There are countless phenomenons out there which defy description. To know that something exists, having this fact backed up by the reports of others, even seeing it documented on TV still can’t hold a candle to experiencing it first hand.
I found this to be true when I visited Iceland in April and was lucky enough to witness Aurora Borealis live and outrageous in the late winter sky. It was everything I had dreamt of and more besides, at one point exploding from the restful ribbon of bright green that boogied in the darkness into a sudden Pink Floyd laser spectacular- pinks and blues and whites swirling in an unimaginable vortex like Nature’s Own LSD. Probably.
And if that celestial showcase wasn’t enough, on Thursday 26th May 2016, I got to drive a Citroën XM.
XM isn’t like other cars in the same way as the North American XB-70 Valkyrie isn’t like other planes. In fact it shares a good few aesthetic values with that sleekest of oversize darts, its silhouette incomparable with anything else of its time or any other. And, like the very-supersonic Research Aircraft itself, the XM is remembered more for its individual nature and its design achievements than for any great influence that it had in the physical world.
Yes, there have been Concordes and TU144s, and theoretical hypersonic transport aircraft on paper ever since, but Earth’s population still chooses to travel in one basic design of aluminium tube cut to different lengths. All current successful passenger aircraft essentially follow the same tried and tested format, one which is only changed incrementally as technologies improve, and when we say improve we mean “become more attractive for customers” whether it be in safety, customer satisfaction or reliability, all these things mean greater return on investment for the airline. Today’s cars have, by and large, become just as artless.
The XM followed the even more extra-terrestrial looking CX, a car whose sheer design uniquity kept customers interested for almost twenty years. The XM, though, wasn’t destined to become evergreen in the same way.
Looking at the XM today is a lot like looking at any of the great Concept Cars of the ’80s. Things like Bertone’s Audi-based Aspid, Asgard and Astec trio or perhaps the Lamborghini Based Athon from earlier in the decade. These were flights of fancy which could have only come from their own era, a time where progress-or the look of it- was foremost in the marketing spiel of every major manufacturer. And sure enough, the XM looked like progress.
Razor edges were very much in vogue at the end of the ’80s and those worn by the XM surely represent the zenith of origami design. This car looks sharp, both physically and metaphorically, but also extremely well resolved with every feature line- and there are many- having a place to go and a reason for its existence. It looks dated, but only in the way that Stonehenge or The Eiffel Tower look dated. Those landmarks join the Citroën XM as things from history which have never really evolved, they were just created and have existed as a milestone ever since.
I always enjoyed how the bridge on the NCC-1710-D Enterprise had wood veneer trim on the secondary control console. I liked how Gene Roddenberry and the TNG design crew recognised that intergalactic explorers would appreciate a bit of restraint and elegance in their place of work. I mention this because the XM cabin frequently attracts Star Trek comparisons, and I can’t help but think that this interior rather out-points the federation starship when it comes to futuristic detailing.
I used to attach calculators and old computer keyboards to my go-cart, just so I had buttons to press as I rolled down the driveway. When I sit in this driving seat a big part of me is still seven years old. The sheer variety of buttons to press in here is astonishing, and many of them are assigned to purposes you couldn’t possibly have guessed there was a need to. For example-
Press the one with a musical note marked on it and a compartment swings silently open to reveal the radio cassette player (which was appropriately playing Jean Michelle Jarre during my drive). Or…
Press these two and the centre armrest can be made to pivot up and down. Electrically! You could be excused for thinking that this degree of complexity was asking for trouble, and that it all still works twenty three years after this car was built has to be given credit.
The main information dials are analogue- a sober choice presumably made because analogue dials are The Best for presenting information. And anyway the instrument cluster is still flanked by two supplementary displays carrying LCD dot-matrix information on what time it is and details about open doors, that kind of thing. Actually, the truth is that one of the bulbs in the clock has expired- one of the few faults this car is beset by, but the owner isn’t too concerned about effecting a repair. Apparently it’s a fiendishly involved operation, involving the removal of much of the dashboard and probably the wheels.
It’s a shame it was daylight for my drive. I would love to have been bathed by the flood of green light that flows from all of those dials, displays and buttons. It pains me to use a metaphor as hackneyed as I feel like I’m about to, but this does feel distinctly Beyond Car.
It doesn’t drive like any wheeled vehicle I’ve ever tried before. This being the lowly two-litre version it doesn’t exactly take off like a drop-kicked cat, it rather gathers momentum like a boulder on a mountainside. However, once a cruising speed is attained it is stuck to rigidly with a sense of immovable inertia. The car tracks straight and true like that paper dart that its profile suggests.
The ride (and I know that this particular car has a few hydropneumatic peculiarities) is simultaneously hard and absorbent- ensuring that my hands and buttocks know the road’s every topographical detail, yet my body is spared any shock or lunge. It’s not a magic carpet, more an astonishingly smooth go-kart. But what is more remarkable is what happens when you pry it away from the motorway and onto more demanding surfaces.
It is here that I have cause to use the brakes for the first time, and also here that I remember all I have read about the oddities of Citroën braking systems. The brake pedal movement is minuscule, and retardation is metered not by how far you push the pedal, but how hard you push it. This doesn’t initially suit my right-foot-go, left-foot-stop default technique for driving automatics and I find myself forced to rethink my driving strategy.
In fact, so differently does this car respond to inputs that a cookery course or degree in needlework would give me more XM piloting insight than I had now. Having just got to grips with the atomically precise brake action I now found myself at war with physics. In most cars you can correlate your instinctive readings for steering attitude and body roll to sense how much grip you have left. In the Citroën you just can’t. It simply refuses to roll even when pitched into corners with reckless abandon. The relatively diminutive tyres hang on gamely but are inevitably overcome by my own puerile determination, but when they do break traction order is restored with a little pressure on the brake.
Meanwhile the steering is simply a dial used to determine the direction of travel. Its natural preference is to the straight ahead though the self-centering moment is far lessened here than in cleverly suspended Citroëns of even older-school, but it’s an extremely faithful and obedient interface. Instructions are hydraulically pumped from tiller to rudder with no lag at all and, assuming you’re not carrying too much momentum for the tyres to handle the car will simply dismiss the corner with a Gallic shrug.
It seems ludicrous to give a review of how the XM drives, really. It’s irrelevant, like discussing how the Mona Lisa tastes. After a while you realise that you’re putting absolutely no effort whatsoever into driving the car. Once you know where the limits are (surprisingly high) the XM doesn’t particularly reward you for trying hard, so there’s really no point in bothering. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the fact that the XM will take you anywhere you like, in sublime comfort and in imitable style.
So relax, sink into that deep, thick leather and set every one of the myriad adjustments until the machine accepts you as part of its whole. Then marvel at the uninterupted, widescreen view of the road ahead and consider how remarkable it is that such a bleak, black interior should feel so airy and spacious, and how hushed everything was thanks to that additional, secondary rear windscreen.
And then invert that smile and develop a frown as you remember that the XM was a dead end. Its belated successor, the C6 was actually fairly conventional once the exterior treatment and detailing were put aside, much of its character was derived from a pastiche of the CX, whereas the XM always stood out strongly as an individual.
An XM, particularly an early example (post ’94 versions recieved some normalisation which rather diluted the essence) now makes a striking candidate for addition to my own list of Cars I Want To Own But Probably Shouldn’t. You buy these, I’ve heard, on history rather than spec or condition. Scruffy but mechanically well-kept cars are probably a better bet than low-mileage minters which have never been given any exercise.
And that would be criminal. To own one of these and not let it take you far, far away as you luxuriate in your own late ’80s vision of a future that never really came.
(All images Chris Haining, Hooniverse 2015. With thanks to Newspress and Sam Skelton for the use of the car)