Curbside Classic: 1976 Peugeot 504 – One Continent’s French Mercedes and COTY Is Another Continent’s Most Rugged Vehicle Is Another Continent’s POS

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(first posted 1/4/2013; revised 7/19/2016)

Putting the Peugeot 504 into proper perspective presents a particular challenge. It’s a vehicle with (at least) three distinct personalities or reputations. I could easily write up three different articles on it, but that might not go over so well here in America, where there are still folks trying to get over CPTS (Chronic Peugeot Fatigue Syndrome) or PTSD (Peugeot Traumatic Stress Disorder). That probably gives you a good clue as to how at least some Americans remember the 504. One thing is certain, it’s not easy to stereotype the 504, at least not from a global perspective..

Peugeot 504 BL2

In Europe, the arrival of the 504 was a fairly momentous occasion. Its predecessor, the 404, was a direct evolution of the line of Peugeots going back to the first post-war 203, and shared similar overall dimensions and configuration. It continued the Peugeot’s tradition of conservative construction techniques and robust build quality. But by the late sixties, the times they were a-changing, and the 404’s narrow, tall body and live rear axle were looking a bit dated.

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The 504 represented the biggest departure from the 203-403-404 tradition, although it still incorporated the qualities Europeans had come to expect from a Peugeot, commonly referred to as “The French Mercedes”. But with the 504, that was much more relevant than in the past, as it was a fairly ambitious effort to compete more directly with the Mercedes middle-sized W114/115 range of sedans. It had a larger and significantly wider body, four wheel independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes, as well as larger and more powerful 1.8 L (and 2.0L after 1970) versions of Peugeot’s hemi-head slant four. As a matter of fact, the 504 would be Peugeot’s last new RWD platform ever, as the 604 and 505 were both direct evolutions of the 504. The 504 was destined to have a long life, and that it did (more on that later).

Peugeot 504 COTY 1969

The 504 had an excellent reception in Europe, and was praised by the press for its advanced suspension and superb ride, (mostly) elegant design, excellent handling, comfortable interior and good performance. At a time when BMW’s Neue Klasse sedans were decidedly sportier than the Mercedes and Peugeot, and were more in competition with Alfas and such, the 504 was legitimately seen as the only real direct competition to the Mercedes, which had almost a hammer-hold on its niche in the market. The 504 was awarded the European COTY for 1969, beating out two other superb new cars, the BMW six-cylinder 2500/2800, and the Alfa Romeo 1750.

I vividly remember reading auto, motor und sport’s first test of the 504, and how impressed they were, despite their all-things-German-are-superior slant. Especially with the smooth and responsive 97 hp fuel-injected TI motor, the 504 had a unique combination of qualities and performance at a price that undercut the Mercedes by enough to make it very attractive.

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Speaking of attractive (or not), the most startling thing about the 504 when it appeared was its very unusual tail. Like all Peugeots from the 403 until very recent times, the 504 was the work of Pininfarina.

Pininfarina Jacqueline '1961 (2)

The drooped tail had shown up on a few other Pininfarina cars, like the 1961 Cadillac Jacqueline, where the break is fairly minor in relation to that massive tail.

Austin 1800 tail

Pininfarina’s Austin 1800 from 1964 is a different variation of the theme, where almost the whole trunk is downward sloping. In the Peugeot 504, Pininfarina more or less split the difference.


Peugeot 504

It works better in certain colors, and from certain angles. It’s speculation, but perhaps it was the result of the unhappiness about there being so many Pininfarina sedans looking so similar to the finned 404, that they wanted to give Peugeot something truly unique, or decidedly French-quirky instead of Italian handsome. If so, they succeeded. It’s an acquired taste, and I’ve come to accept it for what it is.  Other than that, the 504 was a nice-enough design for the era, with certainly a bit more rounded flair than the stark Mercedes boxes.

Peugeot 504 coupe cabrio

Pininfarina also designed (and built) the absolutely superb 504 Coupe and Cabrio, and one would never guess they sat on the same platform and were designed by the same firm. Their styling held up so well over time, and were built from 1969 all the way through 1983 (above), the last of that line of RWD Peugeot coupes and cabrios. These also were the French alternative to the Mercedes SL/SLC and the BMW coupe.

Peugeot 504 Taxi Paris-1978-900

The fact Peugeot also offered a diesel engine (and had since 1961) further enhanced its Mercedes-ness. This was not a converted gas engine, but a very rugged designed-from-scratch unit (Indénor). In the pre-turbo era, it typically made 65 hp (later 70), about the same as the Mercedes of the time. And it was as popular as a taxi in Paris as the Mercedes was in Germany.

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One area where Peugeot never quite matched Mercedes was in its interior quality. The seats were always superbly comfortable (these seats are from a later 505), to go along with the ride. But the trim, switch gear, and plastics were just never quite in the same league as Mercedes. But let’s consider the pricing difference too: in the US, a 1975 gas 504 stickered for $5610 ($23,500 adjusted), while the cheapest 1975 MBZ 230 went for a lofty $9172 (38,000 adjusted); a whopping 63% more. In Europe, the price difference wasn’t quite as large, but Peugeot could never command Mercedes prices.

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The 504 was significantly roomier than the 404, especially in the back seat, which also distinguished it from the BMW Neue Klasse, not known for its commodious rear leg room.

Peugeot 504 wagon big load

The 504 was a solid hit for Peugeot in Europe, and certainly furthered the reputation of being a better-than-average quality car. What about Africa, where the 404 had already established a huge foothold on the mid-sized sedan market?

Peugeot 504 africa 2

Pictures often speak better than words, so, let’s ponder a few from a place where the 504 developed a near hegemony as the vehicle of choice,  until pushed out in more recent years by Toyotas and such.

Taxi (El Oued, ALGERIA)

The 504 was assembled in both Nigeria and Kenya, until 2005, no less. So even though it’s been pushed aside in new car sales, there will be 504s hard at work for decades, undoubtedly.

Peugeot 504 africa

This is a wagon, which like all classic Peugeot RWD wagons was not just a sedan with a long roof, but a totally different chassis from the front door back, with longer wheelbase, heavy-duty live rear axle, and a superb four-coil rear suspension that gave both a fine ride unloaded, but could also take very heavy loads too. We’re going to stick to the sedan mostly here, having covered all the Peugeot RWD wagons here, as well as one of our writer’s personal take on the 504 diesel wagon here.

Peugeot 504 pickup

But we can’t ignore the 504 pickup, at least not totally. A replacement for the 404 pickup, these rugged beasts had a leaf-spring rear suspension, and seemingly unlimited carrying capacity.

Peugeot 504 Dangel 4x4

And then there’s the famous Dangel 4×4 conversions, like this one posted at the CC Cohort a while back. You get the picture, eh? The 504 became Africa’s beast of burden, and everyone knew how to keep one going, no matter where it might have found itself, or God forbid , break down. But parts are almost everywhere, and every bush mechanic knows the ins and outs of a Peugeot.

Peugot 504 China truck

There was even a double-cab 504 pickup, built in China, no less. Peugeot was a very early pioneer in China, establishing one of the first joint-ventures there, with Guangzhou, in 1985. That proved to not be a happy relationship, as the rules for engagement for Chinese JVs hadn’t really been established yet, and Peugeot was a very unhappy partner. By 1997, Peugeot called it quits; talk about bucking the trend in China.

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I didn’t mean to bring a fourth continent into the 504 equation, so let’s talk about the 504 in America. In the fifties and sixties, the Peugeot 403 and 404 enjoyed a generally good reliability reputation here, despite the fact that the dealer network was decidedly thin. Even with them, it depended much on access to a knowledgeable mechanic (or owner). But its no secret that the 504 developed a much more inconsistent rep; even an evil one, in some folks’ eyes (stay tuned for at least one colorful comment by a former 504 owner). What happened?

Probably the convergence of at least several factors. Let’s start with the actual car. About the time the 504 appeared, two things changed that Peugeot and some other European manufacturers, most especially French and British ones, did not adapt to successfully. One was smog controls. And the other was America’s love of power accessories and assists.

The early emission controls generally had a deleterious effect on engine efficiency, performance, and increased operating temperatures (retarded ignition timing, etc.). Combined with Americans’ growing preference for automatics, power steering and air conditioning placed dramatically challenges in keeping engines and under-hood temperatures in line.

Peugeot 203 engine004wl4

The little Peugeot four’s direct origins go back to 1290cc in the 203 from 1948 (above). They all had an iron block, with wet cylinder sleeves/liners, and an aluminum alloy hemi head. This construction type was used by Peugeot until the end of that long family of engines, for many decades, and it’s the same basic configuration as used by Citroen and Renault on many of their engines. It was proven over time, but generally in conditions without smog controls and power accessories.

Peugeot 504 engine gas

Undoubtedly, these additional stresses made US-bound Peugeots more vulnerable to heat-related issues. Peugeot also pioneered the thermostatically-controlled radiator fan, via an electromagnetic clutch. It was prone to going out of adjustment, or folks didn’t know how to deal with it. Not such a big deal in the sixties, with a lightly-stressed engine; a different story in a heavier 504 burdened with accessories.

The result was all-too many overheating incidents, which commonly resulted in either a warped head, or worse. And there were issues with head and sleeve gaskets, etc… That was just with the engine.

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The seventies were the most challenging decade ever for automobiles, in terms of new demands and changes. The US manufacturers had a hard enough time dealing with them, and their reliability reputation dropped substantially. The Germans and Swedes, who were always 100% committed to the US market, made much more concerted efforts to adapt to the rapid changes. They were pioneers with introducing fuel injection in the US, etc..  But the French just never made it a priority, and all of the ancillary aspects of their cars, especially as adapted for the US market, really took a back seat.

The basic mechanical components of the 504 were presumably as robust as ever, but all the Micky-Mouse electrics/electronics required, and wiring and switches, and sensors, and everything else that increasingly constituted a modern car were their undoing.  And once the Japanese cars got into gear in the late seventies and eighties, the game really changed. Needless to say, the Japanese were also 100% committed to the US market, and rapidly did what was necessary to soon rise to the top of the reliability rankings.

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Against growing expectations (and their own increasing frailties), the French dropped in their reliability reputation, precipitously so. And a boomlet in Peugeot 504 sales during the diesel boom (1975-1981) only added to the potential problems, as folks were buying Peugeots who just didn’t know what they were getting into, sold to them by new dealers who likewise didn’t know what they were getting into. A recipe for…an eventual exit from the US market.

Meanwhile, there are still very happy 504 drivers in the US, as one commenter with 450k on his daily driver 504 commented just the other day. These are owners who have figured out the weaknesses that hobbled many 504s, and fixed them, or worked around them. In the hands of a knowledgeable owner/mechanic, the 504 and 505 are capable of giving excellent service. But that certainly doesn’t represent the face of the typical US buyer.

A close friend of ours bought a used 504 just like this one in 1978 or so, based on my 404 enthusiasm. It was a gas model, with the stick, and a very enjoyable drive. The de-smogged US versions certainly lost their edge, and it felt almost slower than my 404, but it exuded that Peugeot confidence of being able to clear tall buildings in a single leap, thanks to its superb suspension, which was even more sophisticated than my 404’s. She had a mostly good experience with it, but then she drove in the cool climate of the Bay Area. And eventually it went the way of so many Peugeots: traded in on a Volvo, a 760 turbo, in her case.

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Peugeot 504 experiences tend to be very polarized; so be it. But anyone who’s ever had one or driven one will attest to its unique ride and other qualities that were mostly un-equaled by any other car in the US in its price range. But that’s all quickly overshadowed by the next breakdown or big repair bill. The world was changing, especially in the US, and Peugeot simply didn’t make a genuine effort to keep up. And the outcome to that was very predictable.