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): fastestlaps.com
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
That dashboard is a perfect mirror image of my uncle’s Argentinian ’75 404D, minus AC and with an older steering wheel (Argentinian cars did not make the same changes at the same time). But what sounds yet more familiar is the flexibility. My father in law had a 65 Familiale, and he’d take corners in 3rd….very slowly, but the engine would purringly obey. He kept that 404 until it was 21 years old and was corroded from the inside out. And got a 504…both working cars, hevily loaded. Thanks for the article!
Glad you enjoyed reading! These old Peugeots truly are superbly durable workhorses.
Having owned both Peugeots and BMWs, and M-Bs as well, I’d take take a Pug any day. Or alternatively a Citroen. Vive la France!
I think the issue with Peugeot is that they sort of abandoned the values that made them great with the cars they produced in towards the turn of the century. Merc and BMW stuck to their guns a bit longer.
An upright sedan with great outward vision is just what I like. Too bad they’re completely out of fashion.
It really is unfortunate that we are moving towards cave like vehicles. But maybe at some point people will see sense?
You did what I would very badly like to do, relive driving my white 404. But your description is spot on, although I’m puzzled by the engine’s reluctance to start. My 404 sedan always started instantly; faster than any car I’ve ever had. It had a starting crank for emergencies, and I used to use it to show off, because it would invariably start on the first pull of the crank. It was a good party trick! 🙂
My other 404s always started very quickly too, and ran well right after starting. I strongly suspect something is not quite right with this one.
But other than that, you’ve described the experience very well. My ’68 404 sedan had front discs but not the Hydrovac, so they did require a bit more than average pedal pressure, but it wasn’t bad. My wagon had really big drums all-round, no power assist, and they were heavenly to use.
The column shifter is deceptive; once you get used to it, it’s pretty much as quick as a floor shifter. I was very happy with mine.
The Peugeot four engine was remarkably smooth. I used to normally drive on the freeways at 70 or so (during the 55 mph limit), but there were times I rolled along at 80, and it felt very happy still.
Thanks so much for this trip back in time; I felt I was there with you.
Glad you enjoyed it Paul! Happy to help with some time travel, haha.
On the subject of starting, I wonder if it’s got something to do with age/wear. As far as I know the car is in a good state of tune with new ignition components.
The 404 really does feel relaxed and unflappable in most road situations, which is one of the most impressive things about it.
One precision about the 404 handling. Like many manufacturers, Peugeot liked to cheat with tyre pressures to achive what they thought appropriate, and usually aimed for comfort.
A friend of mine has an Automatic version. When I first rode it, the understeer was so apparent that I quickly went to the service station and inflated the front tyres to 2.2 bar instead of 1.6. This made a huge difference!
I noticed the recommended pressures for the 404 seemed surprisingly low. This car has the pressures a fair bit higher as a practice, and it hasn’t made a negative impact on the ride.
I have zero experience in these, but during my time here at CC have become a fan. I learned long ago to make peace with slow acceleration if there were other things that the car did really well. Your excellent description of how the car drives only makes me more able to see myself in a car like this. The midwestern US of 2023 is not exactly this car’s natural habitat, so I am not sure when I last saw one – possibly decades? Anyway, your friend has a lovely little car there, and I appreciated going for a ride with you.
Most of the credit for my appreciation of them also goes to CC, because I never had any experience with them before, so I didn’t realize their many fine qualities.
Slow acceleration is less of a problem over here because our average speeds are quite low, but it’s only quite recently that I’ve learned to think like you’ve mentioned and be ok with it if there’s other stuff a car does well.
The amazing ride and seating comfort of French cars is not hype. One has to experience it to appreciate how very different they are, and the older I get (near-mid-70s now) the more I appreciate those attributes and the wisdom of “smell-the-roses” laid-back driving that is the real forte of these cars. Unfortunately new model cars have gone in exactly the opposite direction.
Agree, Ive owned and driven hundreds of cars, but for comfort and roadholding the French do it best, my daily is a 03 400,000km Citroen C5 manual diesel and my classic a 66 Hillman estate, which only gives up some ride comfort to a 404,
I recently moved that car to a new location 400kms away I checked the coolant and oil both full, filled the petrol tank and just drove there no big deal its a car and does car things quite well.Unfortunately mother nature moved that location an extra 305 kms thanx to a cyclone which destroyed the shortest route but a 1400km round trip in my C5 is just a pleasant drive despite the condition of NZ’s 3rd world roads.
It’s true, if you regularly drive over sub optimal roads and don’t have a tendency for Maximum Attack style driving, a French car is hard to beat.
Nice description of a 60s car but you could have been driving my 66 Hillman estate, except for the brakes mine, has boosted discs up front and they are far better than really needed but comfy reclining seats good ventilation and excellent all round visibility especially compared to modern cars yes it has all that the doors close perfectly and solidly It really only misses out on the long travel suspension and some of the ride comfort but it is streets ahead of an Oxbridge estate, I had one if those too a 66 Morris Oxford.
Interesting observation. I have no personal experience of the Hillmans of this period, they were quite rare here. But I’m surprised to hear that it rides as well as the 404 because it is a far more basic design.
But yes, the cool thing about the 404 to me is how modern it feels for its age.
Still on the topic of the 404, time to refresh our memories with this older article about a 404 in South Africa.
And I saw some vintage ads of the South African 404 and its big sibling the 504.
That truly was the Ultimate 404, I wish I could try one out!
Another GEEZER commenting here ~
Pops bought and self imported a midnight blue 404 Break (wagon) in 1967, it was a wonderful car that handled like a dream and rode better than any Cadillac, so typical of older French cars .
Not ‘cheap’ in any way whatsoever .
It also looked great then as now .
I had no idea they made them that long .
I wish I could fine a 404 “Bakkie” to use as my shop truck .
The hard starting is definitely a tuning issue .
Comments from those with lived experience are always welcomed!
The build quality truly must have been on another level at the time, because it feels so solid even today, which is not something that can be said of many other cars from the time period.
I spent a year in Chile in the early 80’s. 404s were my favored taxis except on those very rare occasions when a 504 was available. As a tall-ish gringo, I was very cramped in most of the other cars used as taxis there, especially when sitting in back. As near as I could tell, there were no sturdier taxis on Chilean roads than the Pugs. And the ride and seating comfort in every a tired Pug were better than most of the cars we had in the states at the time. I always wished for the chance to drive one. Thanks for sharing your experience!
404s and 504s were used for years as tourist hire cars here. They were a bit too expensive to be Taxis. Many tourists have made comments over the years remembering how great they were to ride in. A lot of people were disappointed when the trade switched over to Japanese cars in the mid 90s.
I think I was in Chile near their own turning point. As I recall, the most popular taxi by far was the Hyundai Pony. They must have been quite inexpensive to be a popular taco when they didn’t seem to hold up well. Virtually all of them had loose front ends that started to shimmy around 60 kph, and most also had very rough clutches. Clouds of blue smoke frequently followed them around.
But among the older taxis the 404s featured very prominently. A few diesels, but many with gas engines. Though much older than the Ponys, they were frequently in much better repair.
The 504s were mostly newish. I managed to get a ride in one once. It seemed too good to be running as a regular taxi and may well have been a tourist or executive hire car trying to pick up some extra cash. At the time I suppose it might have been a taxi from the nicest parts of town that was returning after taking a fare to our less-nice area.
Among the Asian cars I had the chance to ride in, an early 80s Daihatsu Charade stood out as feeling exceptionally solid and well made. However, while sub-litre cars (including Fiat 600s, Kei cars and vans, and 2CVs) were very popular as personal vehicles I never saw them used as taxis. I assumed that the 1.2l Ponys and Corollas must have been right at the edge of some regulatory cutoff for taxi service.
Knowing what living conditions, roads and traffic can sometimes be like in countries like that I have to say that 404 has survived really well. While living in Senegal as a teenager I saw plenty of these, most were pickup trucks. Some were severely dented, rusted and nearly broken in half but I did see a few pickups with fresh paint and no missing parts at all. My favorites were the wagons which always had roof racks there.
The 203 and 403 weren’t difficult to find either and I remember a Citroen CX, three DS’s and two Traction Avants. I loved seeing old upmarket French cars like that still being used by elderly longtime owners but I was more interested in 50’s – 60’s Bel Airs and things like that. Even a neglected 1953 Studebaker Commander was part of the neighbourhood though.
I can see how the 404 made a case for itself in the world of the early ’70s new-car market, where I couldn’t begin to imagine the thought processes that would’ve led someone to buy a Morris Oxford over, say, a Datsun 510 or Opel Ascona A.
Thank you for stirring up memories! A comfortable car with good road holding is what I remembered from my parents 404 Familiale.
Not sure I agree with you regarding having better detailing than the BMC Farinas though.
Growing up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80s in westchester county ny, our family exclusively drove Peugeot. Not only did we drive them but my dad did a lot of the maintenance on them and I was his helper. We had 404s, 504s, 604s, 505s, 405s gas, diesel, stick and automatic. My fave was the 404 with the manual transmission. I’d like to find a 404 now but theyre unobtanium around nyc.