For most Americans, Peugeot isn’t exactly a household word, unless they’re still using their trusty Peugeot pepper mill. It may have sorta-kinda been one back in the day, mainly on the coasts. But ever since Peugeot packed up their bags and did a voluntary deportation, the name has been sliding into automotive obscurity. Most car buffs can at least make an association with the classic lineage of RWD Peugeots that were sold here, the 403, 404, 504 and 505. The sharper ones will even remember the 604. But who remembers the 304? The sweet little FWD sedan and wagon that was sold stateside for all of two years (1971 and 1972)? I do! And rather fondly, at that.
In order to get to know the 304, one has to be first introduced to the 204, its slightly smaller but older sibling. Since WW2, Peugeot had essentially built just one line of cars, a series of roomy (for Europe), comfortable, and rugged RWD sedans, wagons and commercial chassis, starting with the 1948 203 (and even the pre-war 202). But a one-size/one model strategy was not going to work in an increasingly fragmented market forever, so in the early sixties, Peugeot developed its first FWD car, the 204.
Probably the biggest influence on Peugeot’s decision as to how to build the 204 came from the advanced Issigonis FWD cars at BMC, especially the ADO16 (Austin/Morris 1100). As the European middle class became more affluent, new cars that could accommodate their specific needs and desires, which included a delicate balance of performance, ride, room and economy, clearly pointed the way to FWD.
The 204 arrived in 1965 to great anticipation, as this was a giant step for conservative Peugeot. As was the case for all Peugeots for decades, its styling was by Pininfarina, and a quite successful one at that. The 204’s front end styling was clearway a scaled-down version as used on Pininfarina’s Cadillac Jacqueline coupe,, as was its rear end too, for that matter.
The 204 was powered by a transverse alloy SOHC four with 1127cc, and similarly to the BMC FWD units, had its gearbox and differential directly below the engine, sharing the same sump. The 204 was an instant success, and widely praised for its ability to provide relatively roomy accommodations, that famous French ride and comfort, and good performance and economy. And it did that while still maintaining that certain Peugeot-ness. A very advanced car without looking like it came from another planet.
The 204 came in a full range of body styles, including the popular Break (station wagon). With FWD, its cargo area was deep and surprisingly roomy, given that the 204 was all of 157 inches long (3990 mm).
Peugeot had a long tradition of offering coupe and cabriolet versions of its cars, and the 204 was not excluded from that. The coupe, which obviously used the sedan’s front clip, was a dashing little number.
Of course, the Cabriolet was even pricier, but it was still a relatively affordable way to have a genuine Pininfarina-designed Grand Luxe convertible.
As successful as the 204 was, Peugeot saw there was another gap in the market just above it. So the 304 was created, essentially by stretching the 204, mostly at the rear. The whole passenger compartment was retained, and the front end got a slight extension. Trunk space was the single biggest beneficiary, but it made the 304 look a bit more grown up, as well as more similar to the new 504, which arrived about the same time (1969) as the 304. Someone has already made this composite image, so the changes are quite apparent.
They both looked largely the same under the hood, but the 304 engine had more displacement, 1288cc, and 60 or 70 hp. Peugeot had already unveiled its baby diesel engine in the 204, a pioneering car ten years ahead of the Diesel Golf, and the 304 also got a version, with 1357 cc and 45 hp, about the same as the first of the VWs.
The front end of this US-spec 304, with its quad sealed beam headlights instead of the European composites, does look just like a slightly smaller 504. As noted previously, the 304 was offered in the US for only two years, 1971 and 1972.
The 304 was the wrong car at the wrong time for the US. If it had come along just two year later, in 1973, the energy crisis might have done its sales some significant favors. But in 1971, the demand for a small FWD French sedan was just not there, given that at its price ($2625), there were bigger cars to be had. The 504 had a hard time enough, until its diesel engine suddenly made it a small-scale rock star of the energy crisis.
It’s interesting to speculate whether a 304 diesel on offer in the US during the energy crisis (and its wake) might have made it a genuine success. But once Peugeot pulled the 304 from the market after 1972, they weren’t about to try and find out.
When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1977 and entered my own Peugeot 404 mania, I came quite close to adding one of these 304s to my growing collection. There were a number of these floating around West LA at the time, starting to suffer the effects of neglect and abuse, although there was competent service available for them, if one wanted it. There was a cute little stand-alone Peugeot dealer in Santa Monica, right on Ocean Avenue, facing the Pacific. Its days were numbered, for more reasons than one. And Andre’s French Car Service was on one of the major boulevards in West LA too; he could fix anything French. I just learned to fix my own, and the local junk yards had lots of Pugs at the time. And I could walk down to the dealer in Santa Monica for parts.
The 304 had a decidedly Gallic atmosphere inside as well, with comfortable seats and a bit of quirkiness, although nothing like a Citroen, Peugeot’s polar opposite on the French automotive personality spectrum. These 304s were available for cheap at the time, and I drove one once briefly, and it seduced me with its charms. But I resisted, wisely; having swapped out a few engines on 404s, one look under the hood told me that it would be a totally different ball game. I guess I wasn’t ready for FWD yet.
I was particularly attracted to the Break, which had the same rear end as the 204 wagon.
There were also coupe and cabrio versions of the 304 (not sold in the US), essentially just the 204 versions with the new 304 front end and zippier engines. This 304 Cabrio was posted at the Cohort and Perry Shoar wrote it up. The 204 sedan and wagon version soldiered on for some years after the 304 arrived, all the way until 1976.
The 304 had a full decade of life, until it was replaced by the 305 in 1980. Some 1.2 million 304 were built, and the 204 and 304 catapulted Peugeot from number four to number two in France. This was a very successful brand extension for Peugeot, and led to even smaller cars, like the 104.
In 1972 or so, the 304 was given a modified roof, squared off at the C Pillar to give a bit more headroom, make egress easier, and make it look a bit more contemporary.
This particular 1971 304 is a classic LA car, with almost no rust anywhere after all these decades. The ad is here, and the asking price is $2900. Am I tempted? No. But if anyone ever wanted a US-spec 304 without rust, this would be worth a closer look. I seriously doubt there’s many others like it left, if any at all. A true survivor.