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To a 10-Year-Old Boy, the Future Is Cast in Steel

James Freeman and the San Francisco Citroën Club convene for coffee in Oakland.

When I was 10, one of my Belfast aunties sent me a marvelous book for Christmas. It was called The Book of Classic Cars, and I devoured it.

In addition to the statistics—the history and the pictures of the cars I was so fascinated by—that book was also the origin of my first philosophical thought: I realized that the cheery fenders of, say, a1952 Bentley Mark VI, which I found old fashioned and quaint, must have struck the 10-year-old boys of the early 1950s as the sleekest path to the future. Therefore, modernness or old-fashionedness didn't actually reside in the objects themselves, but rather, in our minds. This distinction—between a physical object and our perception of it—was as profound as I got as a 10 year old.

Even though The Book of Classic Cars was published in the mid-1970s, it featured a car manufactured in 1970—a thoroughly modern car in a book about classics. To a boy hungry for the future, that car was everything—mystery, complexity, elegance, rarity, and urbanity. The car, even in pictures, reeked of promise for the coming years. Later, I would consult my sources to learn about Nixon's impeachment, the OPEC oil embargo, and the recession, and realize that the future embodied by this breathtaking machine might not be, according to my Mad magazines, the future we would soon take delivery of.

That uncompromised car was the Citroën SM, the grand tourer designed by Robert Opron, powered by a Maserati V6 engine, and destined to be my obscure object of desire for the next 35 years.

Citroën has a legendary history, as does French engineering in general. Can we pause here to consider that the seeds of Spotify were planted in Paris in 1880 with the Théâtrophone? Or that the World Wide Web was cleverly presaged (for millions of French subscribers) by the Minitel in the 1980s? Similarly, the future of the automobile came to the French first. And the apotheosis of this future was represented by the SM. Of course, Citroën produced many legendary cars prior to the SM. The Traction Avant pioneered front-wheel-drive technology in the 1930s. The DS—a true engineering masterwork—was the Tesla of its day. The 2cv heralded the revitalization of Western Europe’s post-war industrial economy.

But the SM had all the things my budding conception of the future needed: the Maserati engine, the Barbarella-worthy pigskin interior, and Robert Opron's magnum opus of aerodynamic design. It also emanated a sleek menace—of all the cars in the world, this was the one in which I would be least surprised to find an impeccably dressed, dead French gangster. This hint of menace might explain the uncanny fascination the car held for many of the decade’s most notorious despots: Idi Amin owned seven. The Shah of Iran owned a matched pair—one in manual transmission, one in automatic. The emperor Haile Selassie was chauffeured in one, even though the rear seats were designed for the petite. Leonid Brezhnev owned one in a custom color—a putrid celery green that, fortunately, has not escaped the confines of the 1970s.

In 2012, it happened: Through the magic of the Internet, I found mine waiting for me in southern California—the doomed passion project nearly completed by the recently deceased last Citroën dealer in Los Angeles. I wrote the check to his widow, but she made it clear, in heavily accented English, voice tinged with a mixture of warning, grief, and resentment, just how important this car was to her late husband. In addition to the car, the purchase included an inch-high stack of repair invoices and two garbage bags filled with scraps of the original cordovan leather—the last undone project (an interior restoration) in a life presumably filled with tricky, undone projects.

In my own professional life, the car has spurred a few such precarious projects. Working through this obsession, I collaborated with an espresso machine manufacturer to produce a machine which radiated a sense of the SM. Numerous conference calls, punctuated by puzzled, awkward silences as I rhapsodized about brushed bronze, produced a fraught prototype, still in proud service at our New York roastery, but never to be repeated.

Seeing an SM now is a little like going to Tokyo: This is the way the future was supposed to be. Let a robot make and serve me sushi? Yes, please! Take the monorail into the center of town from the airport? Why not!

Yet somehow, the optimism of the early 1970s has collided with a new, bleak reality and our promised future of elegance, safety, and speed has become the automobile equivalent of driving immense refrigerator boxes and basketball shoes: Our cultural patrimony squandered in a post-infrastructure age.

There are a few of us left who, instead of blithely climbing into our shoeboxes, clicking the transmission to the letter D and juddering toward our inexplicably prosaic future, choose to remember that optimism. Last Sunday, the SFCC (San Francisco Citroën Club) convened at our Oakland roastery to opine over excellent coffee and treats. We parked our cars in a line, noses facing out, and let the population of Jack London Square lose themselves in admiration at the mid-twentieth century display of French automotive esprit. After a while, the conversations wound down, and we headed back to our garages—driving down impossibly potholed highway 880, or across the new Bay Bridge, already starting to rust from the inside—dreaming of the unsullied asphalt on the Autoroute A6 taking us from Paris to the South of France.

Photos by Nick Wolf Photography. For more gleaming photos from our day with the SFCC, follow us on Facebook.


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By James Freeman

Published Feb. 23, 2016

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