Auto-Biography: How A Little Fender Bender Earned Us A Trip To Europe

Tony LaHood’s painful story of getting only a $2,700 offer for his beautiful but damaged Mercedes reminded me of a somewhat similar but yet quite different tale from the Niedermeyer chronicles. OK, from the title, you’re probably assuming the now-commonplace: exaggerated personal injury claims for whiplash, PTSD, lost income, etc… Actually, no; in fact, that never occurred to us at the time, even though Stephanie was pregnant when we got rear-ended. More like something to do with driving an unusual car.

In the spring of 1979, I paid $75 for a 1970 Peugeot 404 wagon. (The price reflected the condition of its water-logged, rusted-solid engine, the victim of a blown head gasket.) I found a good, $50 motor at my favorite Francophile junkyard, then gave the oxidized dark green paint a good polishing, and the car looked exactly like the one above. Since Stephanie needed an automatic, it became her car; in fact, it was the car in which she  learned to drive when she was among the very few Los Angeles adults without a driver’s license.

On the fourth of July, we were driving back to Santa Monica on the I-10 just as fireworks started going off at the pier, when a driver just ahead of us hit the brakes too hard. I reacted quickly enough to avoid plowing into the car ahead of me, but then the car behind us slammed our car into the one ahead of us. Nobody was hurt, although it was a pretty good jolt. Oddly, the 404’s delicate-looking rear bumper and rear end were almost unscathed, but the front grille, one front fender, the headlights, etc., were all pretty well damaged.

The driver behind me took responsibility, and I got hold of his insurance agent. “A 1970 Peugeot 404? Never heard of it.” He couldn’t find any information to determine either the car’s value or the cost of the damage (which seems a bit odd, eh?). I told him it was a “French Mercedes” and “The World’s Greatest Wagon”, and my pampered pride and joy. So what to do?

He told me to get estimates for parts and labor, and so I did, getting prices of all the body parts (shipped from France) from the the little Peugeot dealer right on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. And then I went to an exotic-car body shop to get an estimate for the labor. The total bill was $2,600 ($8,000 adjusted). I submitted it, knowing that no one in their right mind would pay more than half that for a 10-year old 404 wagon back then.

Somehow, I got that guy on the phone to sign off on it without any reduction. That was the first little windfall chunk of cash I’d ever made up to that point. I spent thirty bucks of it at the junkyard, where I stripped a wrecked 404 of all the necessary body parts, and paid a guy I knew $150 to pull out the front-end substructure and put it all together again.

Unfortunately, the donor car was white, so after a visit to Earl Scheib we ended up with a gunmetal gray 404 wagon, a choice I regretted later (I had a this silvery-gray in mind, but that’s not quite how Earl realized it). Oh, well; I was still some $2,200 ahead on the deal, and we used some of that for a trip to Austria. And then about a year or so later, we sold the wagon for about $1,000. A good little earner, that Peugeot was.