An American in Paris

As Citroën’s SM turns 50, we trace an unlikely inspiration.

(c) Conservatoire Citroen

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.

Far left: De Segur Lauve (Director Interior Design) at GM styling in 1954, with W.J. Tell (Body Engineer), C.F. Arnold (Chief Engineer) and Ed Glowacke (Director Cadillac Studio). Author’s collection.

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.

These early proposals have a bit of Rambler flavour to them. (c) Conservatoire Citroen

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.

The silver and black clay model shows plenty of DS DNA but the red one might as well have been a Buick. (c) Conservatoire Citroen

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.

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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.

De Segur Lauve late in life with the 1953 Buick Wildcat I concept, for which he was part of the styling team. (c) 3bp blogspot com

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!”

20 thoughts on “An American in Paris”

  1. What a suave and stylish way to enter the new week; an excellent article, Bruno. Once more I knew nothing of this man, nor his influential inputs.

  2. Thanks Bruno! Having read dozens of books about Citroën in the last 35 years, I never came across this man and his drawings. It’s always a pleasure to learn new things here on this site.

  3. Thanks for the insight Bruno. I too had never heard of this man but his influence is clear, if only to the dash and seats of the SM. The SM is definitely in my dream garage, I love them.

  4. Fascinating stuff, thank you Bruno, and well spotted on those tail lights, NRJ.

    Rather than take offence at de Ségur Lauve’s input, Bertoni might have instead have been flattered that this proposal reprised the rear roofline, C-pillar and rear wheel arch treatment of the DS so faithfully:

    Even the bright strip along the lower flanks is pure DS.

  5. Fine cars! The Citroën DS has some influence of the previous designs by Muntz in California.
    The Citroën SM V6 Maserati engine had a bad reputation, same as Cadillac Diesels, but the wide front of SM, also of AMC pacer, allows installing under hood one of the magnificent Corvair 6-Flat Air Cooled engines, among the best motors ever produced by American automotive industry, besides the Continental Single Sleeve-Valve, Burt-McCollum type, there is also the Piccard-Pictet system, that never went into series, same as GM Wankel-Froede RCE. Salut +

  6. I’m more impressed the inherent “rightness” of the DS could never be bettered. Opron managed to re-design the front end, but the rear could never be done. Talking about the DS, it’s hard to find another car that is so perfect from any angle already from the start.

    1. The DS facelift was created while Bertoni was still alive and in charge, but unveiled to the public after Opron had taken over.

    2. Yes, I know. It took several years for them to get that in production, why I don’t know? The point is, it was still Opron doing the re-design even if he was working under Bertoni.

    3. Hi Dave,

      C60 was interesting for me because it mixed elements of 2 very different cars: the DS and the Ami 6. One is considered one of the most beautiful cars ever and the other is probably regarded as one the ugliest ever in some quarters.

  7. Interesting bloke who I’d also never heard of. His forte must have been interiors, not exteriors based on the drawings shown, in my opinion. And while I’m no stylist myself, like any consumer of food I know when I’m masticating the good stuff while being oblivious of the details of its preparation.

    For a time, Lauve seems to have been influenced by the 1958 Ford Thunderbird C-pillar. The blue car, (third set of photos) caption-designated as a bit Rambler-like for reasons I don’t understand, has a 1960 Corvair greenhouse with the wrap-around rear window replaced with the Ford C-pillar. Ford used that latter detail itself on many cars, updated for the 1962 T-bird, and the dowdy Corsair they made in GB. The car above it is Anglia 105E-ish, but Citroen themelves copied that for the Ami and turned out a vehicle of such gawkish proportions I could not at the time work out how the people who designed the DS could possibly have made it. But they proved the weirdness was no fluke with the Dyane.

    The car that “could have been a Buick” looks like no Buick I ever saw, not even close, but instead a four door 1962 Ford Thunderbird with lower-body cladding and a nasty front fascia – Ford did it better with four headlights for the 1964. And much the same could be said of the Conservatoire Citroen black car in the javascript slide show looking like an elongated T-Bird.

    I did a bit of reading before commenting here, and tend to agree with Ingvar above. Opron was the man who had it going on. The DS was clever and all of a piece making everything else look ancient in 1955, while the SM took my breath away parked at Wimbledon Village in 1972. I stood there for some minutes, taking it all in after clambering up the hill from my flat. Amazing vehicle to behold. That and the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado hit the “I really like it” neurons in my particular version of the human brain.

  8. Thank you all for your kind words- I am glad you liked it!
    Bill Malcolm: Lauve’s rendering of the small car indeed recall the Anglia 105, and in hindsight the flanks of the vehicle bring to mind a much fatter, and very much shorter 1956 Lincoln….
    1956 DS19, 1970 SM and 1966 Toronado- who wouldn’t want to have those in their dream garage? I would!

  9. An extraordinary, inspiring article, that certainly makes a palpable impact
    in the obscure realms of Citroenistic pre-Opronology studies.

    (Btw., the nonchalant, yet decisive manner, in which both the A- and C-pillar, respectively, ‘attack’ the axles’ centrelines on that light-blue sedan sketch,
    speaks volumes about the talents of Henry D.S. Lauve).

    The article also manages to be inspiring in the sphere of illuminating behind-the-curtains corporate functioning.

    1. The SM rear quarter window kicks up in a manner very similar to GM vehicles like the Cadillac Sedan De Ville of the 1960s. Adds styling bulk over the rear wheel, correcting a styling detail of the DS that looked especially odd at the time, to American eyes. This kicked up line flows all the way to the chrome horns at the back – explaining these vestigal tailfins. I doubt Bertoni or Opron could have developed this hyper-Americanized styling cue on their own.

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