The World’s Greatest Wagons: Peugeot 203, 403, 404, 504, 505 – An Illustrated History

(first posted 6/20/2011)     To understand Peugeot wagons, and the superlatives about to be heaped on them here, one needs to start with the basics: unlike almost every other post-war wagon, they were not just a sedan with a long roof. The Peugeot wagons (and pickups) essentially rode on their own unique platform/chassis, at least from the windshield back. With an extended wheelbase to accommodate three forward-facing seats, and a remarkable rear axle/suspension that had a load capacity (in the wagon) of over 1200 lbs without sacrificing any of that famous French ride, for over fifty years these half-car/half-truck Peugeots made a rep for themselves that has no equal. And in case you’re not convinced, here’s an example of what they were capable of:

Kids; don’t try this with Dad’s Audi Avant. That’s a 404 Pickup transporting two 404s, including the beautiful Pininfarina Cabriolet. The pickup shared the wagon’s beautiful alloy center-section rear axle, but did have leaf springs instead of the wagon’s four-coil rear suspension, and was normally rated at 1000kg, or 2200 lbs (over one ton). Admittedly, this one might be a tad overloaded.

We’ll look at some other examples of the Peugeot pickups’ beast-of-burden abilities,

or the burden of beasts, in the most challenging corners of Africa and China, where the last Peugeot 504 pickup was built as late as 2009. But let’s start from the beginning, instead of the middle.

The Peugeot wagon history starts in 1948 with the 203 sedan, Peugeot’s first post war car, and a completely new one at that. A modern unibody sedan, it had the first of Peugeot’s long line of classic four cylinder engines: iron block with an aluminum alloy hemi-head, valves actuated by pushrods.

Peugeot 203 engine004wl4

The little four had all of 1290 cc and 42 or 45 hp. To put that in perspective, the VW bus of the time had 25 or 30 hp. It’s all in the gearing.

Here’s a picture of a 203 engine that was modified for rally racing in the early fifties, when the 203 began Peugeot’s long career in that sport. This on sports a ribbed alloy valve cover, a Constantin blower, and headers. The 203 smashed the record for the grueling Cape Town to Paris run, in seventeen days. That solidified Peugeot’s durability creds and its vaunted rep in Africa.

Some have suggested that Chrysler was looking this way when they designed their original 1951 hemi. Too bad they left the alloy heads off theirs. The Peugeot four would be developed continually but with the same basic configuration for some forty years.

In 1950, the wagon version of the 203 appeared on its 20cm longer wheelbase and seating on three rows, setting the standard that like the engine, would be improved for half a century.

There’s a decidedly American flavor to the 203; looks so much like a Chevy or Dodge, or? Well, its time to put Peugeot in perspective, in French terms, anyway. Like some other European countries, the French automobile industry had a decidedly “political” flavor to its manufacturers. Not necessarily political per se, but in a corollary in terms of being progressive or conservative.

Citroen and Panhard were clearly the radical progressives, and while we’re on the subject, I will say that the Citroen wagons based on both the DS/ID,

as well as those based on its successor the CX were undoubtedly the ultimate wagons ever, with their amazing hydro-pneumatic suspensions, fwd, and excellent space utilization, among other remarkable qualities. Ultimate, yes; the most advanced, memorable, innovative, complicated, challenging to keep running…you see where this is going. To be the greatest wagon in the world one has to consider that a true wagon is a utility vehicle, and needs to also be simple, rugged and fixable. The Citroens were the queens of Paris’ boulevards, but good luck trying to keep one running in Kenya fifty years later.

And we also have to give a nod to the Volvo Duett, which was praised here recently as the “Most practical Car In The World“. In may ways, Volvo’s approach to making the Duett was similar to Peugeot’s, although perhaps a wee bit less refined. The Peugeot’s four doors alone were a major advantage. Volvo went back to longroof sedans with the Duett’s successors.

Back to “politics”. Peugeot was always the most conservative of the French makers, sticking to their tried and true conventional RWD vehicles and a strictly evolutionary approach until; well, many wish it had stayed with them forever. The “French Mercedes” eventually strayed from its traditional roots, and today Peugeot is…something different.

To understand the Peugeot wagons, one also needs to understand their primary purpose. There were no small passenger vans at the time, just crude load-carrying ones. These wagons were comparable to the “station wagons” of America’s past, as originally used to haul arriving passengers from the train station to their hotels. Undoubtedly, that’s how many of these eight passenger “Familiales” were used, despite their name.

They were the functional equivalent of the Suburban in its early days, and the light vans and trucks that eventually killed it off.

Fold down seats in the second row gave access to the third row, not unlike the CUVs of today.

The 203 pickup version was also built on the wagon’s lengthened and reinforced chassis, and also started a long tradition indeed. The last Peugeot 504 pickup was built in China in 2009. Europe had no tradition of pickups being built with their own unique bodies, although that was largely the case in the US prior to pre WW2. The Peugeot is most directly comparable to the Australian utes, which also have passenger car front ends but sturdy rear halves. But to my knowledge, Australia didn’t build wagons on their ute chassis, at least not commonly.

The 403 appeared in sedan form in 1955, but in what would become Peugeot tradition, the wagon and pickups had a delayed introduction a few years later, in 1958. Designed by Pininfarina, as would all subsequent rwd Pugs, the 403 had an enlarged 1468 cc version of the four, making some 65 hp.

Peugeot 403 Familiale

Peugeot’s first diesel engine appeared the same year as the wagons, and began a long line of “Idenor” diesels, and established Peugeot as the second main passenger-car diesel pioneer after Mercedes-Benz.

A 403 wagon almost was my first car. A girl’s family I knew in Iowa City had one sitting under a tree, a souvenir of a trip to France the family made in around 1960. As forlorn as it looked, it spoke to me: of the possibilities that could take place in its oversized rear compartment. Any vehicle big enough to sleep in had interest to me, being a traveling lad at the time. The parents might well have given it to me, but I was a bit intimidated. Oh well.

Of course, the 403 also came in pickup truck form. The leaf springs are quite visible here. To the best of my knowledge, the  203 and 403 wagons used leaf springs too.

That all changed with the 404 wagons, that appeared in 1963. Citroen had revolutionized the French definition of ride, and Peugeot now got on board. The front suspension now had extra-long travel struts and coils, and the rear had four coils. The key to making a long-travel suspension work is in the shocks, and Peugeot built their own, a unique multi-valve rebuildable unit that typically lasted 100-150k miles; unheard of back then.

Our 404 wagon was just like this green one; a 1970 model, the last year for them. I was driving a stick-shift 404 sedan at the time, and Stephanie was finally ready to learn to drive(!), but not a stick shift. So I picked it up for $75 because the engine had blown a head gasket and hydro-locked. Too bad, because the the 1970 was the only year that used the new 504 sedan’s new 1800 cc four, which had a bit more grunt than the 1600 cc 404 unit, especially with the ZF-built three-speed automatic.

But I knew a Culver City junkyard that had several old 404s, and I picked an engine that “looked” good to me, and transplanted it in the street in front of the junkyard. The good old days. Kind of perverse to swap in a smaller engine, but the price ($50) was right, and it ran like a top. The wagon body was still in excellent condition, and the polished rear wood cargo area was a classy touch. Sure wish I still had it.

I even found a huge factory roof rack in the junkyard, which fastened into a series of threaded receptacles in the roof. With a load inside and on top, the 76 hp 404 wagon with its automatic was leisurely, but always got us there, no matter what the road or conditions, including a mad dash through the Mojave desert at 3 AM in a deluge, fording washes several feet deep. The long grade up 395 to Mammoth wasn’t as bad as I had expected: full out in second gear was 45 mph, and it held that steady as a rock. But there was one time I wondered: an insanely steep driveway out of our rented condo there; given the altitude and the full load, I was afraid the torque converter wasn’t going to be able to convert enough of the little mill’s grunt to pull us up it. Barely…

The 404 wagon felt like it was on rails, with a remarkable desire to stay on a perfectly straight course, no matter what came its way. That’s what a narrow track and long wheelbase tend to want to do; a real bus. Corners were not its forte, but it could be coaxed. Sadly, we sold it when Stephanie developed carpal tunnel syndrome, which she blamed on the wagon’s manual, and none too light steering. It would make a fine replacement for my gen1 Xb today.

The eight passenger “Familiale” were never imported, for one reason or another. It would have come in handy on a few occasions after our kids came along.

This would probably be a good time to bring up a very similarly-configured American station wagon, the Olds Vista-Cruiser and Buick Sportswagon. Built on an extended-frame (120″) version of the mid-sized GM A-Body cars, the extra length went to exactly the same place as in the Peugeot wagons: enough room to create a foot well for the forward facing third seat, that itself sat over the differential. This was a distinct departure from typical US wagon configuration, at least since the early fifties when wagons were still tall enough to mount a forward facing third seat directly on the flat floor of the rear load compartment.

GM took this concept to its ultimate expression in the gigantic 1971 mega-wagons, which had a whopping 126″ wheelbase, their own leaf-spring rear suspension, and the famous clam-shell rear tailgate. The World’s Biggest Wagons, to be sure.

The 404 wagon certainly was more space efficient, not to mention fuel-efficient. But who cared about that in 1971?

Before we leave the 404, let’s take a quick look at some interesting derivatives. My personal favorite: the dump truck. Yes! that’s exactly what I need; a wagon, and a matching 404 dumper, or tipper, as the English more appropriately call it.

I can’t really explain this one; mother-in-law’s private traveling compartment?

That camper looks exactly like a Chinook. In fact, it must be one, or a faithful copy, but riding on a 404. Add it to my dream fleet.

And when I go, please let it be in this.

The 504 wagon appeared in 1971, three years after the sedan, as usual. In many ways, it was the ultimate Peugeot wagon, embodying the unique capabilities and qualities that defined the genre. A bit wider and longer, with a raised roof to swallow more cargo or taller third row passengers, the 504 became a common sight in the US, especially in CA, after the 1974 energy crisis, in diesel form.

Folks would mount auxiliary fuel tanks in their diesel Peugeots, and drive down to Tijuana once a month and fill up on 15 cents-a-gallon Pemex diesel, to avoid the long lines at the gas stations. There was a really mini-boom in these for a few years, and it gave Peugeot a badly needed shot in the arm, as its US sales were always modest. Which meant tiny dealerships, and potentially iffy service, one of the things that led to Peugeot’s downfall here. These cars had their foibles, and if you didn’t have the right resources to deal with them, they quickly became someone elses’ very cheap used Pug wagon. Likely someone who knew their foibles all too well.

The 404 had already become the dominant car and truck  of much of Africa, and the 504 extended that even further. It was built in Kenya (until 2004) and Nigeria (until 2005), as well as Argentina (until 1999) and China (1997; pickup 2009). And if the standard configuration wasn’t up to the job, Dangel made a series of four-wheel drive conversions that would take your wagon

or pickup just about anywhere. You get the idea. The 504 was not your K-car Town and Country wagon.

Here’s another view of the wagon’s rear suspension, with its four long-travel coils and Peugeot shocks. The differential carrier is a nicely-ribbed  aluminum alloy unit, and is the same axle as in the leaf-springed trucks. Its 1265 lb load capacity was substantially more than the full-sized American wagons of yore, who used to squat and sway under the load of the family vacation load.

Time to wrap it it up, with the 505. It’s got its own CC here, but let’s just say that for many lovers of Peugeot wagons it represents both the ultimate expression as well as a bit of a comedown. Heavily based on the 504, both the sedan and wagon were not really that big a jump forward from it, except in areas such as safety and performance. That’s hardly a put-down, but it did lead to greater complexity and likelihood of issues. The remaining 505 are all safely in the hands of devoted fans of the brand.

The turbo 505 wagon was in a class of its own, a unique combination of the huge capacity and brisk performance, with a suspension tuned to cope with both demands quite effectively.

But the interior of the 505 was pretty generic eighties, lacking the distinctive French ambiance that so permeated the earlier versions.

The 505 was never treated to the truck versions, presumably because the changing marketplace with modern light trucks made that irrelevant for Europe, and the 504 was happy to soldier along in the developing world.

I’ll end with what I started with, a picture of a 404: the gifted middle child of a very uniquely endowed family.

See related CC Peugeot 404 sedan article here Peugeot 505 wagon CC article here