Feature Story


Ahead of Their Time

by Doug Breithaupt

Suppose you were shopping for an automobile in North America in 1972 and you wanted a luxury coupe with front-wheel drive, your choices were limited. Two were made by GM, the Eldorado and the Toronado, and one was made by Citroen, the SM. As the owner of a 1972 Citroen-Maserati SM and a 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado, it seemed obvious to compare the U.S. and European approach to FWD luxury.

The Oldsmobile Toronado styling picked up in 1971 where the dramatically successful 1967-70 Eldorado left off. In doing so, Oldsmobile made a decision that their FWD coupe was a luxury-muscle car and not a muscle-luxury car as the 1966-70 models had been. Immediately panned by the automobile buff mags, the decision paid instant returns in sales. The 67-70 Eldorados are widely admired for style, power and innovation while the 71-72 Toronados, with essentially the same style and power, are ignored or only mentioned in negative terms. True, the 1973-78 Toronados became gaudy land yachts like their Eldorado cousins. The 71-72 models however, were much more restrained with many overlooked attributes. My Toronado is a 1972 model in white, without the detracting vinyl top but with the special brougham interior package in carmel.

The Citroen 'System Maserati' SM first saw production in 1970 but did not become available in North America until 1971. Unlike the Toronado, the SM was a completely new offering for Citroen. The SM was made possible through Citroen's purchase of Maserati in 1968. The SM's styling was clearly Citroen inspired. Influenced by the DS, the SM took the aerodynamic theme, long a Citroen passion, to new and in many eyes, unsurpassed heights. Citroens of the 70's and 80's have been strongly influenced by the SM's design. Also unlike the Toronado, the SM was loudly applauded by both the North American and European press. Motor Trend went as far as to chose the SM as the 1972 Car of The Year, the first import ever to be so honored. My Citroen SM is a 1972 model in silver with a black leather interior. It was originally a Canadian car so it has the desirable European headlights (more later) and is missing the U.S. required smog equipment, resulting in another 10 bhp.

The first impression on seeing these two cars together is how different they look.

The first impression on seeing these two cars together is how different they look. The French and U.S. approaches to GT coupe styling in 1972 were in their own way culturally representative. The Toronado is big and bold while the SM is sleek and stylish. The Toronado is a rectangular car with creased fenders. The SM has very few hard lines and is aero-sculpted from nose to kamm-styled tail. There are no common lines between the cars, however both feature innovations now standard.

The Toronado was the first U.S. car to have upper brake lights/turn signals. These proved most successful in that the Toronado was documented to be the car least likely to be rear-ended. The Toronado also had the option of True-Track braking, an early version of ABS that keeps the rear brakes from locking. The 1973 Toronado was the first automobile to feature air bag restraints. The SM is simply full of ideas whose time has now come. To start, the aero styling looks so current today that many people on the street ask me if the car is new. Full-front glassed-in headlights are now used on basic Ford and Mercurys. The SM's fully-enclosed underside is today found on high-priced exotics like the Jaguar XJ220. The SM dash and controls may have looked strange in 1972 but are right in style today. The shape of the dash and console are very close to the new Cadillac Eldorado. The use of steering column stalks for lights, washer/wipers and horn are now accepted practice. Active suspension and variable speed control for steering are just now finding their way on to the more advanced cars in the market. Citroen's systems are today being duplicated using technology not available in 1970. Citroen's use of radial tires and disc brakes are now industry standards.

Of course the most dramatic similarity between the SM and Toronado is that both are front-wheel drive and have considerable horsepower. For years, engineers stated that the combination of FWD with performance hp. could not be done safely. Citroen, long the sole champion of FWD felt that this must be disproved if FWD was to expand among major auto makers.

How much of an impact did these two cars have on the future of FWD? It is hard to say as other factors such as the need for more interior space in smaller cars has been a driving force to use FWD layouts. By leading the way in luxury cars like the Toronado/Eldorado and SM, GM and Citroen brought a new legitimacy to FWD that helped sell it to consumers. Today, FWD is common in the high priced European, Japanese and American cars as well as the least expensive.


From a styling perspective, the SM and Toronado are each uniquely different. Except for the long hood that both share, these two cars are at opposite extremes of styling theory. Both in their own way, are pleasing to the eye. While the SM's shape looks much more current today, the Toronado was much more stylish in 1972. The SM simply disregarded any and all contemporary styling cues in favor of lines that reflected its Citroen heritage and an exotic look that carried the same grace as the great Delage or Talbot-Lago grand touring cars of the 1930's. At the same time, the Toronado pushed Bill Mitchell's creased-edge look to new heights while borrowing the trademark 'coffin-nose' of the 1937 Cord, and its FWD heritage. Both cars are most impressive from the side view and are well balanced overall. While some may disagree with the styling merits of either the SM or Toronado, it must be conceded, they are dramatic examples of the automotive art.

While some may disagree with the styling merits of either the SM or Toronado, it must be conceded, they are dramatic examples of the automotive art.

The SM style is clearly an evolutionary development of the Citroen look that started with the 1955 DS. Early styling sketches for the SM were more DS-like and less appealing. In the final design, Citroen managed to balance the desired aerodynamics with a look that is both sleek and potent. The glassed-in headlights, running across the full front of the car have been compared to the Ferrari Daytona, a contemporary design. The substantial glass lift-back is similar to the Maserati Mistral. The most controversial feature of the SM's style is the tail. It is a Kamm-inspired design but some feel that the chrome is heavy-handed. Rear lighting is excellent as is rear visibility. One shortcoming of the SM design is that the driver cannot see any of the corners of the car for parking.

From the side, the SM is rounded and smooth with a soft belt-line. The vee created by the meeting of the rear fender line with the c-pillar gives a feel of forward motion. The SM appears coiled, ready to spring to life. The enclosed rear wheels continue the sleek, unbroken fenderline and counter-balance the full front-wheel cut-outs. The Maserati name appears nowhere on the exterior or interior of the car. Citroen refrained from the temptation to put the Maserati name or trident on what is obviously not a Maserati (this cannot be said for Chrysler's TC "by Maserati" which not only pasted the trident on the grill, steering wheel and even floor mats in an attempt to hide the humble K-Car origins) The Maserati name and symbol only appear on the one Maserati item on the SM - the lovely all-Maserati quad-cam V6.

The 1967-70 Cadillac Eldorado contributed much to the 1972 Toronado styling. The long hood, short rear deck, creased fender look started with the 1963 Riveria but was best expressed on the first FWD Eldorado. This 'folded paper' look was inspired by the famous Hooper bodied Rolls Royce models of the 30's and 40's. William Mitchell designed this look into his personal luxury cars and in most cases it works very well. The second-generation Toronado that debuted in 1971 was also influenced by the great 1937 Cord. The point of the hood is almost a direct copy. The front-end of the car is balanced by twin grills, placed in the bumper between the ends and the center, which continues the line of the hood. Dual headlights sit above these grills with brows gently sculpted into the hood. The complete look is somewhat neo-classic. The front of the Toronado is echoed in the rear. The immediate focus is on the twin brake-light/turn signals placed just above the trunk, below the rear window. Sculpted channels in the trunk follow down to the lower tail/brake lights with the channels reflected again in the rear bumper. Dual exhaust concludes this theme. The Cord nose is again echoed in the raised center section of the trunk. From the side, the Toronado affects two distinct fender lines over the front and rear wheels which vee off at the door. As a complete package the Toronado is purposeful and elegant.


In 1966, GM built the first Toronado and put plenty of muscle under the hood. By 1972, Oldsmobile's big block 455 was carrying 250 bhp SAE. The SM had 180 bhp SAE but was 1,463 lbs. lighter. Both cars are in the 8-10 sec. 0-60 range while the SM's aerodynamics allow a higher top speed of 137. The main difference is that the Toronado engine is 7.5 litres while the SM is just 2.7 litres. The primary affect is on fuel economy with the SM doubling the Toronado's 10-15 mpg. Each power plant is very satisfying in its own way. The Maserati V6 has plenty of low-end torque, mid-range acceleration and top-end speed. The Olds 455 V8 is also blessed with low and mid-range power but suffers from weight and aerodynamic drag at top end. For normal driving, both cars offer plenty of response for any circumstance. While the SM is clearly the winner in the exhaust note category, the Toronado has the unmistakable big-block V8 sound when pushed, or is that pulled. The muscle-car rumble is however overshadowed by the snarl of a true Italian thoroughbred. At idle, the DOHC V6 is a bit agrarian due to its uneven 90 degree configuration. At 3000 rpms, the snarling sound of Maserati's race-proven heritage fills the cabin and at 5000 rpms, the full-scream of this Italian beauty is as intoxicating as any Ferrari or Maserati V8 or V12. Ferrari's Dino V6 is the best comparison.

Both motors have aged well. While the Maserati V6 is more delicate with its aluminum block and heads, it was used for over 10 years in the SM, Merak and Quatraportte models. Regular maintenance is essential with a careful eye to fluid levels and periodic chain re-tensioning. The Oldsmobile 455 is still in use in some of GM's big trucks and can easily go 200,000 miles without a re-build. One reason for the long life is that the Olds engine has positive rotation for both intake and exhaust valves, prolonging valve life. The wiping action of the valve face against the seat maintains a clean, precise contact.


Driving the Toronado is not challenging, unless you have to find a parking place. At no time do you feel any concern for road or weather conditions. In many ways it is the ideal car for hours of comfortable travel.

One trip in particular showed me how well this car performs under extreme conditions. I had conducted a workshop some 100 miles from my home. As I began my return trip at 10:00 pm, a severe winter storm was at its worst and I was very tired. Driving rain had reduced visibility to a few yards. I was traveling on the freeway and the spray from passing trucks would blind me like driving through a waterfall. The Toronado was magnificent. It was rock steady in the wind and rain. The weight and power over the front wheels pulled me through two of the worst driving hours in my experience. Equally important, the climate control kept all the windows fog free. No climate condition the Pacific NW can offer will defeat the Toronado. Like the mailman, it always delivers.

No climate condition the Pacific NW can offer will defeat the Toronado.
Like the mailman, it always delivers.

The Toronado handles very well for a car its size and weight. Acceleration is impressive and the massive torque will easily break traction, a bit too easily on wet pavement. One very surprising bonus feature of the Toronado is the seats. First, the front seat is split with the driver having 1/3 and the passenger 2/3. Legroom is therefore adjustable for either, while three can still be seated in front if necessary. Better yet, the seats are the most comfortable and supportive of any car I have owned. The lower lumbar support is perfect, a remarkable thing for a car of this vintage. The lack of a transmission tunnel makes the Toronado a true six-seater but with front/rear armrests down, it provides four with club-like comfort. The most disturbing element of the Toronado is the instrumentation. It has only a speedometer and fuel gauge. All other functions are regulated by idiot lights. While a rev counter or oil pressure gauge would be too much to expect, a temperature gauge should always be provided. To be fair, in 20,000 miles of driving with over 100,000 miles on the original engine and transmission, none of the idiot lights have ever had to so much as blink. It always starts, has never left me stranded and happily runs on regular fuel. At 10-15 mpg this is appreciated. With careful driving, a high of 18.5 mpg has been achieved. The Toronado's 24 gal. fuel tank provides a 350+ mile range.

Moving to the driver's seat of the SM brings dramatic differences with some interesting similarities. Starting the SM requires two skills. Finding the ignition switch is tricky as it is deeply recessed in the underside of the steering column and cannot be seen without considerable effort. At night it is lighted when the door is open. The SM has a manual choke and a cold start takes careful listening and manipulation. One started, several noises are evident. The engine, due to its 90 degree configuration sounds a bit unbalanced but confident. The hydropneumatics begin to make sounds somewhat like electric fuel pumps. Then you begin to move, not forward or back but up. First the back of the car rises with a subtle swaying motion, followed by the front rising to match. The sensation is almost animal-like rather than mechanical. The 5-speed shift falls perfectly to hand. Moving off in first, one should increase the revs as this helps the engine to smooth out. Shift points are comfortable at 3-4,000 rpm but can be made as low as 1,500. It is tempting to hold the rpm's up to 5,000 as the sound is pure automotive music. As you make your first turn you realize that the SM is truly unique

To say that the SM steering is two turns lock-to-lock is just the start. The steering is race-car quick, feather sensitive and has a turning radius of just 41.3 ft.. It is speed sensitive, self-centering and transmits absolutely no road feel. It requires a great deal of respect at first and works best with minimal driver input. At speed it is firm and true. The ideal driving position is with the left arm comfortably on the leather door rest with the left hand at 8 o'clock and the right arm in your lap with the right hand at 6 o'clock. As the steering wheel is fully adjustable, the perfect driving position is always available. To become fully comfortable with the SM steering takes about 500 miles or two weeks. The reward is that once mastered, SM steering is possibly the best ever put on a production car. Exquisite finger-tip control becomes second nature. The car is an extension of the slightest movement of your hands.

Just as the novice SM driver begins to relax, the braking system demands attention. The four-wheel disc brakes are easily able to stop the car from any speed, however no brake pedal is available to activate the system. Instead, like the earlier DS, the SM has a brake button. Only soft pressure with the foot is required to slow the car. Anyone who hits this button too hard will find out how good the brakes really are, you WILL stop, very quickly. It only takes a couple of turns at the wheel to become very comfortable with 'le champignon' (mushroom). A bonus is that one can move from the accelerator to the brake with minimal movement of the foot.

The headlights and the suspension are as novel as the rest of the car. Six headlights provide for a confusing but brilliant light array. The driver can chose the two outer lights, high or low beam, the four inner or two middle lights alone. In addition, the two inner lights turn with the steering and provide for super cornering visibility. The lights are kept level at all times. automatically adjusted as the nose of the car points up or down. The suspension is active four-wheel, independent front and rear with hydropneumatic self-leveling. The ride is so far beyond any other non-Citroen that it must be experienced first-hand. Speed-bumps, railroad tracks and the worst pot holes can be taken without slowing. Manual adjustment is available with a control beside the driver's seat. Options range from 6.5 in. ground clearance to resting on the bump stops. Three medium driving positions are available. About 1 hour after the motor is shut off, the car settles to the lowest level. It takes about 10-15 seconds for it to rise to driving height after re-starting. The suspension also allows for the changing of tires without a jack. Raise the car, add the jack stand and lower.

Both cars excel on extended open road drives. They are best in long, sweeping turns
where the front wheels pull the car in a smooth arc.

Both cars excel on extended open road drives. They are best in long, sweeping turns where the front wheels pull the car in a smooth arc. From 50 to 70 mph passing speeds the SM is slightly quicker at 5.8 seconds compared to the Toronado at 6.5 seconds. Both cars feel light and responsive, somewhat surprising in the case of the 4,660 lb. Toronado. The combination of massive torque and FWD make the car seem smaller and quicker than the numbers would indicate. Both cars can easily break traction.

Some comforts offered on the Toronado are missed on the SM. Cruise control is always welcome for drives exceeding several hours and the GM controls are both easy to use and even after 20 years, work with less than 5 mph speed variance up and down hill. Power door locks and trunk release are Toronado options missing on the SM. In the case of the door locks, the SM's manual system only allows locking and unlocking with the key, but unlike the Toronado can be opened from the inside when locked. The Toronado's remote mirror control is also appreciated. One area where the SM provides superior comfort is interior storage. Four individual passenger storage bins are combined with the glove box and a change, drink, holder tray at the back of the center console. The Toronado offers only a glove box.


Costing an additional $4,000+, the SM was not a direct competitor with the Toronado. In todays collector market, the Toronado is even more of a bargain. The best example you can find should cost less than $2,500 (the CBI value is too high). A top SM should be in the $10,000 range and due to the complexity of the car it is best to buy the very best example available. Long term the SM will be a much stronger collectible with projected values of $20,000 in the next five years due to the total package of rarity, style and exotic engineering. The Toronado may be a sleeper as the survival rate drops and now that the model has been discontinued by Oldsmobile. Even so, it is unlikely that the next five years will see much increase in value.

If you are interested in collectible FWD automobiles, the SM and the Toronado offer interesting cars at attractive prices. If you get the opportunity, take either on a nice, long journey. Head south for the sun or north for the snow. The Toronado and SM will make the trip as delightful as the destination.

1972 Oldsmobile Toronado - Citroen Maserati SM - Comparison
(primary source, Road Test, April and June 1972)

Automobile 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado 1972 Citroen Maserati SM
Base Price/Options 1972 $5,306 to $7,643 $11,805 to $11,968
Value (#2 cond. CBI) 	$3,000 			$11,000
General Specs FWD coupe, 6-pass. 2 dr.  	FWD GT coupe, 5-pass. stl/alum. 
Powertrain OHV-4V V8, 455 cu.in.7459 cc 	Quad-cam V6 163 cu.in., 2670 cc
Power SAE NET 250 bhp @ 4000 RPM 			180 bhp @ 5500 RPM
Torque SAE NET 375 lb/ft @ 2800 RPM 		180 lb/ft @ 4000 RPM
Compression Ratio 8.5 to one 				9.0 to one
Bore and Stroke 4.125 x 4.250 in. 			3.23 x 2.95 in.
Carburation single 4-barrel down-draft 	triple dual-throat Webers
Transmission 3 speed auto w/torque conv. 	5 speed manual, all synchromesh
Exhaust dual exhaust 						quad exhaust

Suspension fr.ind.tors.bar,wshbn.coil sp.ind. dbl. wshbn., self-lvlng. hydropneu. 
Suspension rear leaf sp.tract.dampers 	ind. trlg arms, self-lvlng. hydropneu. 
Steering recirc. ball - power assist 		rack & pinion pwr. asst., speed variab. 
Turns LTL/Circle 3.5 turns/44.9 ft. 		2.0 turns/41.3 ft.
Brakes F-vent disc, R-drum w/True-Track 	F/R solid disk
Tire Size J78 x 15 belted bias-ply 		Michelin 195/70 VR 15 radials

Wheelbase 		122 in. 						116.1 in.
Length-Width-Height 220.6-79.8-54.7 in. 	192.6-72.3-52.1 in.
Curb Weight 	4660 lbs. 						3197 lbs.
Fuel Capacity 24 gal. 						20 gal.
Trunk Capacity 13.5 cu. ft. 				20 cu. ft.
Ground Clearance 5.0 in. 					6.2 in. (adjustable)

0-30 mph 		3.9 sec. 						3.5 sec.
0-45 mph 		6.4 sec. 						6.7 sec.
0-60 mph 		10 sec. 						8.8 sec.
0-75 mph 		14.9 sec. 						14.6 sec.
50-70 			6.5 sec. 						5.8 sec.
Stand.Qtr.Mile/Speed 17.2 sec.at 84 mph 	16.2 sec.at 82 mph
Top Speed 		115 mph 						137 mph
Stop from 60 mph 162 ft. 					149 ft.
Fuel Economy 10-15 mpg 						20-30 mpg
Pounds per BHP 18.64 						17.76