s complex and unreliable reputation is quite unjustified if it is looked after. Spares aren’t a major problem at all it adds (Citroën continued to make SM transmissions for the Lotus Esprit up to the 1990s), but the Maserati engine snapping its sodium filled exhaust valves has become a recent phenomenon, perhaps due to general ageing. Brodie advises all SM owners old and new to the car to have them replaced with reliable solid alternatives (which it stocks) asap. However, the company admits that the £2500 preventative maintenance bill puts most off, especially if the engine appears to be running fi ne. Risk it – but a full rebuild can cost £6500!
Boss Stuart Ager says most SMs need on average ten grand spent on them to make them good and reliable. Officially 327 UK cars are listed but many have been imported – and exported again. The official owners’ club, Se Manics, reckons there are less than around 200 now.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
The leading SM expert in the UK is Andrew Brodie, which is now run by Stuart Ager, who – after owning the last one ever made – is writing a special feature on this unique car. Apart from running and repairing them over the years, Stuart has also owned the Citroën’s main rivals such as the #Porsche-928
and two XJSs. So speaks from experience when he claims the SM tops them all, care of its superior ultra high speed cruising abilities and long distance comfort, although admits that they need acclimatising to and will never be everybody’s cup of tea. In fact, says Stuart, many are still owned and run as daily drivers by owners who aren’t ‘into’ classics! A good SM is a gem but many aren’t warns Stuart and he can’t stress enough the importance of having the engine’s valves replaced as a matter of urgency...
AND THE WINNER IS…
You tell us! About the only things this pair have in common are odd styling and the ability to shrink long journeys. The XJS does it in a traditional way whereas the SM was the most advanced car around when launched 45 years ago and it can still match many moderns as a result. In the end, the choice largely comes down to personal taste and your personal character. If you are an individualist who likes off-the-wall things then nothing does it quite like an SM. It’s a thinking man’s classic and one Car rightly hailed “A car so good the mind boggles”.