Citroën M35

Proving once again that the 1960s were the best time for vehicles—that is, vehicles we all seem to love but don't have expectations that they'll be reliable, rust-resistant, or practical—here's one of my favourite Citroëns, introduced in 1969.

It's pretty easy to memorize the main Citroën range from 1945 until about 1970: DS, 2CV, Ami, Dyane, and H Van. Memorizing the range will only get you so far, however, as the company is known as much for its experiments as it is for the main production line.

When your production vehicles have a combination of features like hydropneumatic suspension, flat engines, self-correcting steering, inboard brakes, and a semi-automatic transmission, you can imagine how insane Citroën prototype and non-production vehicles were.

For instance, the 2CV Sahara: Citroën wanted four wheel drive for desert-ready versions of its little economy car. Why? To help utilities, oil companies, and other hearty workers get from A to B where no roads existed. Instead of building a 4x4 drivetrain underneath the car's famously flat floor, the company fitted a second modified 2CV subframe, drivetrain, and engine…in the trunk!

Voilà! Four-wheel-drive.

The M35 was born from a time when the company had been experimenting with rotary engines for its next generation of vehicles. Citroën wasn't convinced that rotary engines would be powerful or durable enough to survive years in the hands of customers, so the company devised a novel solution: to offer the M35 rotary-powered prototype to its best customers to test.

Underneath its swoopy, hand-built-at-Heuliez coupe bodywork was a four-speed manual transmission, hydropneumatic suspension, and a 995-cc single rotor engine with 49 horsepower. With a curb weight of just 815 kg (1795 lbs), it would (eventually) hit a top speed of 144 km/h (90 mph).

I say eventually because, as usual, rotary engines need lots of revs to get going—the car's zero-to-100 km/h (62 mph) time was somewhere north of 19 seconds.

Citroën was deeply committed to the rotary engine. Along with NSU, it co-founded Comotor SA, a company and production facility exclusively for rotary engines. With Citroën finding itself bankrupt in 1974, most observers today point to the incredibly expensive development of its stillborn rotary engine as an unnecessary drain on resources.

Customers lucky enough to get an M35 prototype were required to drive at least 30,000 km (18,640 miles) per year for two years, with Citroën taking the cars back at the end of the trial. The price for being an early adopter has never been cheap, either: an M35 cost more than twice that of a 2CV and even more than a base model DS.

Along with the hefty price, Citroën threw in a great warranty that included a loaner car just in case the M35 was under repair for an extended period of time. This was a smart move, because many of the prototypes had to undergo premature engine rebuilds.

This being France, owners weren't required to hand their car back to Citroën at the end of four years—with many refusing the hefty pay-out the company offered in order to get the cars back and crush them. That said, unlike General Motors and the EV-1, Citroën wasn't about to go crazy (not to mention piss off their most ardent supporters) in order to destroy their most advanced prototype vehicles.

About a third of the M35s stayed in private hands—which means that yes, you can find yourself a rotary-powered Citroën coupe. As you may guess, this is one of my favourite-ever Citroën models and I'd one day love to acquire one. 

Citroën was supposed to make 500, but would skip serial numbers during the production run so often that most experts peg the number of M35 coupes built at just 267. Thankfully, enthusiasts and owners of the car have produced a wealth of information on the car. If you're interested in the M35, read through the sources to learn much, much more.