I’m back from my rather busy holidays, re-settling into my temporary digs in Japan after two months in Europe. Pickings were quite rich in terms of Curbside Classics, so I have to sort out a bit of the material I took on the road. Let’s kick off by following from where I left off, with a Peugeot. But not any old Peugeot, the Ur-Peugeot: a 201, the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild, captured on the outskirts of the Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy.
Before the 201, there were a lot of Peugeots. About 200 models, in fact. But who remembers the Type 182 or the Type 45? Take the car above, for instance. It’s a Type 174 (a.k.a 18HP) from the mid-‘20s – a powerful luxury car with a 3.8 litre sleeveless 4-cyl. engine. But with such an anonymous moniker, who could identify one? Or make sense of the fact that the contemporary Type 176, despite bearing a higher number, was actually a smaller car? Peugeot had started selling cars in 1891 (the Type 2) and when the Type 201 came along in 1929, they had a huge back catalogue of models few could relate to. A specialist manufacturer such as Bugatti could get away with that, but Peugeot were trying to sell a range of models, not a few supercars for the nouveaux-riches.
The marketing department had a brainwave: why not reshuffle the brand’s models around a three-digit number with a zero in the middle? The hundreds digit would signify the model’s size (e.g. 20x for small cars, 40x for larger ones, 60x for big 6-cyl. efforts) and the units would work as generations (e.g. the -02 for ‘30s streamliners, the -04s for the ‘60s-‘70s, etc.) Marketing is often derided for its excesses (and for good reason), but in this case, it was a masterful stroke of genius. So masterful that Peugeot patented it and have kept the system going up to the present day.
So what about this 201 then? With its conservative looks, 30 HP engine, 3-speed gearbox, rigid axles, cable brakes and wood-framed body, it was not exactly a landmark of automotive design. Nothing really distinguished it from other small 1-litre European cars of the age, apart from the quality of its build and its relatively low price. And for some reason, that’s all that was needed to make it a rousing success, soon gaining a drop-top and a long-wheelbase “T” version for folks in need of a cheap van.
The 201 arrived just as the economy was ready to tank due to the after-effects of the Wall Street Crash — indeed, it was launched on 24 October 1929, also known as Black Thursday. But Peugeot had prepared their car well, with over 40 prototypes tested thoroughly for two years. The 201 was pretty much flawless and people flocked to Peugeot dealerships to get one. By 1932, the 201 saloon, coupé and roadster were given independent front suspension, but base versions and commercial cars such as our CC kept the old beam axle.
Peugeot were on to a winning formula, and quickly produced a larger 301, a family-sized 401 and a luxury 601. By this time (1934), cars were getting more streamlined, so Peugeot followed suit and gave the 201 a makeover by essentially de-contenting the 301. This final iteration lasted until 1937, when Peugeot were getting ready to introduce the 202. Over 140,000 Peugeot 201s were made in seven years — then Peugeot’s absolute record.
Our CC must have had a busy life as a delivery van up to the ‘50s. After that decade, Peugeots from the -01 series became a rare sight on French roads. It’s anyone’s guess how this one miraculously survived another 60-plus years, though it’s definitely not roadworthy any longer. At least it’s still there to be seen, a fine if unremarkable car that helped re-fashion Peugeot’s nomenclature for generations.