In 1955, Citroën, the most daring of car makers, released the DS. Effortlessly graceful and elegant, the DS only improved with age and it was not until the mid-Seventies that the 'Goddess' with its fluid-filled suspension and shark-nose front end began to feel its age. The DS begat a whole plethora of wonderfully oddball Citroëns, from the GS small car to the SM luxury coupé, but it was up to the daring CX to replace France's most admired automobile.
Like the DS, the CX was as crazy as it was brilliant. The front axle was wider than the rear, the back screen curved downwards, the interior was a feast of strange Gallic detailing and the CX retained the superb hydraulic suspension and sloping styling that made the DS an icon. As with the DS, the CX enjoyed constant development and a long production life. It gradually and subtly moved upmarket but always retained the distinctiveness and unmistakable charm that made the CX a proper Citroën.
The task of replacing the CX and continuing an enviable bloodline stretching back to the 1938 Traction Avant fell to the XM in 1989. This was a car that had very big shoes to fill.
At its launch 30 years ago the XM had one arm tied behind its back. The new car had to share its platform with the Peugeot 605 and unlike the CX - which was developed with the deep pockets of French tyre maker Michelin, who used Citroën as a rolling laboratory - the new PSA group wanted the XM to make money. Peugeot now owned Citroën and was not prepared to drain its bank account to roll out a loss-making icon.
So the XM retained the hydro-pneumatic suspension system of the CX but with some improvements. The CX was known for its smooth ride and it's almost heroic body-roll, so the XM gained electronic management of the suspension system. The CX was a big, comfy car but the XM boasted even more room, with the interior being longer and wider and boasting more headroom. The XM was also better protected against corrosion.
When launched in 1974 the CX had a wonderfully quirky interior that was difficult to fathom, so the XM was far more logical, although early versions retained the one-spoke steering wheel in a nod to its forbearers.
The engine range was vast. Nobody relished a go in a 1,400kg luxury barge with the 106bhp catalytic eight-valve 2.0-litre running on carburettors, but 2.0-litre injected turbos topped 165bhp and the smooth and well-proven 3.0-litre V6 offered 200bhp. Naturally a range of fine diesels was also offered to make the XM an efficient and comfortable cruiser. Refinement was top drawer and a few oddities - such as the second glass screen tucked in behind the rear window - proved that the Citroën could still be Citroën.
Yet it never enjoyed the breathless accolades and loyal following of the CX or DS. Critics enjoyed the XM but Car magazine was critical of the build quality of their long-term test example and this, combined with a recession in the early Nineties and changing customer tastes, meant that Citroën's ambitious sales targets for the XM were never met. Citroën anticipated a car that was more acceptable to more buyers who were graduating towards the big three German makers. Ford and Opel gave up, while Toyota invented Lexus to compete. While Volvo and Jaguar could cut the mustard, Citroën, with its little AX and a range of vans, wasn't able to convince buyers it could hang out with the cool kids. Citroën also didn't try to sell it in America, which couldn't have helped.
In 1994 the XM got a facelift that mainly focused on safety as the XM gained seat-belt tensioners and a bloated airbag. Mild styling and spec tweaks kept the range competitive and the performance, especially in the lower end of the range, compared well with established rivals.
Sadly, sales didn't improve and this, combined with reports of poor quality (the XM was notorious for electric gremlins) and low residual values meant that the great big Citroën was on borrowed time. More than 330,000 were built before Citroën cut the lights in 2000 and it would be many years before the French maker would have another go at a big car.
This was a dreadful pity, as the XM addressed criticisms aimed at car makers at the time. Luxury cars are too harsh and sporty now - but not the smooth, quiet, spacious XM. All cars looked the same - but nobody mistook an XM for anything else. Now the XM is gaining a following, especially in America bizarrely, and is being celebrated as the underrated underdog and the last of the true big Citroëns.