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Heuliez Citroen SM Espace

The Citroen SM was France’s national flagship, but that didn’t prevent coachbuilders from trying to improve it. Heuliez’s targa-topped Espace concept is a case of what might have been

Heuliez Citroen SM Espace

The French car industry of the post-war period was responsible for some of the most innovative cars money could buy. Arguably it created the family hatchback and the chic city car, and it incorporated aerospace technology into its cutting-edge sports cars. But the clever French never managed to create a national flagship to follow Talbot-Lago or Bugatti. Only the shortlived Facel Vega came close.

When Citroen unveiled the futuristic Maserati-engined SM coupé at the Geneva motor show in 1970, you could almost feel the swell of national pride across the border. Here, at last, France had the basis for that flagship. The aerodynamic body, quad-cam engine and extensive use of oleopneumatic control systems immediately rendered all comparably priced GTs obsolete – even if the idiosyncratic styling divided opinion, and conventional wisdom was that 170bhp was not nearly enough to compete against the might of the Jaguar E-type V12 and Jensen Interceptor.

Yet the SM, within months of its launch, was going down a storm with the smart set and selling strongly. It attracted big names in French coachbuilding too – Chapron decided that the SM was too good to leave alone. It formed the basis of some interesting variations, all playing on the SM’s distinctive styling and complex DS-based underpinnings.

The Chapron convertible and saloon, known as the Mylord and Opera respectively, were produced in limited numbers and became icons in their own right – in spite (or perhaps because) of their lack of commercial success. And it was these two cars that formed the basis of probably the coolest presidential limousine ever built: Georges Pompidou’s open-topped, long-wheelbase SM landaulette.

Rival coachbuilder Heuliez had similar designs on the SM, but decided to go about the task of opening it up to the elements in a very different way. Chapron’s approach had been to lose one of the SM’s best features – its wraparound glass tailgate – and give it a conventional saloon-style rear end. Heuliez saw things differently. And this car is the result.

Not heard of Heuliez? It’s a low-profile coachbuilder that created niche versions of volume cars from the 1960s until recently. It developed relationships with Renault and Peugeot-Citroen in particular, winning contracts to build the Citroen M35, BX 4TC, Peugeot 205 T16 and Renault 5 Turbo.

Its roots are in 18th century carriage manufacture, and it remained very much a family business. But it was the move to a new factory set up by Louis Heuliez in the Poitou-Charentes town of Cerizay in western France in 1922 that revolutionised the company. Series production followed, and Heuliez went on to specialise in motor coach 
manufacture during the pre-war era. In 1947, following the hiatus of World War Two, Henri Heuliez recommenced business with a series of streamlined Art Deco buses throughout the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1962 that Heuliez moved into car design and production, initially courting Citroen and Simca.

Good times followed at Cerizay. As well as bringing multiple production contracts, the 1970s were a fertile era for the coachbuilder’s concept design team. The story of the SM Espace begins in April 1971, with the arrival of young designer Yves Dubernard. Citroen’s own famed design chief Robert Opron made regular collaborative visits, keen to see which projects Heuliez could assist the company with. The coupé-bodied, rotary-powered Citroen M35 was being built at Cerizay and, although that was never officially anything more than a research and development programme, Opron was impressed with the quality and style of Heuliez’s work. 

One particular visit focused on the recently launched SM, and an expansion of the flagship theme. Citroen’s own styling studio was flat-out working on the CX, so SM variations had taken a back seat – and Opron wanted to outsource development to Heuliez or Chapron. A convertible was the favoured addition, and Dubernard was part of the team tasked with developing a concept to display later that year at the Paris motor show. Heuliez had already designed a convertible roof mechanism, based around a strong central spine, so the engineering team applied it to the SM while Dubernard worked on the styling.

The idea of a central roof spine – or T-top – on an open car is clever. The spectre of crash legislation hung over the automotive industry, threatening to kill the traditional convertible for good. In the USA, Chevrolet popularised the concept with the 1968 Corvette, although Gordon Buehrig actually patented the system of joining the windscreen to a rear roll-over structure via a central spine in 1951.

But Heuliez devised a way of taking the concept further, replacing the removable targa panels with two sets of electrically operated slats, each comprising seven anodised aluminium strips that retract into the central spine. Both sets can be opened independently. At a stroke the issue of panel storage in a potentially cramped car is eliminated.

The development of the system was not without problems, mainly with the sealing, but development work led by engineer Pierre Thierry – nicknamed the ‘white tornado’ on account of the explosive way in which he dealt with his workers – eventually sorted it. The styling department was also being kept busy, and within weeks Dubernard’s design proposal was approved by Opron. The race was on to get the show car ready for Paris in October.

The show car’s styling was bold, painted in bruise purple and featuring a louvred cover for the tailgate glass – reminiscent of Bertone’s Alfa-based Carabo show car. Chrome hubcaps added chintz, while the interior was trimmed with tan suede and contrasting green leather. The SM’s hinged rear side windows were replaced by a pair that retracted electrically into the bodywork, leaving a clean and pillarless profile with all four wound down.

An unexpected drama occurred the night before the show, while the car was being unloaded at Porte de Versailles. The roof wouldn’t open. The cause? A mouse had burrowed its way in and nibbled at the mechanism’s wiring.

Once fixed, the SM Espace was a huge critical success at the show, and the Heuliez stand received plenty of attention. But potential customers found its jazzy trim and colour treatment off-putting. And that led Heuliez to create a second SM Espace, which appeared at the 1972 Brussels motor show. It shared the Paris car’s roof mechanism and retractable rear windows, but lost its lairy interior, wheeltrims and rear louvres. It looked production-ready, and might have done much to bolster SM sales, had Citroen given it the go-ahead for production.

For a while it seemed as though Heuliez’s car might well have made it. But sadly the Espace was overtaken by events. By 1973, sales of the SM were slowing, and they would soon come to a near-stop thanks to the effects of that year’s energy crisis. Suddenly the demand for all big cars evaporated – leaving Citroen with a flagship that no-one wanted, as well as mounting corporate financial troubles.

Inevitably the phone call to Heuliez from Citroen’s Paris HQ never happened, leaving the Espace project stillborn. The original show car was sold, while the second car was retained by its maker. And it’s lived within the Cerizay factory ever since, a constant reminder of what might have been for a company that was about to enjoy a 
30-year run of success, building the niche models that 
larger players lacked the flexibility to make on their own production lines.

Times have changed, and now Citroen, Peugeot and Renault are more than capable of building their own low-volume models, leaving companies like Heuliez without automotive clients to work for (see panel overleaf). And that’s why, four decades on from the first appearance of this Belgian show car, we’re at Cerizay. We’ve been granted an exclusive drive, as the company’s technicians ready the SM Espace – as well as a large chunk of its heritage collection – for sale at this year’s Le Mans Classic.

It’s a day tinged with sadness, but as Heuliez’s managing director François de Gaillard says: ‘We’re selling these cars to raise the finance to help successfully enter into new markets in the aviation sector, among others.’ Soon we’ll be riding in Heuliez-designed helicopters and railway carriages.

Approaching the SM Espace, painted in Heuliez’s favoured shade of blue, is an interesting experience. You don’t actually see those roof panels until you’re almost on top of the car, and it’s really when you’re inside that you can appreciate the subtle differences between this and a standard SM. The roof panel is creatively patterned and softly lit by multiple circular lights, while the additional switchgear for the roof and windows is mounted up there aircraft-style.

Firing up any SM is always a treat. Possibly more so 
with this one, if the roof’s retracted – although, with shades of that panicky Paris problem, the Heuliez engineers can’t get the system to work… The growly, off-beat 90º V6 lumbers into life lazily as the trio of Webers take their time to get fuelling, but once it’s stoked, the engine revs and responds eagerly. Despite the location of the gearbox ahead of the engine, and the subsequent long linkage, selecting ratios is a real pleasure, with a light and mechanical action.

Wait until the Hydropneumatics have gently raised the SM to its correct ride height, then move away. It’s a graceful drive for Citroenistes, but it takes a little time for other drivers to tune-in to its cerebral and highly sensitive control set. In truth, the Espace feels like any other SM to drive – quick, variably assisted steering, wonderfully strong and sensitive brakes, excellent gearchange – and it’s therefore utterly likeable to those of us who get it, while baffling for everybody else.

Performance is of the GT variety: quick when wound up, and capable of running at highly illegal speeds with enviable levels of refinement all day. But it’s the handling that really surprises, and again, once you’ve dialled-in to its main idiosyncracy – big roll angles – and learnt how to feed it progressively into corners, you’ll find it almost unstickable.

There’s so much to like about Heuliez’s open-topped SM, and not much to criticise. If you’re a lover of these cars, the combination of all that high-speed touring ability with wind-in-your-hair motoring when you want it is almost irresistible. It’s a shame that events conspired against the Espace – because this, alongside the Chapron Opera and Mylord, could have become a French flagship the mother nation was truly proud of.  

Thanks to François de Gaillard of Heuliez, and auction house Artcurial, which sold this car as part of its no-reserve Heuliez collection sale at Le Mans Classic on 7 July. www.artcurial.com.


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Heuliez heroes

Heuliez has been responsible for some fascinating cars over the years – here are our favourites

HEULIEZ’S back catalogue isn’t littered with supercars in the way many coachbuilders’ are. Yet it has produced some brilliant concepts and production cars over the years. The 1972 Heuliez H4 Taxi (above) is a great example of forward-thinking design: a one-box based on the front-wheel-drive Peugeot 204, with an enviably small footprint – yet it’ll happily accommodate four fare-paying passengers. Its MPV-like styling pre-dated the Renault Espace by well over a decade.

Heuliez also has its fingerprints on a significant collection of competition cars, of which the most successful was the Group B championship-winning 1984 Peugeot 205 T16, built by Heuliez. We also like the oddball Group B CitroΫn BX 4TC, but it’s too ugly and was too unsuccessful to be called a true great.

The same might be said for the 1998 Heuliez Pregunta concept, but with Lamborghini Diablo underpinnings and styling that you might think had been donated to the 2011 Pagani Huayra, it’s hard not to love it.

The rotary-powered 1968 CitroΫn M35, which Heuliez designed and built, is an obvious candidate, too. How can it not be, for making the hideous Ami look almost sexy?

Porsche’s 914 was hardly an attractive car, and Heuliez’s redesign, the 1970 Murne show car, managed to improve it in many ways, visually and practically.

Finally, the 2000 Peugeot 206CC needs a mention – the folding  hardtop that set it apart from all its rivals at the time was clever and innovative. The system is still widely used to this day, and Heuliez owns several patents for it.


Style: the ups and downs

Heuliez has found it hard to maintain its presence in the design/manufacture sector. It’s not alone

That Heuliez is selling its car collection is a sign of the times. The company was primarily an outside contractor, which built the models manufacturers were unable to. And as company chief Franois de Gaillard says: ‘It’s no longer economically viable. They have IT systems and flexible production methods, and can now spin several models down one line. And it’s priced us out.’

From the 1980s, Heuliez built a variety of cars such as the CitroΫn CX, BX, XM and Xantia estates, the Peugeot 206CC and Opel Tigra Twin Top. But when these commissions stopped, so did cashflow. In 2007, the company applied for financial protection, and today it’s actively seeking to diversify.

Heuliez is far from alone. Down the road in Romorantin-Lanthenay, Matra’s once-bustling factory now lies dormant, fronted by a museum. The company, which churned out thousands of Espace people-carriers for Renault, found itself without a production contract in 2003. Renault pulled the plug on the unsuccessful Avantime, and took mainstream Espace production in-house. It’s now a high-tech design company, owned by Pininfarina.

In Italy, Bertone’s car production business proved successful until the late 1990s, when production of the Fiat Punto and Opel Astra cabriolets petered out. Bertone no longer builds cars – its Grugliasco factory was bought by Fiat  in 2009, but the design work continues.

‘There’s still lots of work in the East,’ says de Gaillard, ‘and those who want to remain in the car design community will need to learn to work closely with 
the Chinese.’ Now that is a sign of the times.


Specifications

1971 CitroΫn SM Espace

Engine 2670cc V6, DOHC per bank, three Weber DCNF carburettors
Power 170bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 170lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbones, self-levelling Hydropneumatic spring/damper units. Rear: semi-trailing arms, self-levelling Hydropneumatic spring/damper units
Brakes Discs
Weight 1450kg
Performance Top speed 135mph. 0-60mph 9.0sec

 

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