A passion for Peugeot. The story of a fastidious collector with a penchant for the French firm. It might not be the most exotic marque, says Frédéric Lardenois, but one French fan has made a career out of his lifelong passion for Peugeot. Photography Louis Leduc.
The obsessive! Heart of the lion.
Among car enthusiasts, there are the shrewd, the hooked and the truly fanatical. Some focus on a single marque, others on a single model. Some are hands-on, others have work done for them. But Didier Doreau beats them all: he likes cars that drive well, repairs those that don’t, and breathes life back into others that don’t work at all. He’s had a serious case of the classic bug for 45 years, but is doing fine.
I first met Didier Doreau almost five years ago, thanks to a single-journal 2.8-litre V6 from a Peugeot 604 GTI. Any enthusiast searching for this particular engine will know that he’ll encounter no small number of tribulations – such as a nice, clean unit full of worn-out parts that could have come from a pinball machine, or a visually similar Renault 25 motor with its offset journals, but certainly not the one needed to get the car of your childhood back on the road. Doreau was the author of an unusual advert: ‘For sale, 604 GTI engine block, 55,000km, complete with internals, on a pallet.’ I went to have a look, bought the V6, and left with him the car in which, as a small boy, my parents used to take me on holiday.
It didn’t take us long to hit it off – which is unsurprising, really: Didier is a kindly type, and I’m something of a curmudgeon. We were only ever going to get on, one reassuring the other and becoming less wary from one day to the next. The problem with decent people, those big-hearted folk whose generosity is almost like a congenital defect, is that they often get taken for a ride. And Doreau has suffered more than his fair share of this.
When from the age of seven you strive to become a mechanic – while your friends dream of being fighter pilots or superheroes – and you stick to it so that by the age of 13 you’re about to start studying towards a professional qualification as a mechanic, diesel specialist and auto-electrician, it’s clear that you are singleminded.
He’s talented, too. A genius, some might say, who attracts crafty types who see in this man the perfect way of getting the object of their desire back on to the road for free. Doreau, who turned 58 in January, began working for Peugeot at the age of just 16. That’s 42 years of good and loyal service, some 40 of which have been as a chief mechanic. When it comes to Peugeots, there’s little to stump this man. He has repaired and learnt all there is to know about everything from the 203 to the i-Cockpit of the latest 5008. Doreau’s relentless thirst for automotive knowledge has inevitably led him to other marques – from Daf to Porsche via Aston Martin, he has had his fair share of mistresses – but he has never wanted to abandon the Sochaux Lion, going as far as to change employer whenever his paymasters threatened to take on a different franchise.
A psychologist would cite cause and effect: Doreau’s father only ever ran Peugeots, which he carefully pampered. But from there, he has moved on to acquire some 15 examples, and restoring them to the kind of condition that Peugeot would have struggled to better even when they rolled out of the factory.
Doreau has always preferred to preserve older cars – “those that have a story or a pedigree,” he explains. As a minimum, run-out models that have had their earlier flaws ironed out (such as his catalyst-equipped 160bhp 505 Turbo Injection Phase 2) or beauties such as his two Pininfarina-styled 504 Coupés. If you ignore a few excusable infiltrators, among them a 27,000km 1989 Citroën 2CV, a Fiat 500 and a Simca 1301 – “technically very sorted,” according to this expert – the provincial warehouse that he rents for his automotive children accepts nothing other than Peugeots.
Sitting snugly beneath their cossetting covers, the cars await the next Sunday drive. Each one in turn is exercised every two weeks, if the conditions allow. Doreau is fastidious, but not obsessive: he takes them out in the rain if he has no choice, but prefers fine weather. On top and underneath, there isn’t a single car off whose wheelarches, door pockets or engine compartment you couldn’t eat and live to tell the tale.
A technical adviser since 2000, Doreau can boldly delve into a car’s electronics and dig out the cause of a random breakdown, but his method is closer to the microfiches of his youth than the microprocessors of today. Not content merely to accumulate cars, he has amassed over the years a hoard of parts that would be the envy of l’Aventure Peugeot (the factory’s heritage collection). Coupé windscreens are joined by new steel wheels, washer bottles – “it’s mounted on the right wing of a 604, where it can be punctured by gravel” – chromed rear-view mirrors and dozens of oil filters, wiper blades and door seals. And he knows the six-figure part numbers off the top of his head: “A vestige from when I used to place the garage’s daily order for spares. I’ve got about 3000 of them stored up there!”
Doreau needs all of this knowledge to accomplish his mission: whatever the model, the modus operandi is the same. He seeks out the lowestmileage and the very best-maintained example he can find. He then strips it to a bare shell, scrubs it clean, and then meticulously reassembles the car with repaired, renovated, replated or repainted components, whenever they are not simply replaced by new parts.
It takes at least four months before a car is returned to the road. Not that he works on them full-time, though, because Doreau is not yet retired. For his 304 estate with its disintegrating underside, it took nine months. For his 2CV, which will be getting a full respray in Bleu Céleste, it will be less than two. What will not vary is the overall, and often exorbitant, investment that doesn’t take into account the man-hours – time for which some would charge well beyond what’s reasonable. For the parts, up to€30,000 is gobbled up by each car.
Peer into the carefully preserved interiors, and the mileages are astonishing: 699km for one of his two 504 Coupés, 1250km for the 505 Turbo, 19,000 for the 604.With its 85,000km, the 505 SR looks fresher than a tomato caressed by the morning dew. Don’t ask whether he plans to make a business of it or, worse, to sell one of the cars one day. If he did, it would undoubtedly be in order to buy yet another. Doreau’s current plan of action is to finish his 104 GLS to make space for the 104 ZS that’s currently being stripped. Then will come the 403, from which only the dashboard is missing, and the 309 GTI that’s to be rebuilt from A to Z.
And after that? “Maybe the marque’s later success stories,” he says, such as a 406 Coupé, a 605 SV24 or even a 607 V6. It’s just a matter of unearthing them – and you can’t help hoping he does fall for these future relics, because no Peugeot could hope for a better destiny.