CITROËN vs OLDSMOBILE

The Citroën SM and Oldsmobile Toronado were so­phis­ti­cated front-drive tours de force in an era of con­ser­va­tive coupés

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS MARTIN BUCK­LEY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JAMES MANN

Ground­break­ing front-wheel-drive GTS from ei­ther side of the At­lantic Ocean

The very idea of a hy­drop­neu­mat­i­cally sus­pended, Maserati-en­gined Citroën is likely tan­ta­mount to a left-wing con­spir­acy in the all-con­sum­ing world of the Amer­i­can car-col­lect­ing hobby. In this realm of burnouts and bad hair­cuts it is the car, per­haps more than any other, that rep­re­sents some­thing alien: too com­pli­cated, too French and too clever by half.

Equally, to men­tion a ‘mere’ Oldsmobile in the same breath as one of the great­est Euro­pean cars of the ’70s is heresy enough to make most SM own­ers, per­haps ig­no­rant of what makes the Toronado such a spe­cial au­to­mo­bile, choke on their morn­ing crois­sant et café au lait.

Yet, at the risk of some feather-ruf­fling in both camps, I think there is a sound case to be made for pitch­ing an SM against an Oldsmobile Toronado. As a Toronado owner (the one shown here) and a former long-term cus­to­dian of an SM, I have a foot in both camps. For me, they have al­ways had a sim­i­lar ap­peal as cars that reached bravely into a sleek, high-speed and fully power-as­sisted fu­ture and looked it square in the eye. Dra­mat­i­cally styled and tech­ni­cally ad­vanced, these were the fastest and most pow­er­ful front-wheel-drive cars of their time, mar­keted as glam­orous image-boost­ers – and they com­pare more closely than you might think in both con­cept and re­sults on the road.

The Toronado came first. Launched at the end of 1965 (for the 1966 model year), this full­size, two-door coupe was the most ex­cit­ing thing to emerge from Gen­eral Mo­tors since the Chevy Cor­vair. Ten years in the mak­ing (and long an­tic­i­pated in the US mo­tor­ing press), it was the au­to­mo­tive sen­sa­tion of the year, the first Amer­i­can front-wheel-drive car since the Cord. Its pop-up head­lights were a nod of recog­ni­tion to that ac­knowl­edged clas­sic, while mus­cu­lar whee­larches and the long­est doors in the in­dus­try made for an ar­rest­ing shape that would have boosted show­room traf­fic even it had been just an­other con­ven­tion­ally en­gi­neered barge.

De­signed to com­pete in the prof­itable per­sonal lux­ury car mar­ket (with the Thun­der­bird and Riviera), the Toronado was widely touted as a new kind of all-amer­i­can grand tour­ing car that was not only quiet and fast, but also han­dled well on the widest track and stiffest springs of any do­mes­tic of­fer­ing.

Sadly, all such lofty gran turismo as­pi­ra­tions had been qui­etly put aside by the time the SM was launched in 1970. While the new, Maser­a­tiengined Citroën basked in the swoon­ing at­ten­tions of in­ter­na­tional crit­ics, the once-fêted Toronado was los­ing its chis­elled looks in an­nual styling makeovers and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­dis­cernible from its vinyl-roofed ri­vals.

To com­pound its prob­lems, Cadil­lac’s front­drive El­do­rado for 1967 had stolen much of the Toronado’s tech­no­log­i­cal thun­der. It seemed the flag­ship Olds was well on the way to be­com­ing just an­other luxo­barge coupe, al­beit with ev­er­larger en­gines and disc front brakes to cure the fade that had been the only se­ri­ous crit­i­cism of the 1966 orig­i­nal. Not even the spec­ta­cle of Bobby Unser tack­ling Pikes Peak had per­suaded buy­ers of the ad­e­quacy of finned drums when asked to stop a 4500lb, 125mph six-seater.

That didn’t stop it sell­ing to the tune of 40,000 ex­am­ples in its first year and mak­ing head­lines on both sides of the At­lantic, although not al­ways for the right rea­sons. In its March 1966 re­view Mo­tor noted that, while the Toronado was the fastest six-seater it had ever tested, it was also the most thirsty over­all (ir­re­spec­tive of the num­ber of seats), at 9.2mpg.

Proper brakes were a cu­ri­ous omis­sion on a car that was other­wise tech­ni­cally out­stand­ing. De­spite the Is­sigo­nis procla­ma­tion that front-

‘Dra­mat­i­cally styled and tech­ni­cally ad­vanced, these were the fastest and most pow­er­ful front­drive cars of their time’

wheel drive was ‘im­prac­ti­cal’ in cars of over two litres, Oldsmobile en­gi­neers were able to keep the torque re­ac­tions to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum in the Toronado’s light but rel­a­tively high-geared power steer­ing. By play­ing with roll cen­tres and cas­tor an­gles, and com­mis­sion­ing spe­cial Fire­stone TFD tyres, they had pro­duced a 7-litre coupe (with 60% of its weight over the front wheels) with the most ac­com­plished han­dling of any full-sized Amer­i­can car.

Power to the Toronado’s front wheels, from the mildly up­rated 7-litre ‘Rocket’ V8, went from a torque con­verter on the back of the en­gine then turned through 180º via a 2in-wide Morse chain to the three-speed Hy­dra­matic gear­box, which was in­ter­nally con­ven­tional but sat to the right of the en­gine block, hence the Toronado’s unim­peded floor.

Drive flowed out to the wheels via equal­length drive­shafts with uni­ver­sal joints at each end. Tor­sion-bar front springs freed up room for all this un­der­neath and the wheels were dis­tinc­tive, slot­ted for ven­ti­la­tion where they wrapped around the brake drums.

Apart from the flat floor of the cabin, the pack­ag­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of the com­pact power pack (which sat in a sort of half-chas­sis/sub­frame that ex­tended as far back as the mount­ing eyes for the rear leaf springs) were en­tirely ig­nored in favour of David North’s long nose/short deck styling, its huge front over­hang serv­ing no func­tion. At 17ft 7in long and 6ft 6½in wide, the Toronado was big sim­ply be­cause Amer­i­cans ex­pected a lot of car for their $6000.

Not that Citroën ex­actly set out to make the SM a tri­umph of ra­tio­nal pack­ag­ing. At just over 16ft long and 6ft wide it was a large car by Euro­pean stan­dards, yet the fact that the boot was mostly full of spare wheel and the rear seats were more in the gen­er­ous 2+2 realm than the full­four-seater class did not seem to mat­ter. This was a new GT Citroën, the most ex­cit­ing since the DS, a car rammed full of rad­i­cal so­lu­tions.

Like the Toronado, the SM had been long an­tic­i­pated (par­tic­u­larly since Citroën had ac­quired its con­trol­ling in­ter­est in Maserati in 1968), and even for a com­pany fa­mous for its au­da­cious and in­no­va­tive en­gi­neer­ing it did not dis­ap­point. Also like the Oldsmobile, the SM was not per­haps con­ven­tion­ally beau­ti­ful. More im­por­tant was the idea that it should look ev­ery inch a Citroën, from its glassed-in six-lamp nose to its ta­per­ing tail, which was a re­mark­able 8in nar­rower than the nose.

Like the DS, the SM had lights that turned with the steer­ing. Un­like the DS, most of the SM’S steel pan­els formed part of the struc­ture and it was clearly a very aero­dy­namic shape; how else could its de­sign­ers have ex­tracted a 135mph top speed from a 3300lb car on a mere 2.7 litres? Those were Maserati litres, though: a 308lb quad-cam V6 adapted from the firm’s longestab­lished V8 and good for 170bhp on three 42DCNF We­ber car­bu­ret­tors.

It sat jammed against the bulk­head with its five-speed man­ual ’box in front for a 60% weight bias over the front wheels. The re­ally trick part was the jack­shaft geared off the camshaft drive (at half speed) to power a seven-plunger hy­draulic pump for the self-lev­el­ling hy­drop­neu­matic sus­pen­sion. Then there were the fully pow­ered four-wheel disc brakes and the new cen­tre-point steer­ing, which was not only speed-sen­si­tive (via a mon­i­tor on the gear­box), but also had just two turns lock-to-lock.

Forty-eight years on, driv­ing an SM is still an ex­pe­ri­ence to be savoured. Climb in through the long doors and the el­e­gantly styled cabin lives up to the prom­ise of the ex­te­rior, with its smoothly sculpted dash­board, oval in­stru­ments and sin­gle­spoke steer­ing wheel. The footwell light­ing in this one was done by re­storer Thorn­ley Kel­ham at the be­hest of the owner, Ell­wood Von Sei­bold, who wanted an SM that took the fu­tur­is­tic el­e­ment of the car a stage fur­ther.

Run­ning the rare com­pos­ite wheels and a 2.7-litre car­bu­ret­tor en­gine, it is a su­perbly de­tailed and pre­sented ex­am­ple. Its re­trimmed, ham­mock-like leather seats – with the high pivot to the back­rests – are as com­fort­able as they look and (as in the Toronado) you can find a per­fect driv­ing po­si­tion to make the long, high-speed trips the SM was born for as re­lax­ing as pos­si­ble.

Fire it up and, while the pumps and ac­cu­mu­la­tors click and hum to them­selves (as the sus­pen­sion rises to its reg­u­lar po­si­tion), you no­tice an off-key thrum to the en­gine that be­trays its less-than-ideal (for a V6) 90º cylin­der­bank in­cli­na­tion. It is more of a feel than a sound, the en­gine note be­ing ap­pro­pri­ately throaty, gruff and ex­pen­sive.

The ac­cel­er­a­tion is sat­is­fy­ingly re­spon­sive rather than spec­tac­u­lar, through the closely paired ra­tios of a de­light­fully pre­cise five-speed gear­box that will al­low you to hit 90 in third and 115mph in fourth. The V6 smooths out as the revs climb; you don’t think about that off­beat tim­bre now, your at­ten­tion fully en­gaged with re­cal­i­brat­ing your hands and feet to the su­per­sen­si­tive steer­ing and the in­stant re­sponse of the brakes. Both re­quire a lighter touch and de­mand that you put your trust in the SM’S de­fault con­di­tion of ab­so­lute sta­bil­ity.

Learn to ca­ress the steer­ing with eco­nom­i­cal move­ments and smooth pro­gres­sion, get the flavour of the SM’S re­spon­sive­ness and the high cor­ner­ing power it can gen­er­ate, and you be­gin to think that Citroën got it right where ev­ery­one else got it wrong. It comes at the cost of some roll, but there’s no trade-off in ride, which just soaks up ev­ery­thing with quiet au­thor­ity.

The Toronado is al­most equally stable in a straight line and, like the SM, is es­sen­tially a very wide left-hand-drive car with a mas­sive bon­net. It also has a bad rear-three-quar­ter blindspot cre­ated by hefty C-pil­lars that sweep down to the cropped tail. While not so stylish or well de­tailed as the SM, its cabin is in rea­son­able taste but much roomier, with huge amounts of floor space in the front and doors that are so wide the rear pas­sen­gers get their own han­dles.

With the cen­tre arm­rest in place, the ‘Strato Bench’ holds you sur­pris­ingly well in quickly taken cor­ners. It is elec­tri­cally ad­justable six ways via a com­mand con­sole on the driver’s arm­rest. With all four power win­dows dropped there is a lovely airy at­mos­phere to the Toronado, but not much to do or think about; sim­ply select Drive, de­press the (ex­tra-wide) throt­tle pedal and let the vel­vety torque un­leash ef­fort­less ac­cel­er­a­tion. Sit back now and watch the num­bers come up in a spin­ning drum speedo that makes the in­stru­ment panel ap­pear like a fruit ma­chine. While the re­sult­ing thrust is not quite in the mus­cle-car league, it wafts the Toronado up to three-fig­ure speeds in short or­der, with the op­tion of light­ing up the front wheels for a yard

‘Once you’ve mas­tered life be­hind the wheel, you be­gin to think that Citroën got it right where ev­ery­one else got it wrong’

or three if the mood takes you. Flat-out, the big Oldsmobile can­not match the slip­pery SM’S top end but will equal or ex­ceed its rate of pick-up through to 100mph (ac­cord­ing to pe­riod test fig­ures), and does it with a lot less noise and fuss – just a re­mote hum, the oc­ca­sional gur­gle from the Rochester four-bar­rel Quadra­jet carb and a pleas­ing lack of wind or road noise.

All of which is im­pres­sive, if pretty much what you would ex­pect from an Amer­i­can per­sonal lux­ury car of the ’60s.

What you don’t ex­pect is the flat cor­ner­ing at­ti­tude; the re­as­sur­ing sense that you are be­ing pulled through cor­ners as you guide this mas­sive car ac­cu­rately with fin­ger­tip-light steer­ing but no feel or feed­back. In fact, the Toronado tracks so faith­fully and re­as­sur­ingly at all times and changes di­rec­tion so cleanly and will­ingly you be­gin to think that feel is a bit over­rated.

What’s more, there is noth­ing boaty or wal­lowy about the Oldsmobile’s firm ride, even if it doesn’t be­gin to ap­proach the sup­ple so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the SM. As in the Citroën, the left-hand­ed­ness helps when you need to tuck your­self into the kerb; width is not a dis­in­cen­tive to press­ing on in the Toronado.

The brakes prob­a­bly are, but to be hon­est, apart from their lack of feel, I have not found them to be any­thing like as poor as ad­ver­tised. Yes they get hot, but they also pull up the car dead straight, al­beit with noth­ing like the po­tency of the anti-dive, fully pres­surised Citroën.

Com­pa­ra­ble as they might su­per­fi­cially ap­pear as techno two-doors from the worlds of Cap­tain Scar­let and UFO, did any­one in the real world ever go shop­ping for one and come back with the other? I doubt it. The Oldsmobile is a fas­ci­nat­ing car, a piece of tech­no­log­i­cal mus­cle-flex­ing by the coun­try that was just about to put men on the moon. I get the feel­ing that the Toronado front-drive project was some­thing GM en­gi­neers did just be­cause they could, if only to prove it was pos­si­ble. As a so­lu­tion for mak­ing big, heavy cars more nim­ble it an­swered many of the prob­lems in­her­ent in the tra­di­tional full-sized Yank of the era. Fast, re­fined and ex­pen­sive to build com­pared to its ri­vals, it of­fered dy­namic at­tributes that were mostly lost on the peo­ple who bought it.

The SM was born of a dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­ity, on a con­ti­nent where it was still legally pos­si­ble to main­tain very high speeds for long dis­tances. It was the pride of the French mo­tor in­dus­try and prob­a­bly the most tech­ni­cally ad­vanced car in the world in the early ’70s, cre­ated by a firm that was ex­pected to come up with the most in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to ev­ery prob­lem, seem­ingly with­out an ac­coun­tant in sight. That some less-com­pli­cated cars achieved sim­i­lar re­sults wasn’t im­por­tant: Citroën proved it could be done the hard way, and that was what mat­tered. The SM was, in other words, a fab­u­lous kind of mad­ness – a ge­nius for which there can never be a sub­sti­tute, not even a Toronado.

Clock­wise from main: it’s a long thing, the Toronado; front bench is elec­tri­cally ad­justable, mak­ing it easy to find the right driv­ing po­si­tion; 7-litre V8 puts out 475lb ft; pop-up lights add class; Citroën’s rear ta­pers, Olds’ doesn’t

Clock­wise from main: com­pli­cated sus­pen­sion re­sults in roll, but does won­ders for the ride qual­ity; sump­tu­ous seats; Maser’s quad-cam V6; the SM is the more pol­ished of the two; swiv­el­ling head­lights

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