By Wayne Batty
For a brand so synonymous with sometimes quirky, often brilliant innovation, at least prior to its merging with Peugeot in the mid-70s anyway, it is quite unusual to come across an innovative and beguiling Citroën concept car seemingly too niche for even this bravest of car manufacturers to produce.
The car is the SM Espace, and it is everything you’d want in a 1970s range-topping Citroën. The idea and execution of French coachbuilder Heuliez and its ‘bureau d’études’ (design centre), the Espace was essentially a T-top version of the Maserati-engined SM that featured retractable roof panels as opposed to more common removable ones. First sketched in November 1970, and later patented, these sliding lamellar-style panels created a distinctive striated look when closed.
Complementing those lines, Heuliez incorporated full-width horizontal louvres to the rear glass. These two highly visual features, along with polished-alloy wheel covers, rectangular exhaust tips and distinctive aubergine-coloured paint served to accentuate the already unusually sleek avant-garde style of the production SM.
Above: Retractable lamellar-style roof panels looked pretty futuristic in 1971, even on a Citroën. Rear glass louvres a popular concept car design feature at the time.
The interior received its own set of highly effective visual upgrades, including a complete reupholstering of seats, door panels, dashboard and steering wheel in contrasting cream leather and green suede; a full-length overhead light panel worked into the T-bar section and a Heuliez badge affixed to the centre console.
Above: No mistaking the coachbuilder responsible for this delightfully bespoke SM.
Above: Ambient lighting worked into the body-strengthening T-bar.
The car was first revealed to the public at the Salon de l’Automobile in Paris in October 1971, and again at the Brussels Car Show in February 1972 when it was exhibited on the official Citroën stand. Sadly, in the time between the two shows, the Espace had been neutered visually: standard factory leather and regular black/grey dashboard replaced the dreamy cream and green, the louvres had gone AWOL, and standard hubcaps fitted.
With the concept’s impact slashed in half, it’s no wonder Citroën decided not to put the car into production. Heuliez, still hoping to sell the idea to another manufacturer, kept the car as a demonstrator. However, even when repainted in a fetching Delta Blue hue (Citroën colour AC640), and shipped to the US in 1978, it failed to attract further investment and was eventually auctioned off in 2012 to former Citroën dealer Denis Joannon.
After lengthy negotiations with the Joannon family, the SM Espace was sold to Thierry Dehaeck in 2018. The following year, with invaluable assistance from Yves Dubernard who was chief designer at Heuliez back in 1971, an extensive two-year restoration was undertaken to return the car to its 1971 Paris show specification. The car is currently in the UK and can be seen in its glorious aubergine Bordeaux painted metal at the upcoming Salon Privé Concours d’Elégance.
As a side note, a second SM Espace was manufactured for a good friend of Mr Heuliez. Painted in two-tone: white (Blanc Meije) with a black top, the car now resides somewhere in the north of France.
All images courtesy of Thierry Dehaeck – www.cadycars.be