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The Glove Box: Peugeot 504

The Glove Box: Peugeot 504

Cover photo from Reuters

Certain products can fit perfectly for the demands of one market, yet can go wholly unnoticed elsewhere. Were it not for the dry climate of the Sahel, the Peugeot 504 might simply seem an oddity today. In the United States, it is just a slow, rusty sedan. In France, a semi-luxury car to aspire to. In West Africa, a ubiquitous way of life. I can’t stress enough that the Peugeot 504 and the Mercedes W123 mobilized large portions of a continent in the second half of this century. These are the cockroaches of the auto world—after we all die, they will remain in the villages of Mali, comfortable and steady as ever.

The time comes again to dive into the vast world of historical automobiles. As your guide, I, Ross Parish, task myself this week with telling you the story of an auto industry icon. This week’s car, the Peugeot 504, is a true working-class hero. Let’s see why.

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Photo from Rutger van der Maar on Flickr

The French seem to have a knack for distributing simplicity and engineering excellence where they fit best. The 504 had an engine. That’s all you really need to know about its go-parts. Some engines ran on diesel. Later in the model run, Peugeot plopped in the PRV V6 it had developed with Renault and Volvo. The famous(ly slow) DeLorean DMC12, as seen in Back to the Future, also used this engine. Why? It was cheap and adequate. For the 504, though, adequate was plenty. Rolls-Royce itself described its cars’ power as adequate. Also in common with that British maker of fine automobiles, Peugeot managed to imbue the 504 with one of the smoothest rides in the industry by spending disproportionate amounts of time and money on engineering the suspension. In general, Rolls-Royces and 504s alike just have that substantial feel we all like in a car but so rarely see nowadays.

Why does it have that random name? Peugeot has named 90% of its cars as follows: [size] + 0 + [generation], with larger numbers indicating newer and larger cars. Porsche (you may have heard of it) was going to name its famous sports car the 901, until Peugeot butted in and said that it had already trademarked all numbers of that format as its own. Hence, the 911. Peugeot began with the 201, 301, 401, and 601 in the 1930s and shuffled the numbers over time. For the past few years, Peugeot is standardizing its lineup with -01 numbers for cars targeted at developing markets like BRIC (for Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and -08s for the standard models. Standout Peugeots include the 402, 205, 405, and new 308.

I discuss the naming business because, besides giving a product-focused history of the company, it tells us that Peugeot apparently knew the 504 was something special. For its family cars, it had previously used names beginning in 4. The 6 series had not continued after the 601, a large luxury car. (Peugeot did use a larger number, 8, to denote a full-size minivan in the 1990s and 2000s.) Never had there been a Peugeot whose name began in 5. The 504 and the 505 that succeeded it defined Peugeot’s range, even though the 604 and 605 did exist. The 504 had the largest number in the Peugeot range when it debuted. After 505, the large cars split into 4 and 6 again until the 508 in 2010. Peugeot has brought out 5-series cars at key moments in its history, like the current day, in which Peugeot is once again rivaling Volkswagen for build quality and fine-tuning, but with a real French flair. So basically, the 504 is important even in name.

I don’t feel obligated to bore you any longer with details about model-year changes, but another element of the 504’s compelling package was its design. It was definitely French, but it carried a certain refined, modern, maybe even Italian, flair bestowed upon it by Pininfarina. For reference, the Italian studio Pininfarina has designed nearly all Ferraris since the 1960s. Peugeot and Pininfarina built quite a relationship between the ‘50s and the ‘90s. Over that time, the design firm unified the Peugeot look and kept it thoroughly modern, giving millions of everyday cars that extra factor of desirability. Arguably the prettiest Pininfarina Peugeot is the coupe and convertible version of the 504. I’ll let you see for yourself.

Photo from Auto Clasico on Flickr

Enough about the cars, themselves, though: let’s get into the market reception of the 504, starting with the United States. Peugeot did actually sell cars here until 1991, including the 504. The issue with Peugeot was that, like Volvo, it had premium aspirations but its cars did not align with American tastes. Road and Track gives a good summary of what Peugeot meant to the United States. Volvo, though, survived on its reliable cars, while French cars were stereotyped as fussy and niche. Their engines, though just as powerful, were smaller than those in American cars. Peugeots also had a rust problem. Further, United States safety and lighting regulations bastardized delicate Italo-Gallic designs, decreasing their appeal.

In France, the 504 was a resounding success. Families bought it for its size and smoothness. From a non-American point of view, the 504 simply did everything well. It found balance between power and efficiency, simplicity and innovation. After a couple years on the market, the 504 spawned the Familiale wagon, famous for being essentially a van in a car-shaped package. French families could fit nine people (three in each row) in a Familiale, or carry supplies for a week’s vacation. Prices were reasonable.

But, after a French family was done with their 504, where might it go? Well, many West African countries were still closely affiliated to France, if not technically colonies anymore, so 504s began to migrate south across the Sahel. Peugeot, thanks to that French-African connection, also already built 504s at a plant in Nigeria (as well as one in Kenya). Now, the 504 may have had a rust problem, but the region south of the Sahara Desert does not get much rain. And the Familiale can carry 9 people, more if they squeeze—perfect! The simplicity of the 504, its ease of maintenance, makes it accessible for the village shade-tree mechanic. Even if lots of parts need attention, actually, the 504 is simple enough that it requires no heavy machinery, just people willing to assist. Thus, the 504, especially the wagon, emerged as an all-purpose vehicle for carrying people and things across the Sahel.

 Photo from Reuters

A Los Angeles Times article from a few years ago mentions that Peugeot closed its factory in Nigeria about a decade ago, so the 504 population, with no new blood, is looking more decrepit these days. However, a 504 proves its resilience every time, in spite of its seeming on the verge of disintegration, it shrugs off a pothole-crater too big for a modern car. Parts are everywhere because 504s are everywhere. It is a beautiful cycle of machinery. Like any automotive cockroach (viz. Lada, Volkswagen), it was made forever, or about 40 years. This French sedan or wagon has the perfect balance of all elements for the African backcountry, and I don’t really feel worthy trying to put it in words any more than I already have.

Instead, I will do the usual schtick: how to buy one. First, it’s important to know that, since Peugeot pioneered diesel, 504s come in flavors “slow” (gas) and “very slow” (diesel). There is the occasional, less slow, V6. Now, the US did get the 504 in limited quantities. The circular headlights of US models, though, can dilute the crisp European look. Decide for yourself. Like for US-market Citroëns, specialists should be able to retrofit a car to European specification, for a price. Importing a 504 could prove interesting. The issue with its being the unofficial car of Africa is that, while there are hundreds of thousands, most are hanging onto roadworthiness by a thread. Import carefully from Europe or choose from the pool already here. Luckily, the 504 is inexpensive. No need to spend more than $20K to procure a fine example of slick design and robust engineering. I highly recommend visiting this Reuters gallery to see professional photos of Peugeot 504 wagons in Africa, their natural environment. More mechanical information is available here, and you can find an excellent summary article here.

What might I pull out of The Glove Box next? It’ll probably be a common car most people have heard of, but with an interesting history that is less widely known. I look forward to it.