Cars Of A Lifetime: Peugeot 504 Diesel Wagon – The Long, Slow Trip

(pictures are of a similar but worse condition 504 wagon found by the author and taken with permission of the owner)

 I had several cars between the VW Bus and the Peugeot that I’d rather forget than write about, including a Mazda 626 with a rod knock (wife’s purchase) and a Subaru Justy with failure-prone CV shafts. But since having our first child, I was swearing off my bad driving habits, and the VW Scirocco just didn’t fit in anymore. I was working on being a loser self employed “mechanic” while Michelle worked a real job. I found myself with a so-called job at a used car lot as their so-called mechanic. It all ended up with me not working there anymore and being one Peugeot 504 wagon richer/poorer for it (that crazy story can be found in full here). Let’s just say that giving up driving fast wasn’t really hard; with the Peugeot there was no choice. What was hard was just keeping up with traffic. And the expensive parts.

(this is the only picture I have of my Peugeot, there next to my Scout)

Now on to the car. Have you ever had a girlfriend or wife that was great looking, good at cooking, cleaning, and fun to be with, but was horribly flawed in certain characteristics? Oh I have, oh have I ever…. But, moving on, that is the situation with owning a Peugeot. She was really a beautiful machine, clothed in a gold French dress, trimmed in wood, and able to glide as if by magic over the roughest roads. A Peugeot in America is really like a flower amongst the weeds, which is of course why they are best left in France. But alas, such a machine is also a genteel lady not accustomed to our coarse ways.

I rescued her from a dark old shed behind the used car lot. She was a non-running trade in. But it really didn’t take much to get her going; I suspect that no one (wisely perhaps) cared to try. The first thing I noticed was the comfort of the seats and the absolute smoothness of the ride. The long story of Peugeot’s unique multi-spring torque tube rear suspension on their wagons is here. The short story is that it worked wonders in conjunction with the long-travel struts in front.

Ours was a diesel, and it made sure everyone in our neighborhood knew it. It was LOUD. So loud in fact that one could not have a conversation at any engine speed above idle. And highway speeds were difficult and deafening. All that noise to make so little power. In fact it made a diesel Rabbit feel downright sprightly! It’s a good thing it rode so smoothly and was so comfortable, since it took forever to get anywhere.

We took a trip to the coast that summer, and going up the low coastal mountains was painful beyond measure. By the top of each pass our speed was down to 25 mph and the engine temp was hovering in the red. So we would pull over with the VW Buses and wait for her to cool down. All through the summer the cooling system struggled to keep up.

Eventually I consulted one of the only Peugeot shops around. They told me that the diesel engine in the Peugeot was of a wet cylinder design, just like in heavy truck engines. What this meant is that they were prone to cavitation and foaming from the flow of the coolant around the cylinder liners. All of which could be solved by purchasing actual Peugeot brand coolant imported from France and filling the remainder using only distilled water and bleeding the system. Frankly I was surprised they did not tell me to top it up with Perrier! Of course the special coolant came quite dearly, but it did seem to mostly eliminate the overheating.

But being that it was a Peugeot another problem soon revealed itself. As cooler weather set in it became apparent that the glow plugs needed replacing. One call to France and many dollars later that was fixed. But now I found that the battery was not sufficient for the fresh and juice-hungry glow plugs. Being that it was a diesel, the battery was huge and expensive. With more time and money, all of that was straightened out. That is, until the alternator would not keep the big new battery fully charged. Where does one find a shop that will rebuild a Paris-Rohn alternator? Right down the street, so it turned out. But of course parts had to be ordered from France.

In the interim I drove it in the daytime to avoid using the headlights, and used the block heater at night to negate the need for glowing it to start. An old diesel needs only enough voltage to hold open the little fuel cut-off solenoid to keep running since there are no spark plugs, ignition coil, etc.

Once we got that fixed it still needed charging up from a battery charger at least once a week. I never could figure it out, but I think now it just needed a more powerful alternator.

Where the wagon really shone was on the inside. The seats were immensely comfortable and the back was cavernous, the cargo floor being beautiful wood with stainless steel and rubber ribs. If it were not for the horrible ruckus under the hood at speed it would certainly have been the most comfortable car I have ever driven. But we drove it everywhere, on the road and off, albeit slowly. The time we got locked behind a logging road gate we did discover that it was rather uncomfortable for sleeping in. We had our first child with us who was still a baby. Needless to say, that night was less than restful.

Eventually I found a diesel VW Vanagon whose owner wished to trade with me for the Peugeot. I could not resist the temptation of such a rare beast and swapped her straight across. In retrospect, I really wish I hadn’t, but the lure of driving the only vehicle sold in the US that was significantly slower than the Peugeot diesel was somehow irresistible.

Certain things in life can only be be experienced, but I will try to do justice to that long slow tale in writing, another time.