As Citroën’s SM turns 50, we trace an unlikely inspiration.
During a cocktail party at the French consulate in Detroit in 1960 – it is not known if any Ferrero Rochers were served – Citroën president Pierre Bercot met a man by the name of Henry de Ségur Lauve. Present as an interpreter because of his excellent command of both French and English, de Ségur Lauve was soon engaged in animated conversation with Bercot as the Citroën boss discovered that the Franco-American had considerable previous experience in car design.
Born in 1910, in Montclair, New Jersey, Henry de Ségur Lauve’s family had roots that went all the way back to the French colonists who established New Orleans. As was expected of a young man of his background, Henry was schooled in France and Switzerland. He started his design career in the early 1930’s in Paris, not in the automotive field but as a fashion designer and illustrator for magazines and advertising agencies.
It was not until 1939, when he spotted an ad in the New York Times by General Motors, that de Ségur Lauve would enter the automotive design field. GM invited designers “with French or Italian experience” to apply. Naturally de Ségur Lauve did so, produced a portfolio of sketches and was interviewed by no less a figure than Bill Mitchell.
Mitchell liked what he saw and de Ségur Lauve was added to the GM styling team. He would stay with GM until the late fifties; some of his notable contributions were the grille treatment for the 1950 Buick, elements of the 1951 Buick LeSabre Concept car and the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette as well as many interior design ideas that added colour and glamour. By the end of the decade however, he became increasingly disenchanted with the direction GM styling was taking and resigned.
Back at the consulate, Bercot asked de Ségur Lauve what he thought of Citroën styling. De Ségur Lauve replied that it was a difficult question to answer as ideas on car design between the USA and France were so different. He added that in his opinion this was the main reason for Citroën’s disappointing sales in America.
Bercot reacted by inviting de Ségur Lauve to come to Paris to discuss the matter further. There is reason to believe that some managers of Citroën were – the success of the DS notwithstanding – of the opinion at the time that Flaminio Bertoni was perhaps not, or not anymore, the right person to be at the helm of Citroën styling, prompting Bercot to see if de Ségur Lauve might be a suitable addition to the Bureau d’Etudes.
De Ségur Lauve brought along several design sketches to his appointment in Paris, unsurprisingly they all displayed a distinct New World flavour. When Bertoni found out shortly afterwards he was livid and informed Bercot that he would refuse to accept any help from this Américain, even if he was of French descent and educated in Europe. It turned out that Bertoni got his way as he would remain the sole and undisputed head of Citroën styling until his sudden death in 1964.
However, Bercot was enamoured enough of de Ségur Lauve’s work that he continued to commission design proposals from de Ségur Lauve anyway- keeping them out of sight of Bertoni, naturally. This semi-clandestine business relationship would continue until the early seventies. Bertoni’s successor Robert Opron seems to have been more open to outside
suggestions, and because of this at least one eventual production car almost certainly was in part influenced by de Ségur Lauves ideas: the SM.
Lauve’s ideas to Americanise the DS were interesting but only served to prove that it is nigh on impossible to change or facelift a superb design and get a pleasing result, let alone an improvement. The late Bertoni will no doubt have smirked from his cloud high above. Apart from the aesthetics, it would no doubt have been much too costly anyway to produce these designs considering the tiny market share Citroën had on the American continent.
But look at de Ségur Lauve’s design sketches for the interior of a coupé codenamed Véhicule S at the time and it is undeniable: here is -apart from the round instruments and different steering wheel- the dashboard of the SM. Ditto for the sketch of the front seat.
The rendering of the light blue sedan, probably a proposal for the Véhicule L – the car that would ultimately become the CX- is also interesting. Its front end treatment is reminiscent of the 1972 GS-based Bertone Camargue concept car.
When Citroën became part of PSA, de Ségur Lauve’s French connection was severed. Back in America, he did styling work for electric cars of the Electric Auto Corporation, the Silver Volt GT and Silver Voltair. He also designed an office building for a close business relation. De Ségur Lauve remained active in the classic car concours world and passed away on the 1st of September 1998, the day before his 88th birthday.
How did de Ségur Lauve look back on his time working for Citroën? Having produced so many design sketches over a long period, with only the interior of the SM as tangible proof of his efforts, was he not disappointed?
Not at all: “Some people warned me that Citroën would quickly end the deal, but that is not what happened. For years, I flew to Paris a couple of times a year, and was provided with a loaner car by Citroën which I used to travel through Europe while making sketches. I have only good memories of this episode!”