Not Leading by Example

An innovative but unapproved plan to build a flagship Citroën XM convertible.

Image: Koninklijke Hoogovens

After Citroën officially withdrew from the US market in 1972, an independent company called CX Automotive commenced unofficial imports of the CX model, much to Citroën’s annoyance. When the CX was replaced by the XM, the company, now renamed CXA, began imports of the new model and embarked on an ambitious plan to enhance the prestige of the XM by creating a convertible version via an innovative construction method devised in The Netherlands.

The seeds of the idea were sown in 1985, when CXA approached French carrossier Chapron to design and build a two-door convertible version of the CX. Chapron duly produced a somewhat rudimentary design rendering accompanied by a quote, but the troubled carrossier went out of business later that same year so nothing ever came of this.

Five years later, a new and promising opportunity presented itself to CXA: it wanted to market a high-end variant of the new XM in the United States to elevate the image of the brand, and a convertible was deemed to be the best method to achieve that goal. Having the idea was one thing, however, actually making it a reality was quite a task. Enter Dutch steel and aluminium giant Koninklijke Hoogovens(1), whose aluminium division was looking for a way to demonstrate the qualities of its new high-rigidity / low-weight extruded thin-walled ‘Hylite’ aluminium profiles.

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Koninklijke Hoogovens’ Automotive Design Support department had decided that constructing a convertible using an existing vehicle as a base was the preferred course of action. The torsional rigidity of convertibles produced in the traditional way was usually in the region of 50% of the closed car, with a substantial weight increase to boot. Hoogovens’ aluminium profiles were claimed to retain a higher proportion of torsional rigidity while being much lighter, and the longer the wheelbase of the car the more clearly this advantage could be demonstrated.

As yet unaware of Hoogovens’ activities, CXA was working on its own plan for a convertible and had delivered an XM to the Technical University of Eindhoven to perform torsional rigidity measurements on the car. Unfortunately, it is not recorded exactly how and when CXA and Hoogovens became aware of each others’ plans but they did and, in late 1990, the two embarked on a joint project(2) under the name ‘Leigh’.

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The so-called Hylite made by Hoogovens was claimed to be the lightest bodywork material outside of exotic polymer composites. It is built from two layers of 0.2 mm aluminium and a core of 0.8 mm polymer material. For equal flexural rigidity, it is said to be 65% lighter than steel sheet, 50% lighter than plastics and 30% lighter than regular aluminium sheet. It can be deep-drawn on existing presses and is form-stable up to 150°C, which is of importance for painting. Hylite was more expensive than steel, but is in the same price range as aluminium and cheaper than plastics.

The decision was made to have the car ready for display at the 1993 Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA). International Automotive Design, a British design company based in Worthing, West Sussex, was chosen to build the prototype, which now had a name: XMple.

IAD removed the central part of the XM it had received and replaced it with a Hylite floor with cross-ribs on the inside. An enclosed tunnel section, two side-sections and two cross-sections completed the welded structure. The complete structure weighed only 50 kg and the aluminium floor was joined to the remaining steel front and rear sections by means of a special adhesive and monobolts.

When the finished XMple was tested on its torsional rigidity however, the results were somewhat disappointing at just 51% of the XM berline with a 43 Kg increase in weight. Even so, Hoogovens claimed the XMple was still a success as the standard XM scored very highly by contemporary standards on torsional rigidity. Indeed, the XMple’s absolute measure of torsional rigidity was 14.25kNm2, which was superior to that of other contemporary convertibles such as the Audi 80 at 12.9kNm2, the Mazda MX-5 at 11.83kNm2 and the Ford Escort at 8.6kNm2, all of which also had a much shorter wheelbase than the XMple.

Nevertheless, PSA, which had been discreetly observing project Leigh from the sidelines, declined to display the XMple on the official Citroën stand, but did allow the car to be shown elsewhere at the venue, albeit without the marque’s double-chevron badging.

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The Xmple was painted in a standard XM colour, ‘Vert Véga’. It was not fitted with a drivetrain as it was only intended to be a static exhibition piece. It was also left without any interior fittings in order to allow an unobstructed view of the structural modifications. The XMple was duly displayed at the 1993 IAA show and generated a gratifying amount of interest amongst potential clients in the industry.

Market research in the USA by CXA resulted in a claimed 350 preliminary orders at a price of US $70,000 per car. However, Citroën’s Paris headquarters, not exactly approving of CXA’s activities thus far, was unwilling to supply cars to the Dutch firm despite its association with a reputable firm like Hoogovens.

Said a CXA executive: “We still hoped for a certain level of co-operation by Automobiles Citroën. Since Hoogovens already collaborated with Citroën in various projects, this was not unrealistic in our view. We realized that full co-operation was wishful thinking, but being able to obtain basic cars for a reasonable price would have been enough to get the project off the ground. But even after many meetings, letters and telefaxes, we were not able to obtain a direct answer from Citroën. The main obstacle for the legal department of Citroën was our importing and selling of Citroëns in the USA without their consent. Our group of investors grew impatient and, as we could not wait eternally, we stopped the project.”

Thereafter, the XMple disappeared from the public eye for years until, in 2004, a Dutch XM aficionado in search of parts heard about a local farmer who had an XM on his land that he wanted to get rid of. He was amazed to find the unique XMple covered by just a tarpaulin, quite a bit the worse for wear but complete, and quickly agreed to buy the car.

The XM fan cleaned the XMple up and exhibited the car at the 2005 CitroMobile meet. His plan was to convert the XMple into a fully functional vehicle. However, work was never started on the car and he sold it in 2016 to a fellow Dutchman who also expressed the desire to get the car on the road. Since the XM is front-wheel-drive and the basic hardware is all available, it is not outside of the realms of possibility that the XMple might grace the roads one fine summer day in the future.

(1) Koninklijke Hoogovens, founded in 1918, is a Dutch steel and aluminium producer. In 1999, the company merged with British Steel plc to create the Corus Group steel company. The aluminium production assets were sold off during the Corus period. In 2007, Corus Group was purchased by India-based Tata Steel and renamed Tata Steel Europe in 2010.

(2) Other companies participating in this venture in more minor roles were engineering specialists B’Tecc BV based in Nuenen and MARC Analysis Europe in Zoetermeer.

Source material: Ambiance Extrême, magazine of the Dutch XM club.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

9 thoughts on “Not Leading by Example”

  1. How interesting!

    Looking at the body it is easy to see why it lost half its torsional rigidity when the roof came off. These guys must have been on some good stuff to have expected otherwise. The section height in Z is woefully inadequate. The car needs a much taller centre tunnel- taller sills as well.

    It is a shame that Citroen were so difficult about the project. The car would have had the looks. Still, CXA management had found Citroen difficult to work with previously and on that experience they ought to have recognised that there were superior partners to be had. It must have been some good stuff they were on to have expected matters to be easy or straight-forward with Citroen.

    These odd decisions were hardly the stuff of professional or competent management. Tragic really, as the resources wasted could have delivered a successful outcome had they been directed towards the product of a saner manufacturer and better structural engineering design. Heck, even a conversion of a US manufactured vehicle makes more sense then what these guys went off and tried! Nevertheless, hats off to them for making such a brave attempt. ‘coulda been a contenda if only…..

  2. Good morning Bruno. As J T says, what a shame PSA was so hostile to the project. This could have easily been offered also as a coupé and made a nice ‘halo’ car for Citroën to replace the SM. I see that Hylite is still around:

    I wonder if it found any other application in passenger cars?

    1. An application I hadn’t expected:

      For environments with advanced hygienic requirements like HACCP

  3. A fascinating story and a shame it never happened as a production vehicle. Daniel beat me to it but more than anything else this article makes me think that there really should have been an XM coupé; what a lovely GT car that could have been.

  4. As always thanks Bruno.
    At first I thought “a XM convertible? it won´t look good” but seeing that drawing, well, that´s not bad, is it?
    I appreciate CXA people´s tenacity but selling XMs saloons and convertibles, not to mention at 70,000 mid ´90s dollars each, borders on abourd.

  5. Good morning, Bruno. I forgot all about this concept. I think it got some attention in the Dutch car scene, but only very little. I like the drawing of the XM convertible, but the partly finished car doesn’t do a lot for me.

    I really wonder how a soft top would look on the XM. I also wonder how much visibility is left with once the roof is up.

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