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