Peugeot have been making cars since 1891. When looking into this automaker’s rich history, several eras could be seen as more or less outstanding. The streamlined -02s of the ‘30s and ‘40s or the competent -06s of the late ‘90s are definitely noteworthy, for instance. But as this little 204 might illustrate, I contend that the -04 era, from 1960 to 1975, was Peugeot’s absolute pinnacle.
It was certainly Peugeot’s busiest, in terms of variety of models within their range. Starting with the 404 in 1960, followed by the 204 in 1965, the 504 in 1968, the 304 in 1969, the 104 in 1972 and ending with the 604 in 1975, the French firm produced a string of hits (well, except the 604) that it has never equaled since. But what was the secret sauce? How are all these models related, other than by numerical nameplates and a time, the ‘60s/’70s, when Peugeot were still singular, not the PSA conglomerate of today?
One commonality was innovation, such as the 404’s fuel injection, the 204’s transverse FWD, the 504’s all-independent suspension. This was also a time when PininFarina authored many Peugeot designs – but not all, or rather not all on their own. There was also a small in-house team headed by Paul Bouvot, who worked with the Italians and sometimes competed with them. There was also a kinship in the -04 interiors, which all have a conservative and understated quality: a simple dash design, slightly out-of-date details like the column gearchange (except the 104 and 604, by which time Peugeot had abandoned this feature) and quality workmanship that made those interiors pretty durable – certainly much more than the -05 ones.
The -04s (again, with the exception of the 604) also had a reputation for being solid and reliable automobiles, especially compared to their domestic competitors. Citroëns were technically brilliant but rather half-baked. Renaults and Simcas were less brilliant and better sorted, but felt like tin cans next to the sturdy Pugs, which did cost a few Francs more than their competitors — for good reason. It’s no coincidence that the Peugeots that were used extensively in South America, as well as Africa and the Middle-East were usually of the -04 generation.
The only major sin associated with this generation of Peugeots is rust, but then most cars of that period were guilty of that too – and not a few were far worse than Peugeot on that score. The ones that have survived will hopefully be restored and pampered just as well as this 50-year-old 204 appears to be, though a number of 404 and 504 pickups are still working for a living in Africa. The only question, really, is which one to pick, as there are just so many models and variants. A sweet 304 cabriolet, a Niedermeyer-approved 404 wagon, a tiny 104 hatchback, a stretched 604 limo, a luscious 504 coupé or this adorable 204 saloon? Decisions, decisions…