I once owned a Peugeot 403. The fact that it never ran the whole time I owned it, for close to a year, didn’t really bother me all that much (it did my landlord). This was during my 404 era, of which I had six. I got the 403 because I could never quite decide which of the two—403 or 404—was more handsome in my eyes. So I’d go down to the garage under our apartment in Santa Monica, and just gaze at it. And compare it to my 404 sedan. I never did come to a decision, although my landlord did eventually force a decision, by making me get rid of the 403. No non-running cars allowed, no matter how beautiful.
Well, I still can’t quite decide. But that’s undoubtedly a good reflection on the fine design work done by Pininfarina on both of them. The 403 was the gateway drug to my 404 addiction—I was familiar with them from the 50s in Austria—as it was also for much of the rest of the world’s exposure, experience and passion with and for Peugeots, given that it was their first really big seller and the first to be imported to the US. I’ve long held off telling its story because I’ve never run into one since I started shooting for CC. Now I really wish I still had one in my garage that I could shoot, running or not, but in lieu of that, I’ll use pictures by CC’s Roger Carr and others. And maybe you can help me finally resolve my dilemma.
The 403 is a direct evolution of the 203 (CC here), Peugeot’s first all-new post-war car, and the one that begat a 50 year-long line of classic RWD Peugeots right through the 505, which was built in some parts of the world until 1997. I say “direct evolution”, as the 403’s biggest change from the 203 was its body.
The 203 was designed and styled in-house, and it certainly wasn’t a bad job, although it clearly had derivative aspects, especially the front end, which had “Detroit” written all over it. Obviously, the fastback was a continuation of the aerodynamic designs that had graced all Peugeots since the mid 1930s.
Under the skin, not much changed, especially in the suspension. The rear suspension is a classic torque tube with coil springs and transverse Panhard rod design, which allows softer springs, a high degree of suspension travel and articulation, qualities that Peugeot would cultivate for decades. The rear axle also had Peugeot’s trademark worm gear drive and a rather lovely alloy axle housing. I used to just gaze at mine when I found myself under the car. This rear suspension design would grace Peugeots for some 50 years, used by 505 wagons until the very end of the RWD line.
The front suspension used transverse leaf springs to locate the lower end of the king pins, with upper control arms that had integrated hydraulic shocks. This was a not-uncommon approach to independent front suspension, especially so in Europe at the time. Fiat used a similar design in many of their post-war cars, as did others. The 203 was a bit more unusual in using rack and pinion steering, one of the early adopters of what has become ubiquitous, and which contributed materially to their cars’ accurate and light steering. All this was carried forward to the 403 without significant changes.
It should be noted here that this front suspension did not have the exceptional long travel, soft springs and corresponding ride that later Peugeots (and many other French cars) became famous for. That all really started with Citroen, with their ultra-soft 2CV and of course the legendary DS with its hydro-pneumatic suspension. The 203/403 had a very decent ride for the times, but it rode decidedly more firmly than its successor 404, which had a completely new front suspension. It took the development of Peugeot’s unique 5-valve shock absorbers to tame the soft springs that came with the 404. Standard Michelin X steel-belted radial tires added to the superior roadholding, steering accuracy and feel, and overall handling and ride quality of the 403.
The 403’s engine was an enlarged version of the 203’s 1290cc hemi-head four, with displacement upped to 1468cc. The block was cast iron, with wet removable iron cylinder sleeves, a feature common on French cars, and one that allowed replacing worn cylinders and pistons without removing the engine or extensive rebuilding. The cylinder head was aluminum alloy, with hemispherical combustion chambers and pushrod actuated valves. That gave this engine plenty of scope for increasing its power output from its stock rating of 65 (DIN, or close to SAE net) hp at about 5,000 rpm, and 75 lb.ft. of torque. One of the advanced features of the 403 engine was the electro-magnetically operated thermostatic fan clutch, which only engaged the plastic fan as needed. This supposedly increased fuel efficiency some 5-10% and reduced sound levels, as the fan was only actuated when needed.
The single carburetor was mounted somewhat unusually on top of the valve cover, with its internal manifold. But that could be readily modified, as the blue bolt-on cover on the side of the cylinder head could be removed, allowing direct access to the ports with some modifications.
After-market performance upgrades were popular, including exhaust headers, more aggressive camshafts, and twin carb setups, like these two Solexes on a 203 engine. Its good performance in stock configuration and its ready ability to be tuned for more made the 403 one of the best sport sedans of the 50s.
During the great sports car and import car boom in the US during the 1950s, the 403 was soon adopted by many in the sporty car set (and actual racers) as the ideal sedan to drive during the week, or to and from races, like in this Road and Track review/testimonial by Phil Hill. David. E. Davis was another enthusiastic 403 owner. The 403 was something like the BMW 5 series of its time.
The 403 sedan and wagon introduced the US to the 403, and unlike the great majority of the dozens of European brands sold here during the great import boom of the 50s, Peugeot survived the decimation of most of them in 1960 without any real impact, since by then its credentials and reputation were well established. Peugeot sales in the US were modest but steady.
Pininfarina’s 1947 Cisitalia 202 vaulted the Italian designer to super-star status, and opened the doors to numerous design contracts with manufacturers in Europe and even Nash in the US. That included Peugeot.
Thanks to CC’s Don Andreina, we have this shot of a 403 prototype, most likely from 1954. Clearly much of the shape was already locked in, but the speed strakes on the fenders were later dropped, and the front end, which looks rather Nash-like, was refined further. Given Pininfarina’s many design contracts, it was inevitable that there would be some cross-fertilization from his other designs of the era. The 403 was a classic exponent of the slab-sided “pontoon look” that swept the design world in the 50s and finally relegated distinct fender bulges as obsolete.
The 403’s greenhouse was clearly influenced by Pininfarina’s 1947 Lancia Aprilia Bilux, although below the beltline, that car still had the bulging fenders.
One has to give credit to the 1947 Kaiser-Frazers, based on designs by “Dutch” Darrin, for helping to usher in the slab-sided pontoon look, even if they lacked the better proportions and detailing of Pininfarina’s eventual handiwork on the subject.
The Fiat 1400/1900, engineered and designed by Dante Giacosa, arrived in 1950 and shows signs of being influenced by the Kaiser-Frazer in its styling. The Fiat was a a very modern sedan for the times in Europe. There has been some speculation that Pininfarina’s design for the Peugeot 403 was initially a proposal to replace the Fiat 1400, but was not used since Fiat kept the original body in production, with some updates, to its end in 1958. Who knows for sure?
This black 403 sedan shot by Roger Carr is a very early model, from sometime between its introduction in May 1955 through the 1956 model year. The protruding lion’s head hood ornament was removed after 1958, due to concerns of danger to pedestrians, but it’s not uncommon to see these retrofitted to later 403s. The real giveaway are two other details: the wipers on these early models had a “cross hands” arrangement, meeting in the middle. That was changed for 1957 to parallel wipers.
This 403 also has the original semaphore trafficators in the C-pillars, which were replaced by conventional turn signals in 1957. So this is quite a find. The a total of 1.2 million 403s were built from 1955 through 1966, including in Argentina, Australia, and even about a thousand were assembled in New Zealand.
Steel sunroofs were standard on all of these generations of Peugeot sedans except for the economy models.
Speaking of, the 203 did not go out of production after the 403 arrived; it was continued as a lower cost alternative all the way through 1960. And then its smaller 1290cc engine was offered in the economy model of the 403, to meet France’s 7CV tax standard, based on displacement. Likewise, the 403 continued in production until 1966, and played the same role after the 404 was introduced in 1960. And then the same thing was done again after the 504 was introduced.
This is the interior of a later 403 Roger shot at a car show. The basic configuration stayed the same during the whole run of the 403, but details did change, including the steering wheel. The front seats reclined all the way back, to making a “couchette”. Perfect for Parisian lovers who didn’t have an apartment to go to.
The 403’s four speed transmission was shifted by a column-mounted lever, as was quite common in Europe at the time. Alfa even used a column shifter for a five speed in one of its sedans. The mechanism was refined, and shifting was surprisingly quick and easy, as I know well from my 404 sedans that had the manual. The 403’s transmission had a direct drive in third gear, and an overdrive fourth gear ratio. But the rear axle ratio was low enough so that third was something of an in-between gear. It was undoubtedly well suited for the pre-freeway era on older secondary roads and highways, where third made for a very flexible gear to be in. That did make the gap between second and third a bit large, but made for relaxed high speed cruising in fourth.
The 203 already proved itself as an exceptionally tough car in various rallies and endurance runs, and the 403 continued that tradition, especially in the grueling East Africa Safari. It became a Peugeot specialty, and undoubtedly contributed to Peugeots becoming one of the most popular and the most coveted cars all through the continent. Peugeot earned its legendary reputation fair and square.
Another long-established tradition was for Peugeot to build special variants as high-capacity station wagons, pickups and other commercial uses. These all had a unique platform with a 10″ longer wheelbase and modified rear suspensions to handle the excessive loads these were often saddled with, especially in Africa. The rear suspension on these were via semi-elliptic leaf springs; its successor 404 wagon introduced a quad-coil rear suspension on the wagons to maintain the ride quality it brought along with its new front suspension.
A vintage British road test of a 403 wagon said: the suspensions system, which at low speed feels rather firm, suits brisk driving during which it absorbs road shocks very satisfactorily”. It also said the wagon was happy to cruise at 70-75 mph, despite the lower-geared rear axle ratio. Top speed was 79 mph. They were also impressed wit its fuel economy, considering its load and carrying capabilities.
The 403 wagon came in two versions: a three row “Familiale”, and a two row “Commercial”.
A 403 wagon with its giant factory roof rack was almost my first car. In 1972, my girl friend in Iowa City at the time and I went over to her best friend’s family house. There in some deep weeds sat a poor neglected beige or off-white wagon, and I was instantly drawn to it, despite never having any particular affinity to Peugeots before, other than knowing of their reputation. Her family had bought it in France some ten years earlier, and driven it all around Europe before bringing it home, where it served them well before it was mustered out for some malady, which might well have been minor.
I so wanted that wagon, imaging all sorts of adventures it could afford, and being long enough to sleep in the back. Possibly it might have been easy to get running again. Or not. I’ll never know, as it never came to be. But that unfulfilled desire undoubtedly led to having 404s, and my favorite of the fleet was our wagon. That is a car I wish I still had. Enough of the Peugeot wagons here; I have a whole post on the subject, titled “The World’s Greatest Wagons”. Given that they were built in one continuous stream for some 50 years, and had superior capabilities, I don’t think I was exaggerating.
I have to show at least one example of the 403 pickup. And this would be an appropriate place to mention that in addition to so many engineering qualities and pioneering aspects, Peugeot was also a very early pioneer in the development of passenger car/light commercial diesel engines.
Introduced in 1958, the Indenor TMD85-XPD85 was an all-new engine, having nothing in common with the gasoline engines. It was extremely rugged, and became legendary for its longevity and reliability. It displaced 1816cc and developed 41 hp, comparable to the Mercedes diesels, but would be expanded and developed and used right through the end of the 505 era, with turbocharging. Initially available only in the wagons and pickups, in 1960 it also became available in the sedans, and soon became the taxi engine of choice (the Peugeots already were the taxi cars of choice), and increasingly challenged Mercedes for the light diesel market outside of France too.
The diesel was not available in the US until 1974, in response to the energy crisis, which suddenly made diesels extremely popular. I knew of one diesel 504 driver in LA who installed a large auxiliary tank in his trunk, and drove down to Tijuana, Mexico, about once a month to fill up on diesel, which was dirt cheap then, like 17 cents a gallon or so.
That leaves one more 403 body style, the rarest and most beautiful, by far. The 403 Cabriolet was a rather exceptional thing from day one; only some 2,050 were ever built. Although designed by Pininfarina, it was not built by that firm, as were the later Peugeot Cabrios and Coupes. And unlike those, the 403 Cabrio was directly based on the sedan. This one has an aftermarket custom grill, to go along with its much more luxurious interior. Given that it cost about twice the sedan’s price, that might be expected. And those are period-correct Robergel wire wheels, worth some $1500 a piece today. but that’s peanuts compared to what a complete and restored Cabrio goes for today: One very similar to this one recently sold for $130k in the US on Ebay.
Is some of that demand due to the 403 Cabrio becoming iconic as Peter Falk’s battered car in “Columbo”? For what it’s worth, the buyer of that $130k Cabrio was from the US, not France, which is what had been predicted.
It’s a very tasty car, and from some angles, looks a bit like a compact Rolls-Royce Corniche cabriolet. Peugeots were often called “The French Mercedes” in Europe, but until I looked at this shot just now, I would never have considered calling it “The French Rolls-Royce”. It’s now way out of my price range, but I’d be very happy to have a beater version like Columbo’s.
The big comfortable seats were trimmed in leather. But otherwise, the dash and interior are largely the same as the sedan.
The 403 Cabrio is a high point of the 403 story, so this would be an opportunity to quit at the peak, although there really are no low points. The 403 was universally praised, loved and respected. It was just another obscure old car for so long, but its desirability and value have been climbing steadily in recent years. Not surprising, given how many early and positive memories were made in them.
I wish I still had that non-running 403 in the garage, as well as my (well-running) 404 sedan. Then I could sit and gaze at them some more and decide once and for all which one I liked better. It might be a very long session.