All Seeing Eye

Vélizy’s 1994 monospace concept, while no masterpiece, was perhaps the best of an uninspired bunch. 

Xanae. Image frenchcarforum

It’s relatively difficult to imagine now, but in the early 1990’s, the future was looking decidedly MPV-shaped. Particularly amongst European manufacturers, who were falling over themselves to get something vaguely monospace to market, following the creative and commercial success of the innovative Renault Espace.

The MPV concept appeared to particularly chime with the French motorist, who was generally characterised by preferring pragmatism over pretension. In 1991, Renault again set the pace with the Scenic concept, but three years elapsed before Art Blakeslee’s Citroën studios presented Xanae.

Star of that year’s Paris motor show, Xanae offered a vision for a new type of Citroën, aimed very much at this burgeoning sector. Sized between C and D-segments with a clear stylistic reference to the Xantia model, Xanae appeared to many observers as a distinct and distinctive hint to what customers could expect from the chevron within a comparatively short space of time – a Citroën spokesperson telling reporters, “we wanted to create something that was totally new: a cross between a saloon and a people carrier.”

Image: taringa.net

Styling was the work of Dan Abramson, who was recruited in 1984, remaining at Citroën’s Vélizy studios for another twenty one years, penning a staggering amount of chevron-badged models over that period, including the C6. The narrative behind Xanae, as recounted by Blakeslee at the time, was that of an eye.

The Xanae, he said, was really a giant eye, looking out for and protecting its occupants in an increasingly hostile and dangerous driving environment. Hence the shape of the headlights, daylight openings, even the side rubbing strips. Which was a fine line in design-speak, and illustrates how little is new in the World.

With any creative endeavour, the end-result is usually predicated on the brief that initiates it. In this case, Abramson appears to have been hamstrung by an edict of, ‘make sure it vaguely resembles a Xantia’. Hemmed-in too by the leadership of a man Citroën’s Claude Santinet later damned in the following terms; “ …inside Citroën, I don’t think we had the man with the ability to lead the design team”.

In his defence, Blakeslee had not only Xavier Karcher to contend with, but a hidebound PSA board, led by ultra-conservative Jacques Calvet, so there was plenty of responsibility to go around.

Image: planetadelmotor

There were some nice touches to the Xanae concept, but what appeared vaguely progressive then, now looks slightly timid, not merely due to the passage of time, nor indeed the watered-down production cars which were inspired by it, but because it embodied a rather thin vision from which to draw an entire generation of production cars. Certainly, it seems counter-intuitive to base a concept on styling cues of a model already two years on the market, if the idea was to prefigure the future.

Xanae (which does suggest some kind of domestic cleaning product), was the direct inspiration for the underwhelming 1999 Xsara Picasso and the lumpen 2000 C5 models, neither of which will be remembered with much affection for their stylistic execution. Because frankly, from 1996’s woeful Saxo until the 2004 C4, there really isn’t a production Citroën design worth mentioning in anything but derogatory terms.

Blakeslee with his children. Image: citroenet

On balance, the Blakeslee era at Citroën was not a creative high-point. A cogent argument could be made to suggest it was in fact, its nadir. The production designs created under his leadership probably did more to banish the idea of Citroën as design leader, ceding one of the marque’s pillars to its rivals. That Patrick le Quément was overseeing concepts and production cars of superior quality and visual appeal at Billancourt should really be all the illustration required.

Ploué and his successors may have laboured to recalibrate the direction of travel in Blakeslee’s wake but Citroën’s visual identity had probably drifted too far. Today, management appear content to see the marque fragment still further; satisfied with Citroën’s USP to consist of the twin pillars of Airbumps and Fun – (Funbumps?). It’s not much of a foundation for a marque – especially one with such a rich history.

Of course it’s hardly fair to heap opprobrium on the Xanae’s shoulders – by the standards of the time, it’s quite good. Its sin, (if any) is one of omission, but frankly, a term which could usefully sum up the entire Blakeslee era.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “All Seeing Eye”

  1. ‘Tis odd, but I do recall seeing the Picasso for the first time at a show. I must have been been distracted by the big wheels and sudden paint because I remember thinking, “That doesn’t look bad.” In my partial defence, I was young(er) and (even more) stupid then.

    I shall now go and sit on the naughty step for my sins.

  2. I don’t think basing a future generation of Citroën cars on Xantia cues was such a wrong idea. I’m not speaking here of details of design execution, but of the two most distinctive features of the Xantia: a long wheelbase and well-defined edges. For me it’s the essence of Citroën’s design in the Opron era. The Xanae has them, while presenting more rounded, fluid shapes.

    The problem is that I see almost nothing of it in the production cars. Yes, the Picasso has a long wheelbase, but that’s about it. The rest is utter blobbyness, as discussed here for the Xsara and the C5. Only with the C3 and especially later the first C4 they started to present designs again that didn’t make me cringe when I saw them.

  3. The Xanae has some nice aspects and had more of it made to production the Picasso would have been better.
    It says a lot that the concept cars of M. Blakeslee look so realistic while his production cars were neither classic, futuristic nor straight contemporary. The C5, in my view, owes almost nothing to any Citroen and is a wierd mix of other shapes and a melange of what some people *think* an Asian car is like.
    If it had been 10% like the Xanae (“cleans under the rim, smells citrus fresh”) it’d have been 100% better.

  4. It continues to be bemuse me the way in which manufacturers put out concepts that look like they could so easily become production reality and then follow them up with actual cars that are sad, watered-down production models. It’s like they deliberately over-promise knowing that the impending showroom fodder is going to be a disappointment, thereby exacerbating the impact – where is the logic and sense in that? Or, is it the designer’s revenge – getting their defense in first – stating, ‘this is what I really wanted to deliver, but the stupid management in the collars and ties insisted that all that could be afforded to be productionised was what’s coming at ya in 8-24 months’ time’.

    The Xanae was not great, but elements were pretty good – on the inside, I like that ‘pod’ with all the minor controls on it just to the right of the instrument panel, for example – but the Xsara Picasso that followed it … well, we’ve done that one. Oddly, I have not before now seen the strand that leads to the C5 from this concept, but, thanks to Simon, I do now. The production Megane Scenic (as it was originally known) was a nicer piece of design than even this concept, let along the poor Picasso.

  5. Citroën lost their sharpness when they flattened the chevrons. The key question for me is whether a different design director could have been more successful under Calvet’s shackles.

    It’s been mentioned before, but it’s interesting to reflect on cars such as the BX and XM that were criticised at launch for being too conventional. Compare and contrast with what Citroën and DS offer now. Have they even fitted that interesting new non-hydropneumatic suspension design to a car you can buy yet?

    1. Was the BX called conventional? Some called the XM conventional on the inside, which it was though not exactly ordinary either. The exterior is still outstanding for its coherent look.

    2. I have the same recollection as jacomo – the BX was considered and marketed by Citroen itself as being quite conventional (‘Loves Driving, Hates Garages’). This relative conservatism was hardened by the face-lift which introduced the horror of conventional (if still non-self cancelling, I think) indicator/ headlamp wiper stalks. How I would give a minor but useful body part over now for such levels conventionality.

      On the new C3, jacomo, I know what you mean, but it does feel like a small crumb of an improvement. What really shocked me about the new C3 I saw in a service station var park the other day was how huge it looked. It was parked next to a MkIV Golf and, although a tad shorter, in every other way it dwarfed it – especially in terms of height, and the visual bulk of the whole front end. It’s really not much smaller than the Cactus, which I hear is soon to get a face-lift, which will be interesting to see as I think it might prove tricky to pull off without disturbing what is a pretty cohesive design..

    3. My criticism at the time was that it looked a bit too generic 1970s Italian Show Car. Which in fact it was, though at the beginning I was unaware who had designed it. It looked coherent, as Richard says, but it wasn’t ‘French’ enough for me. In the end I got to like it and, I suppose it was prescient, since design is now so universal. OK maybe not literally universal, I believe cars on the planet Tralfamadore still retain their distinctive quirkiness.

    4. Not especially relevant to the Xanae, I admit, but mention of Vonnegut in the context of Saab is always worth the mention of this quote:

      “I believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for literature.”

  6. I seem to recall (I was young then) that the BX was considered quite conventional – comparatively speaking, I suppose. People expected more eccentricity from Citroen back then.

    Personally I think Citroen are enjoying something of a creative revival at the moment. The new C3 hatchback presents as reasonably distinctive, vaguely fashionable, but non-threatening. Its underpinnings are entirely conventional, but tuned for comfort not ‘sportiness’.

    Ok, small victories perhaps, but welcome ones.

  7. Considering the continuing rise of the small crossover the early 1990’s MPV future may still come to pass. They just won’t be little lemon wedges.

  8. I played poker with Art Blakeslee in the 1980’s when we were both atChrysler/ Talbot/ PSA in Coventry and would love to contact him again. Can anyone help put us in touch please. Mike Judge ( mabjudge@hotmail.com)

    1. What did they do in Whitley all day, he asks: From my understanding, I believe the SA 103, part of the Citroen ECO 2000 project was built in Whitley at the time, a project I think Blakeslee was peripherally involved with. There may have been other projects carried out there as well.

      Perhaps Mike could clarify?

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