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

posted at the Cohort by Corey Behrens

Which car from my early years would I most want to have again? That’s a tough one to answer. 1963 Corvair Monza four-speed? 1963 or 1964 VW Beetle? 1968 Dodge A100 van? 1968 Peugeot 404 sedan? 1968 MGB-GT? 1970 Peugeot 404 wagon? The ones that came after those are not even in the running, except maybe the ’86 300E.

From the title, obviously the 404 wagon is my pick. Now I have to justify it.

It’s actually pretty easy. If I’m going to have one of my old cars back, it’s got to be something I can and would use on a regular basis, as I’m just not one of those guys who takes out their precious toy on Sundays for a leisurely cruise. On Sunday I’m most likely headed for a hike, and getting there almost invariably involves rough Forest Service gravel roads. And on Monday I might likely be hauling a washing machine from one of my rentals to be fixed in my garage. And on Tuesday, I might be heading to Nevada, for a six-day overlanding trip…

Yes, if I’d had a 404 wagon, I’d have taken it on the recent EXBRO trip. And why not?  It was no more difficult than the overlanding trip Dawid Botha took in his 404 wagon in the wilds of South Africa, posted here at CC a few years back.

In fact, the water crossings he made were longer and muddier than most of ours. His 404 did stall right where it is here in this picture, from moisture getting into the deeply-recessed spark plug housings. But a bit of drying off took care of that, and he and his wife were on their way. The scenery looks remarkably similar to Nevada.

So yes, if an xB can make it, a 404 certainly can, and it didn’t need to be lifted either, or have softer springs and shocks swapped in; it’s already got both of these features, and in spades. Or more like: If a 404 wagon can make it, hopefully a lifted xB can. Maybe.

I’ve covered the whole lineage of Peugeot RWD wagons in my homage to them here, but let me just hit a few key points: these wagons were not just like typical wagons, a sedan with a longer roof and rear cargo area. They are substantially different from the cowl back, with a longer wheelbase, stronger structure, taller roof, and a unique rear suspension.

Unlike the single long-travel coils supporting the worm drive rear axle on the sedans, the wagons, starting with the 404, had a unique setup with four coil springs and a heavier-duty rear axle, which was alloy, no less. The load capacity for the wagons was over 1200 lbs, or comparable to the typical half-ton American pickup of the times, yet the ride was superbly comfortable, full or empty. One had to experience that to believe it. Only an air or hydropneumatic suspension could equal it, but the all-steel Peugeot suspension was of course utterly reliable. It’s nigh-near impossible to bottom out, unless you’re carrying some insane loads.

As was (and still is) commonly the case in Africa, where Peugeots became the cars, wagons and pickups of choice, and were built there for long after the European RWD models had been replaced. Seeing old Peugeots overloaded like this (and worse) is a common sight there.

The front suspension on the 404 sedans and wagons was equally tough yet eminently comfortable, with exceptionally long-travel struts and Peugeot’s own unique design shock absorbers, which had five valves and were built to withstand the toughest conditions for some 100,000-150,000 miles or more. Not your run of the mill Monro-Matics.

In 1978, shortly after we got married, I sold my ’68 Dodge A100 van, which was very tired and had a serious oil-drinking habit. I got tired of changing the plugs constantly, even if that could be done without ever getting out of it. A friend of Stephanie’s sister had a ’68 404 sedan to sell, and I thought that sounded appealing, having been generally acquainted with the good rep Peugeots had.

It was a great car, and I loved it dearly. But it too had a lot of miles on it, and the nigh-near immortal (and expensive) Peugeot shocks were starting to get a bit soft. If it had been more youthful, I might well have picked it to come back to me again now. But it served faithfully as my daily driver for several years.

I started “saving” other 404 sedans from junkyards and folks who needed to get rid of them cheaply. I could fix most of the typical small issues easily, and either sold them on, or “leased” them to co-workers at the tv station. I had a total of six sedans over a two year period.

In the beginning of 1980, Stephanie got pregnant and saw the writing on the nursery wall: she would need to learn to drive. We lived in Santa Monica within walking distance of downtown, so it had been possible to avoid that so far, but no more. But it was going to have to be an automatic, as she simply did not want to deal with a manual in constant city driving. I opened the LA Times Saturday classifieds, and found a likely prospect: a 1970 404 automatic wagon, but with a dead engine.

It was out in the San Fernando Valley, and I took along a rental tow bumper hitch in case I decided to buy it. It was dark green, and although dusty from sitting out at the curb for a long time, I could tell it was a cream puff. It had fairly low miles (maybe 60k or so) and the body and interior were both in excellent condition.

The 504 replaced the 404 in the US in 1969, but since the 504 wagon only came out two years later, the 404 wagon hung around through 1970. But for that last year only, in the US it used the larger 1.8 L four from the 504. Unfortunately, the new 1.8 was somewhat prone to head gasket failures in its early years, and that’s what had happened to this one. And that had been some time ago. The head had been removed, and there was a deep puddle of rusted water in each of the cylinders. They obviously didn’t want to pay for the repair and just let it sit. I offered $75, which was accepted. I hooked it up to my tow bar behind my 404 sedan, and towed it over Mulholland Pass right to a certain little import-specific junkyard in Culver City, which had several 404s in residence, and left it there out front for the night.

I took a flyer on the little slant four in a sedan that called to me, paid my $40 for it, and hauled it out to the curb where the wagon sat, and used a rented engine lift to swap the units. The one I put in was a typical 404 1.6 L version. My luck held out, and it started right up and ran sweetly.

Obviously, with the extra weight of the wagon and the three-speed ZF automatic, it was not nearly as zippy as my sedan, with its four on the tree. But it always got the job done, in its own leisurely but unstoppable way.

I drove it home and cleaned it up.The paint glowed after a good polish and wax. The tan interior was in great shape, and of course the famous Peugeot front seats were eminently comfortable. And the rear cargo area floor was a piece of highly polished plywood with rubber cargo rub strips. Beautiful yet practical.

I took Stephanie to a large corporate parking lot near the Santa Monica Airport on a Sunday, and she got the hang of driving it quite quickly. The manual steering was a wee bit heavy for parking, but that was good exercise way to strengthen the arms.

This ad was obviously targeted to her, even if it was ten years later now. She may have only driven it 10 miles a day (or less), but it quickly became the weekend get-away mobile, for camping, hiking and skiing trips.

I found a factory wagon roof rack at another junk yard and grabbed it. The roof came from the factory with six bronze or brass female threaded inserts to attach the rack firmly. It covered most of the roof, and I never wanted for hauling space, even for extended vacations or whatever else needed hauling that wouldn’t fit inside.

With 76 hp and the automatic, it was leisurely, but always got us there, no matter what the road or conditions, including a mad dash through the Mojave desert at 3 AM in a deluge, fording washes several feet deep, with my mother and the two kids in the back seat. You see; I was overlanding the 404 wagon back then already.

The long grade up Hwy 395 to Mammoth wasn’t as bad as I had expected: full tilt boogie in second gear was some 42-45 mph, and it held that steady as a rock. The 404 wagon handled the deep snow we encountered in the Sierras on that trip with aplomb. I’m pretty sure I had chains but I don’t remember needing to put them on. Maybe so, in at least one really epic blizzard.

The 404 wagon and pickup had larger and wider drum brakes, with double-leading shoes, than the sedan, which had gotten front discs back in ’68. But I actually preferred the wagon’s drums over my sedan’s discs, hard as that may be to believe. They were the most linear brakes I’ve ever driven. No power assist (obviously) but ever so progressive and so easy to modulate just perfectly. And they never felt even the slightest bit overwhelmed.

With its long wheelbase and fairly narrow track, the 404 wagon preferred to go arrow straight, which it would do happily under the most challenging conditions for hours on end. That’s not to say it couldn’t be made to go around curves; it’s just that it had to be nudged to do so a bit more than average. The relationship of track to wheelbase affects a vehicle’s preference to rotate (or not). My Promaster is the same way, very much unlike the xB.

My efforts in making my xB more suitable for overlanding were really just to make it more 404-like, and I’ve referred to it as the xB404. Its softer springs and shocks, higher ground clearance and no anti-sway bar have gone a long way to making it more 404-like, although it’s hardly all the way there. There’s only so much one can do with a simple modest-travel strut front suspension and a twist beam rear axle, but the changes have taken it closer to 404 suspension heaven.

And as to the tall, narrow and boxy nature of the xB, it’s obvious where my heart lies. And my body sits.

This 1965 404 wagon that Corey Behrens shot in Heiloo, NL is the first of its kind to be found by anyone associated with CC, and as such, it’s a milestone. I could go on, but I realize that 404 wagons are not exactly everyone’s cup of absinthe.

So yes, if I could bring back one of my old cars, it would have to be the 404 wagon, preferably with the four-on-the-tree, but even the automatic would be ok with me. This is not a car to hurry; it’s the automotive tortoise, and you know how that worked out.



Related CC Reading:

The Worlds Greatest Wagons: Peugeot 203, 304, 404, 504, 505  PN

CC/Auto-Biography: 1969 Peugeot 404 sedan: The CC Holy Grail Found   PN

CC Road Trip: Across Remote South Africa Via Back Roads In a Peugeot 404 Wagon  Dawid Botha