FORGOTTEN HERO #Peugeot-204 #1965 #1976
Sochaux’s Sixties swinger. Andrew Roberts looks fondly at Peugeot’s first-ever (and little known here) FWD car.
If you conducted a straw poll with British classic enthusiasts as to what was the first ever front-wheel drive Peugeot, it is almost certain that the answers would be divided between the 205 and, from the more mature, the 104, with occasional reference to the 305.
Today, the #Peugeot
204 is almost forgotten, despite the fact that, when it debuted on 23 April 1965, it caused a minor sensation. This was not only due to it being the first small Peugeot saloon since the 1930s – the 1948-1960 203 was physically imposing despite being powered by an 1290cc engine – but also because it was the first front-wheel drive car from the Sochaux factory.
Such a lack of familiarity with the 204 is understandable given that British sales were hampered by import duties. The 204 may have been ‘nice to drive, economical and safe’ (the tone of the early English language brochure is much understated), but the UK price of a new Peugeot was inflated to £992 4s 1d, a sum that might have otherwise bought you a Ford Zephyr 6. The only two comparable FWD rivals to the Peugeot were the equally new Triumph 1300 and the Vanden Plas Princess 1100, but even in such company a 204 was an expensive proposition. The French car cost around £80 more than the 1300, while its imitation washable leather door trims compared unfavourably with the walnut-veneered Princess 1100.
For all that, a select number of British motorists opted for the 204. One reason was that the Peugeot lacked the 1100’s bus-like driving position, and there was also the prestige of owning a foreign car – still a potent form of snobbery in the late 1960s. But what really appealed about the 204 were the qualities that had made it so popular in France – the attention to engineering detail.
Peugeot’s ambitious plans to build a saloon to compete in the small car market had begun in 1960 with the codename Project D12. At that time, the firm’s cheapest offering was the 403/7, powered by the 203’s 1.3-litre engine.
The new car had to be less than four metres in length, yet still offer seats for five adults. In addition, the power plant had to be small enough for it to be be classed as a 6CV – at that time, French car tax was based on engine size – but still able to offer a top speed of over 80mph.
Peugeot adopted front-wheel drive and the new 1130cc aluminium SOHC engine was mounted transversely with gears in the sump à la the Princess 1100. This unit was tilted at an angle of 20º, partly to allow access to the fuel pump and starter motor. The 204 would also be the first Peugeot with allround independent suspension and front disc brakes.
The development of such a radical car inevitably meant a considerable outlay for the company. Peugeot had little experience with front-wheel drive, while an aluminium transverse engine with integral transmission necessitated a great deal of development, meaning the new model would prove expensive to build. The lion badge had meant quality for generations of motorists and so the 204 would also be built with the skeleton for each side stamped out as a single pressing, as with the 404.
Development costs were so high that when the 204 was finally launched there was a restricted budget for PR. Financial sacrifices were also evident in an interior that was best described as spartan; very early 204s were started with the press of a button as there was no ignition key.
To further add to Peugeot’s challenges, Renault had recently been occupying the limelight with their new FWD family car, the 16. There was also the possibility of alienating Peugeot’s traditional customer base – for the average French motor enthusiast of 1965, the name Peugeot bespoke the solid and dependable values of the 404 and 403, to which the 204 bore little or no resemblance aside from sharing a badge.
At that time, a motorist looking for a small fourdoor saloon might have contemplated a Citroën Ami 6 – also front wheel drive but slightly smaller and occupying a lower taxation class – or the rearengined Renault 10 Major. There was also the option of the larger but more conventional RWD Simca 1300 or such imports as the Fiat 1100, Ford 12M Taunus, Opel Kadett or Auto Union Audi. Compared to these, the 204 was not particularly cheap family transport, despite the quality of its engineering.
Finding its feet
Some industry observers note that it was female drivers who first came to appreciate the 204. Although sales were initially slow, by 1969, the 204 succeeded the Renault 4 as France’s most popular new car, a status it held for three years. Factors in the 204’s favour were space (legroom for rear passengers was exceptionally good by the standards of the day), a very precise all-synchromesh steering column gear-change that lacked the strange Z-gate of the larger Peugeots, and first-rate handling and braking. When the light steering and refined engine were added to the equation, it is easy to understand why the 204 was so highly regarded as both a town car and an Autoroute cruiser.
In October 1965, the four-door Berline was augmented by a Break estate car, and in September of the following year, the 204 was available as a very attractive three-door coupé or an even more desirable convertible. These last two were built on a shorter wheelbase than the standard 204 and boasted a slightly higher top speed and more thrilling dashboard, with three circular dials replacing the usual strip speedometer. However, the use of as many existing components as possible meant for a reasonable price – the drophead cost only 20% more than the saloon – bringing the car within reach of the average suburbanite. And just in case Peugeot customers became worried about an excess of decadence, the 204 was also available as a Fourgonnette van and a basic Luxe saloon that was often used by driving schools and the French army.
By the end of the 1960s, the 204 was a ubiquitous sight in France, be it complementing a 504 with two-car families, serving as a patrol car for the Gendarmerie Nationale or, in plain black saloon form, being polished by a recalcitrant youth enduring his Service Militaire. The Peugeot looked contemporary yet low-key, with Pininfarina styling at its most subtle. Here was the ideal transport for the motorist who feared being thought nouveau riche as much as they found a Simca 1300 to be too transatlantic, a Renault 8/10 too unrefined and an Ami 6 just too surreal.
The diesel version of #1967
further expanded the model’s popularity – at that time, it was the smallest oil-burning car in the world – as did the advent of the more upmarket 304 derivative two years later. When 204 production finally ceased in 1976, Peugeot had made more than 1.6 million examples, although it was not a major success in the company’s overseas markets when compared to the 403, 404 and 504. More than 70% of cars produced were sold in the home market, so it was never a common sight in the UK – the first Peugeot to be seen in significant numbers on British roads is the almost equally overlooked 104 – but its importance to the company cannot be overstated.
The 204 spawned generations of FWD cars bearing the lion badge and it firmly established the notion that the terms ‘small family saloon’ and ‘exceptional quality’ need not be mutually exclusive. Back in 1966, Motor Sport magazine decreed that the Peugeot was ‘one of the most significant small cars of the 1960s. In comparison, other FWD cars feel and sound like tramcars’. And that was not excluding the Mini and the Princess 1100.
‘Move over, mate.’ It was female drivers who really turned the 204 into a success.
Peugeot was insistent that family cars needn’t be dull and unstylish.
A soft-top version became available a year after launch.
‘It was female drivers who first came to appreciate the 204’
‘Fast, French and expensive,’ proclaimed the UK advertising. Unfortunately, import taxes made this statement all too true for British motorists.
Comfy enough for touring the provinces, but small enough for city streets. Convertible version was built on a shorter wheelbase than the standard 204.
Unfortunately, hubby had to ride in the boot.