CC Driving Impressions: 1972 Peugeot 404 – How Does it Hold Up Today?

This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for several months, but couldn’t quite get around to until now. This particular 404 is owned by Sam, a  close friend and fairly recent convert to the cult of Peugeot. Sam is atypical for a classic Peugeot owner because he is barely 30 and was a die hard BMW person for a long time, but a chance encounter with a very well preserved 504 opened his eyes to the allure of golden era Peugeots, and he hasn’t looked back. Besides this lovely 404, he also owns a pair of 505s, one of which is being set up for classic rallying! I’ll try to feature that car soon as well.

The 404 became extremely popular in Sri Lanka during the 60s and early 70s for the same reasons as everywhere else, they were tough, durable and very comfortable on our roads. They were always considered upmarket cars here and apparently were mostly driven by doctors, lawyers, academics, senior police officers and the like, people who appreciated a solid car that was different from the (mostly British) automotive norm. A large number of them still survive, some run uncaringly into the ground African style (but still refusing to die), while others are well maintained by long term owners.

A handful of examples like our feature car have even been restored, which is still economically viable due to our labor costs, but that may not last for long due to how expensive materials have gotten. Sam was lucky to get his hands on this car, which was previously owned by a die hard Peugeot enthusiast who was a former workshop manager of the Sri Lankan Peugeot agents. The former owner had this car for over 20 years, and it underwent a bare metal, nut and bolt restoration a few years ago which is still holding up well today, although some signs of age are now showing. Unlike most cars of this age, the restoration was apparently mainly focused on making sure the car was usable and mechanically 100% solid. Over a year and a half since taking it over, it has proved itself in regular use, even as a daily driver for some stretches of time.

The 404 has been on my radar for quite awhile, partly thanks to CC. I’ve seriously considered getting one myself, so I’ve always wondered how usable one of them would be in the third decade of the 21st century. Sam’s car has enabled me to answer that question to a large extent thanks to his generosity when it comes to drive time. So let’s jump right in and take it for a spin.

Familiar, but really well executed

Actually, before that, I’d like to take a minute to talk about how the 404 appears to modern eyes. It’s certainly not a small car, being larger and more substantial than something like a Beetle, for instance. It’s also surprisingly narrow and quite tall, clearly Peugeot weren’t really subscribing to the “longer, lower, wider” trends of the times. To a Sri Lankan like myself the overall shape is quite familiar given the visual commonality with the BMC “Oxbridge” twins (which used to be the default “large car” here for decades), but the 404 has much nicer detailing and looks like a more mature design overall. The bumpers, door handles and chrome trim pieces all look like they were built to last and indeed they have made it 51 years on this particular example. Okay, time to hop inside.

The doors don’t quite have the same bank vault heft as say, a Mercedes W115 but they don’t feel tinny either and again remind you that this is a quality product. The upright design and tall stance mean you don’t have to stoop to enter, and when inside the seating position is quite high. The seats have a surprising amount of give and initially feel more like lounge chairs but they have a reasonable amount of support as well. This car is fitted with original non inertia reel lap and shoulder seat belts, which both clip onto the shiny chrome ring in between the seats, again somewhat unusual to someone used to modern machinery.

You do tend to notice how narrow the 404 is by modern standards when inside, since the two front seats are right up against each other and look almost like a split bench, but they are individually adjustable buckets. The steering wheel is massive, easily 15 inches in diameter, and upright, which takes some getting used to. Ordinarily there would be a massive amount of legroom in front because the 404 has no center console, but this car has been fitted with an aftermarket air conditioning unit which hangs below the dash, which kind of impacts the space. In our weather, I’ll gladly give up a bit of legroom to stay cool! Overall though, you can get comfortable quickly and the car doesn’t force an awkward driving position in any way.

A bit narrow, but still very comfy

The 1.6 litre four cylinder needs a little bit of coaxing from a cold start; the choke cable needs to be pulled out first and the throttle needs to be given a couple of pumps before the starter is engaged. Get the sequence right and the four starts up without too much hassle, but it takes a bit of practice. Even in our tropical temperatures the engine is lumpy for a minute or two while it warms up, and it’s best to leave the choke cable pulled halfway for those minutes. The idle smoothens out once some heat is built up but naturally the engine always makes its presence felt. All right then, time to get the old girl moving!

The biggest adjustment to someone used to a modern is probably the column mounted shifter. Personally it’s something I have had very little exposure to, so initially at least I was a bit nervous and had to concentrate. But it doesn’t take long at all to get the hang of it, and within a few kilometres the shift pattern becomes second nature. The shift action is light and positive, while the throw of the lever is reasonably short. I was expecting it to be massively long throw and rather vague, but that is not the case at all. The only complaint about the shift action I had was that downshifting into first and second could sometimes be a bit tough as occasionally the gears just couldn’t be found, and needed multiple attempts. This was apparently an adjustment issue and was going to be attended to soon.

Honestly, once you get the car rolling, 3rd gear is sufficient for almost all around town driving, with a downshift to second possibly required at speeds close to walking pace, such is the flexibility of the little four. The steering is a little heavy when stationary but the big wheel gives plenty of leverage and it becomes just about right when the car gets moving. It’s not a particularly quick steering system, but doesn’t have any slop or vagueness either, and just seems well suited to the character of the car.

Speaking of, with 72 Bhp pushing 1100 Kg (2425 lb), “quick” isn’t really a word that can be applied to the 404. The engine is smooth and doesn’t complain when revved a bit hard, which you do kind of need to do to get any real speed out of it. It feels a lot more willing than, say, the miserable BMC B series in an Austin Cambridge, which would start to run out of breath by 3500 rpm! The 404 also feels stable and planted at higher speeds, contributing to a sense of security behind the wheel.

50 years old it may be, but this car feels in no way out of its depth at modern traffic speeds. The 404’s top speed in this spec was said to be around 150 Km/h, which doesn’t seem far fetched even today, but I wasn’t going to push Sam’s beloved classic quite that hard! Also, the brakes on this particular pug aren’t quite as good as when they left the factory, because the Hydrovac brake booster is currently non functional, due to a global lack of the required parts for RHD cars. Sam is working on a solution but at the moment, while the car CAN stop quite well, the pedal needs to be stood on to get max retardation and generally feels like you’re stepping on a brick. All the more reason really, to dial back the aggression, adopt a more relaxed pace and just lope along letting the 404 soak up the road like it was meant to do.

Which brings us of course to the piece de resistance of the 404, the frankly astonishing ride quality. The long travel coils and Peugeot’s self built shock absorbers work together to turn even the worst road surfaces into smooth tarmac. Colombo’s roads are currently not in great shape, with random potholes, different grades of surfacing (sometimes in adjoining lanes!), and poorly covered repairs but in the 404 you don’t really notice any of these things, allowing you to just glide along serenely at whatever pace you choose in almost complete obliviousness.

Of course there is a bit of a downside to the ride, because the handling of the 404 is definitely more oriented towards relaxed touring than tearing down a twisting road. Body roll is present in large doses and the skinny tires make their displeasure felt if cornering speeds are higher than prudent. That said, the chassis hangs on gamely, and you CAN make the old girl hustle if you really need to. These did win more than their fair share of rallies, after all.

A 404 in its natural setting. Image credit (paradoxically):

But really, the best way to enjoy the 404 is to take it easy, relax into the comfy seats and point the nose towards the horizon, allowing the car to soak up the miles and help you go the distance. Whether that distance is 50 miles or 500, the 404 is more than up to the task. It is a true testament to the depth of the engineering that went into it that even 50 years on, it still manages to feel comparatively modern and be so usable. So, how does the 404 hold up today? Really rather well, actually. So well in fact, that we felt it could handle a bit more than just puttering around on nice days and decided to see how it adapted to more er, strenuous tasks…

But that’s a story for another day.

Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1969 Peugeot 404 – The “French Mercedes” And Just Like Mine

My Curbside Classic: 1974-1978 South African Peugeot 404 GL – The Ultimate 404

Vintage Road & Track Road Test: 1967 Peugeot 404 Automatique – I Had A Couple Of Those

Cohort Classic/Auto-Biography: Peugeot 404 Wagon – The One I Miss The Most