The story of one visionary at Citroën’s Bureau des Etudes Avancées.
The Bureau des Etudes Avancées Citroën or BEA, under the direction of Pierre Jules Boulanger, was the idiosyncratic French carmaker’s creative ideas laboratory. Fittingly located at number 44 to 48 on the Rue du Théâtre in Paris, it exuded an air of secrecy and mystery. Not just engineers and stylists were employed there but also scientists, mathematicians, physicists and even an astronomer.
Born in 1891, Fridtjof Le Coultre came from the famous Swiss jewellery and watchmaking family of Jaeger-Le Coultre. He had worked as an astronomer at the observatory in Geneva for several years but left and moved to France in the early thirties after a dispute with his boss. There being not much demand for his trade, Le Coultre worked in various jobs to sustain himself and developed and sold an artificial marble-like material that enjoyed some popularity in decorative lamp-posts.
The exact date is unknown, but Le Coultre duly applied for a job at the BEA. Not sure what to think of the tall, intriguing and obviously studied applicant, the administrator consulted over the telephone with his superiors. The result: Le Coultre was interviewed by Pierre Boulanger himself. Boulanger’s conclusion at the end of the interview exemplifies the free-thinking atmosphere that prevailed at the BEA: “Monsieur Le Coultre, you will realise that we already have many engineers, physicists, mathematicians and what have you here. We do not yet, however, have an astronomer among our ranks. So you’re hired!”
Being married to an accomplished pianist, it is perhaps not surprising that the erudite Fridtjof Le Coultre soon became close friends with the multitalented Flaminio Bertoni, who was himself married to Lucienne Marondon, the prima ballerina at La Scala in Milan. They often visited each other at home and also went on holiday together with their wives. In 1947 Bertoni sculpted a bust of his friend, similar to the one he had made of Pierre Boulanger.
As befitting an astronomer, Le Coultre established his office-cum-workshop in the attic of the BEA. A scientist more than a technician, Le Coultre was described by his colleagues as a tireless generator of original and offbeat solutions that were nevertheless often complementary to those of the brilliant specialists with whom he worked at the BEA.
Following Citroën’s bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Michelin in 1935, the number of personnel at the BEA was severly curtailed(1). The fact that Le Coultre’s services were retained is testament to the value the BEA attached to him.
To cite one example of Le Coultre’s ingenuity, the Glaenzer-Spicer homokinetic couplings of the new FWD Traction Avant suffered chronic seizures and were proving to be hopelessly shortlived in service. BEA’s engineers at a loss as to how to solve the problem, but Le Coultre suggested an injection of nylon into the cups, a simple and effective solution.
Some readers may also be familiar with the story about the use of fireflies to serve as a parking light source for the extremely austere 2CV prototypes developed shortly before the start of the Second World War: this off-the-wall idea also came from the Swiss astronomer.
Virtually all meaningful development at the BEA ground to a halt when Germany invaded and occupied France, and daily life became bleak and limited in many ways for those who remained employed at the Rue du Théâtre premises. As time went on, many food staples became increasingly scarce and expensive, or simply unavailable, good quality cooking oil being amongst such items. Fridtjof(2) Le Coultre came to the rescue of his colleagues and their families by devising and producing a cooking oil that was deemed of excellent quality and was in high demand; unfortunately the recipe for this oil, including the ingredients Le Coultre used to make it, has not survived.
Shortly after the liberation in 1944, Le Coultre created the in-house ‘Amicale of the two infinities’, the name referring to the infinitely large and small in the molecular world and life itself. Its goal was to spread the knowledge of astronomy and the universe through presentations, discussions and film screenings, and to both entertain and educate while doing so.
During the Cold War era, where scientific progress was a source of both fascination and anxiety, the amicale enjoyed strong popularity within the BEA and, as late as 1957 when Le Coultre was close to retirement, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, caused him – reportedly to his delight- to be inundated with queries from his colleagues.
So, despite his somewhat unusual image, Le Coultre was far from being a reclusive mad scientist and, on the contrary, more a humanist that aimed to spread knowledge and advice. He was apparently also concerned with ecology, witness the digging of tunnels at his request under Citroën’s test track at the Ferté Vidame to enable the rabbits to go about their business without being flattened by a speeding prototype.
One of his last known contributions to Citroën before Le Coultre retired was a remedy for the unwanted noise transmitted into the interior through the DS19’s hollow steering column with its unique monospoke steering wheel. Le Coultre suggested filling up the column with an injection of expanding foam, which indeed proved to be effective.
A car like the DS could of course only be the product of audacious, free and highly intelligent minds unafraid to challenge the status quo and common knowledge. Therefore, Le Coultre deserves mention among those famous names Boulanger, Lefebvre, Magès and Bertoni. Unfortunately, the BEA building has been torn down and replaced by a modern construction, although a commemorative plaque reminds passers-by of the history of the location. The forward looking souls that once created the 2CV, the Traction Avant and the DS here are also long gone and so too, one fears, the spirit essential for the creation of vehicles of such vision and magnitude.
(1) Bertoni’s styling department was cut down from forty to just seven.
(2) His colleagues at the BEA called Le Coultre ‘Frédéric’ as that was easier to pronounce for Francophones.
Source: ‘Flaminio Bertoni, 30 Years of Citroën Style’, by Fabien Sabatès and Leonardo Bertoni, E.T.A.I., 1998. Available only in French, but a marvelous account of one of the car styling greats.
16 thoughts on “The Stargazer of the Rue du Théâtre”
This story is indicative of the value of interdisciplinary work in organisations. By all means have specialists but the silo-mentality, especially the one that puts engineers behind walls (I am generalising) is the one where you get unadventurous mediocrity as purveyed by GM and Ford USA in too many instances. The other point is that LeCoultre´s mentality was a product of his education, personality and circumstances. He was able to repurpose his astronomy education in a useful way. Nobody told him what to study. He did what he liked best and found a use for it; this is in contrast to efforts to direct students to commercial and readily employable study lines, a mentality that treats higher education as a training course and also tends to support mediocre bean-counting and (narrow) engineering-led thinking; it downgrades learning for its own sake and makes those who fit in feel superior. Citroen´s great ideas lab reminds me of the Bell Labs – and companies with an expansise R&D outlook tend to have the best ideas (but making them pay off is a long haul process which needs commitment from the top level.
Good morning Bruno and thanks for sharing a fascinating history that was unknown to me. An environment such as the BEA must have been an invigorating and exciting place to work, and a wonderful incubator for left-field thinking.
That said, and while I agree with Richard’s observations above, the price Citroën paid for such indulgence was a heavy one involving regular brushes with bankruptcy. Public corporations, whose explicit goal is to maximise returns to their shareholders, have little for no capacity for exploring ideas that don’t have a readily identifiable potential payback. Journeyman CEOs, heavily incentivised to drive stock prices and earnings per share ever higher, have little or no appetite for risk-taking. Hence, the Ford/GM corporate model is very much the norm, depressing as that may be.
None of which satisfactorily explains Tesla, of course, but that’s a subject for another day!
The Ford and GM model don´t seem to be doing all that well, though. If Citroen had too much innovation e.g. the tyres made of anodised croissant pastry, Ford and GM don´t do enough. Can we point towards Toyota who have been really good at focusing innovation on processes. They have the capability to engineer durable products and renew on fairly short model cycles. Some can do one or the other; few seem to be able to do both. BMW, VAG and Mercedes are fairly similar to Toyota in (historicaly) a narrower price range and narrow product range.
Thanks for this piece Bruno, it opens a window and lets more fresh air into a historical legacy we already know, but still not well enough it seems. But things are different now, there probably aren’t astronomers or even pure physicists employed by any automotive firm… or are there? I can’t think of another company that is bringing as much innovation to market as pre-Peugeot Citroën. However there are, on the fringes, some automotive companies and people who motivate them who I follow with hope, that science and creativity, a place where latter day Fridtjof Le Coultres might somehow vanquish the bean counters and speculative bubble boffins.
I’d like to think of McLaren flowering in their springtime, but I have read they are in dire straits.
I feel that Gordon Murray’s recent work is under-appreciated, and I think it is a shame he knew to go straight to Cosworth in order to make the best naturally aspirated V12 ever (by far). But Murray chose himself as his chief designer, which puts the two amazing cars he’s announced somewhat under the radar of all but the most attentive enthusiasts, as they aren’t so visually arresting as the Peter Stevens designed F1, which some consider the best car ever made. And what about his iStream system (calling TVR… hello? anyone home?).
Rimac is now integrated with the VW Group, and has anyone heard a word from Mate Rimac since that partnership was forged?
As an enthusiast, I am very much a fan of Christian Von Koenigsegg’s work, like Gordon Murray he’s always on the cusp of yet another revolutionary idea that will change the course of automotive history. Yet thus far, his several clever feats of engineering have only turned up in the 35 cars per year on average* that he produces.
An American company located in Los Angeles called Czinger, headed by a gentleman named Kevin Czinger has made some prototypes with the most intriguing and quite beautiful looking organically inspired structural components. But he wants to 3d print them (why?). I know enough about metallurgy to opine that 3d printing is never going to compete in the area of specific strength with forgings, heat-treated/cold-worked tubing, layered composites, or even modern castings. Go ahead and contradict me, I want to believe.
I see a bit of Citroën’s former scientific and creative focus in Tesla**, but also a lot of flim-flam.
Have I left out any other automotive firms that are today’s analogues of pre-Peugeot Citroën?
It was fun for me to write this post, and dream like I did in 1973, just before GM cancelled their Wankel program (never would have worked), and when the Chrysler (and Rover?) Turbine programs still existed, barely (never would have worked). As for Ford, remember their “PROCO” engine program (similar to Honda CVCC)? Remember when the Xantia Activa set the Moose Test speed record (still stands to this day!)? Dreams of a brighter future, occasionally realized were enough to fuel our optimism and enthusiasm. Shame if these trips back through history remind us only of what is now lost, rather than inspire hope for the future. What to dream of now?
** Making cars we see on the road on a daily basis. Search “megacasting” or “octovalve”, neither have any direct relationship with electric propulsion or autonomous driving.
Gooddog, regarding Czinger’s 3d printing I think I can see why they’d pursue it with a shape like that: likely difficult to forge, not easy to make as a weldment with any dimensional precision, possible as a casting but with that many voids would be time consuming and labor intensive. However, would I trust a 3d-printed piece for a high-performance critical suspension piece *right now*? Probably not, I’d let someone else find out first whether all those layers really melted together when exposed to all the thumps and other shock loads suspensions go through.
Image of Czinger suspension (did not display due to a typographical error in my previous post):
Art and (presumably) science, meet yet again. Still a dream, however.
‘What to dream of now?’ is an interesting question.
The Center of Automotive Management ranks the Volkswagen Group and Daimler as being very innovative – in fields such as developing new powertrains, connectivity and self-driving technologies. Large companies should be well-placed to file the most patents, although much of what they submit is likely to be pretty rational and more immediately applicable, I would have thought.
That said, big and powerful companies can (and do) buy up companies which are developing interesting things. There has to be someone, somewhere, doing the dreaming.
Xantia Activa still being the king of the moose test is a common misconception ignoring the change of standards of the test since then. An Activa put through a current moose test is below average compared to cars nowadays. Reason being traction control plays a huge part of it and a Xantia hasn’t got one.
Thanks for that information John.
Charles, I’ve read more than a few reports maligning VW’s UI software. Could the study you cite be flawed in having failed to measure customer satisfaction with said innovations?
gooddog – yes; I’ve looked in to their rating system and ‘performance’ contributes relatively little. That probably makes sense, as I guess there won’t be much data on how innovations perform. Although VWG systems are now much improved, they had some problems when they were launched.
Click to access MOBIL-Approach.pdf
Thank you for the reply formerlyvairshipnowflashgordon,
Unveiled just last month, Czinger’s “topology optimized 3d printed gearbox”:
That’s a fascinating article – I hadn’t heard about the suggestion of fireflies as parking lights. They don’t live very long, so I guess you’d have to learn how to breed them at home to have a regular supply. That would make for an interesting section in the owner’s manual.
Perhaps glow worms would also work and be easier?
Now we are in Lewis Caroll territory. He was a mathematician too.
Here’s more on the firefly story. The first submarine apparently used a bioluminescent fungus (foxfire) to illuminate its gauges, it says in the comments section.
Using bioluminescence as a light source for all kinds of things is a rumour spread in many versions in the Citroen universe. Daniel Puiboube has it in his excellent book on the development of the DS that somebody (he calls him a young engineer) proposed fluorescent red algae as interior lights for the DS and that M. Boulanger threw him out of his office for this proposal.
Stories like this make the Bureau d’Études look like a mixture between a freak show and the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, something it certainly wasn’t.
André Lefèbvre certainly knew what he wanted and he worked very targeted – otherwise cars like the Traction Avant or DS would not have become reality.
Good evening, Bruno. I’m late to the party, but glad I joined in. What a fascinating character LeCoultre (as far as I know it’s LeCoultre and not Le Coultre) was. I am, of course, familiar with the (Jaeger-)LeCoultre watches, but never knew of ‘Frédéric’. I sure would have loved and sat down and have a talk with him, if such a thing were possible.