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

(first posted 2/28/2011)     While some of us wile our idle hours searching for old flames and friends on Facebook, I stalk the streets. After writing about the cars in my life (Auto-Biography), I moved on to searching for examples of all the significant cars in my life through Curbside Classic. Now lest you get the idea from the headline that the treasure hunt is over; far from it. Like all good trips, it’s not the destination, but the journey. And it’s not just cars I owned that I’m after; any vehicle that ever caught my eyes or crossed my mind is CC fodder. Now that’s a big tent indeed. But this car is the old flame I most wanted to find. Here’s why:

“This” was my car for about three years, from 1979 through 1981. Doesn’t seem like a long time now, but years back then were a lot longer; something to do with global warming. A lot of memories were made in our 404. And it wasn’t just a white 404 sedan like this one, which was my daily driver. Stephanie drove a 404 wagon, which is so different from the sedan that it will get its own CC, when I find one. I also owned a little fleet of 404s, about half a dozen, which I would bring back from the dead having found them in junkyards or folks practically giving them away. These I resold or “leased” them to co-workers needing a cheap ride; Paul, the 404 man of Santa Monica.

Why a Peugeot 404? Like so many things in my life, it just happened. I was driving a very tired ’68 Dodge A100 van, which I had remodeled (plywood paneling and a bed) and had served me well during the last phase of my rambling days. I had it when I met Stephanie, and we had some memorable trips, including a rain-soaked honeymoon in the desert. (our whole wedding cost maybe $500).

But I now had a real job, at the little tv station in West LA, and I wanted something a bit more comfortable for my bride and myself. One day, a friend of Stephanie’s sister was over, and said he needed to sell his 404. Bingo! Deal done, instantly. I’ve tended to very fast car buying decisions, but there’s (sort of ) a rationale behind that: I hate shopping, and I can dip into my data base of cars to make a quick yet informed decision. The Peugeot was hardly some obscure Frenchie oddball that I knew little about. But it had never exactly crossed my mind to buy one either.

Peugeots were in my awareness even in my Austrian days: I rarely saw one, but they were spoken of in very high regard: Der Französische Mercedes was the common Germanic expression. And that was about as good a compliment to earn from Germans as it got, back in the day when Mercedes was the paragon of quality.

In the early sixties in the US , I remember reading about the 404s repeated victories in the grueling East African Safari, which Peugeot won in ’63, ’66, ’67 and ’68. And the African connection didn’t end there: Peugeots were the preferred car in many parts of Africa for decades, and they are still much in use today, including the 404 pickup versions that seem to be able to struggle on no matter what the load:

Now the whole Peugeot 404 story is a mighty big one; its history, design (by Pininfarina), production in Africa, the remarkable wagons (Familiale, etc.) (see full story on them here) and trucks, its rally successes, its early adoption of diesel motors, the very graceful coupe and convertible versions; well, I’m going to have to break it up into bits and pieces, and will scatter them around here over the next week or so.

I sincerely hope the subject is not too esoteric or obscure; too many Americans harbor a seemingly endless grudge against all those oddball Frenchie cars. Part of that rep was earned by the fragile Renaults sent this way. And many 404s were practically abandoned (to my benefit at the time) because owners and mechanics just weren’t familiar with their little eccentricities. But the 404 has earned a significant place in history, and not just because I bought one on seeming impulse. Bear with me…

I’m going to focus primarily on the 404 sedan in this CC, which is a plenty meaty subject alone. The 404 arrived in 1960, superseding but not replacing the beloved 403, which continued to be built simultaneously until 1966, at a lower price point.

The 403 had replaced the 203 in 1955. I’ll do a more comprehensive history separately, but let’s just say the evolution of a distinct lineage and concept really was similar to Mercedes of the time, just a bit smaller, a tad less ambitious, and correspondingly cheaper (in 1969, the 404 cost $2700; the cheapest MB 220 was $4360). The 403 was a fairly popular import in the fifties, and one with a reputation quickly established for high build quality and  comfortable ride. David E. Davis and Phil Hill were 403 drivers back in the day, as were many others “in the know”. For those that could afford a second car, it made a great way to pamper your backside during the week after racing your MG or Austin Healey on the weekends. I had a 403 too, but that’s a different story, and not as compelling: it was a basket-case, and I never got it put back together. Boo hoo.

The 404 was the next evolutionary step, and although similar in size to the 403, there were some major changes. The front suspension was all new, a long-travel strut which featured the legendary Peugeot-built shock absorbers that not only managed to control the soft springs very well over the worst (African) conditions, but would do it for 100k miles or more in grueling conditions before wearing out. That may not seem so impressive today, but I seem to remember typical American car shocks getting soft every 30k miles or so, like so many other components back in the day.

The 404’s rear axle and suspension though was pretty much a carry-over from the 403, quite unique and equally legendary. Also a coil-suspended long-travel affair, it featured a solid live axle that used a worm-drive rear differential. Yes; and it’s the only manufacturer I know of that used that worm gear. It was a distinct Peugeot feature going back to the first post-war 203, through the 404. Its successor, the 504 moved on to IRS, although not the wagons.

I know that worm drives are somewhat less efficient, but are almost impossible to break, no matter how much torque is churned through them. I guess Peugeot had their reasons, and I’ve never heard of one going bad. The drive shaft is also a torque tube, meaning that there is only one universal joint, where the front of the drive shaft meets the back of the transmission. Essentially, the drive shaft is the primary element that locates the rear axle, with two additional support elements angling out from the shaft to the sides of the axle where the coil springs reside. There are no rear control arms otherwise. It allows for an exceptionally high amount of axle articulation, normally a concern for serious off-roaders. That reminds me, I have to do a piece on the 4×4 Peugeots.

The torque tube was once quite popular in older American cars, and reminds me more than a bit of Henry Ford’s beloved Model T rear axle arrangement that he held onto through 1948. The little coil spring off the axle (in the upper picture) is another typical Peugeot quality engineering device, it connects to a load-sensing rear brake proportioning valve, reducing rear brake pressure to the extent that the body is leaning forward, to avoid premature rear wheel lock-up. It was the lack of that device that made GM’s X Body cars such notorious rear-wheel lockers due to their FWD front weight bias.

The 404 got a new version of the Peugeot engine (this picture has soft focus, and that’s not the stock oil bath air cleaner), although it built very much on the experience of the 203 and 403 engines, which all head cast iron blocks and hemi-head aluminum heads (why did this technology elude Detroit for so many decades?). In the 404, the block was canted to the passenger side, just like Chrysler’s slant six. It’s capacity was 1618cc, which seems laughable today for what was a fairly prestigious sedan in Europe. In fact, except for Peugeot’s different approach to key technical solutions, one could really think of this as the C-Class of its time, or a Mercedes 160, if you will.

The Peugeot engineers made smooth running a major priority for the 404 engine, paying attention to internal balancing and other details like the intake manifold, which is integrated right into the head. The result is a remarkably smooth four, and it was very happy to scoot Stephanie and I up and down I-5 on our many trips between SF and LA at 80-85 mph (the wagon, with lower gearing, preferred seventy or less).  The early engines had 72 hp, but the later ones like this, which also had a more rugged and smoother five bearing crank, were rated at 80 hp @ 5500 rpm.

One little engine detail I want to share with you. See that little angled aluminum affair pointing at the back of the fan pulley? The 404 was one of the earliest (first?) production engines to incorporate a thermostatic fan clutch. Inside the pulley is an electro-magnetic clutch, which is activated by a carbon brush that normally would sit inside the hole of that unit (this one is removed). The spring-loaded brush is in constantly contact with the pulley, and energized it like a brush in an electric motor. But I’ve never seen one working, except my own. One can easily screw down the fan mounting bolts to engage the fan permanently, and that’s what all of them seem to have had done with them.

I bought a replacement brush unit for mine, sanded the area where it contacts the pulley, hooked up the wiring to the thermostat, and it worked like a charm. When you only have 80 hp, one hates to see one or two of them them wasted. Except on very hot days or really hard running, the fan rarely came on (you could hear it, and feel it too). For what it’s worth, that little doo-hicky is representative of why Peugeots sometimes got a bad rep: folks just weren’t willing to deal with the unfamiliar, no matter how well engineered it was.

And the legendary crank hole. Yes, every 404 was still shipped with a folding crank in the trunk, and there’s the hole it goes in. I used to love to show it off; one quick little pull, and it always sprang to life. Great thing to do at the curb on Rodeo Drive in front of a fancy restaurant. Dead battery? No problem, regardless of whether you were in the Kalahari or Beverly Hills. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the 404 was the fastest starting car I ever had. The quickest little blip of the key or pull of the crank, and away it went.

The Peugeot rep for comfort was never in question. Yes, it was a French obsession, rooted in the terrible roads of yore as well as…some intrinsic cultural quality? The Peugeot was not in the same league as the Citroen DS; well no one ever quite challenged it. But the Peugeot was conceptionally the fundamental polar opposite of the hyrdo-pneumatically suspended, braked and steered Goddess, and with the resultant reliability issues. Let’s just say a co-worker had a lovely DS 21 at the time, so alluring; but he was always challenged to keep up it running reliably, and eventually gave up. I know they can be kept going in the right hands, but I was smart enough to know those weren’t mine.

Anyway, it was a combination of the very long-travel suspension and Peugeot’s superb seats that added up to the most extreme jump possible from the horrible harsh riding A100 van and its lawn-chair seats. Motoring in the French style! And with a sunroof, of course, which was standard on all the 404s, except perhaps the stripper taxi version. Oh, I forgot that like the Mercedes in Germany, Peugeot sedans were also the default taxis in Paris. And not just there too; I remember riding in them in Vienna too, with their noisy throbbing Indénor diesel engine which shared absolutely nothing with the gas engine, including its  rough manners.

There was also the legendary 404 Injection model, which had the Kugelfischer mechanical injection unit, a true marvel in its own right (details here), as also used on the BMW 2002tii. I’m not aware of it being imported to the US, but it made the 404 a pretty hot car for the times, with a solid 100+ mph (160+ kmh) top speed.

Back to the comfort, and not speed: the seats in these cars are absolutely superb, and its obvious that they aren’t “buckets” in the usual sense. What those front seat also make clear is what a narrow car the 404 is from today’s perspective.

Well, not just narrow, but downright tiny. What was once a very substantial European “saloon” looks positively pathetic, like in this shot with a Saab 9-3. It looks like a Trabant! Yikes. Well, the Trabi did crib its styling from the 404 and other cars styled by Pininfarina at the time. I’m going to also do a separate piece on the stylistic origins of the 404, which traces back to Pinifarina’s revolutionary 1955 Lancia Florida concept, one of the most influential designs of the whole era.

I still have to quickly say something about the the Peugeot’s transmission; more specifically how its shifted. All Peugeots through the 404 had a column mounted shifter for the very sturdy and easy shifting four-speed transmission. After the Dodge van’s cave-man column shifter, the 404 was a marvel, so delicate, light and easy shifting. I always used just a couple of fingers, as the stick seemed to just need to be guided a bit in its natural progression through the gears. Ultimately perhaps not quite as fast as a floor stick, it was quick enough, especially since the 404 is not a car that invites a harsh style of driving.

It could be hustled fast enough, but it just didn’t encourage it. It liked to be respected and handled with a bit of delicacy; a real French Dame. And it would reward with an ability to swallow the miles effortlessly in a way that no other car in its size and price class could equal. That is the essential quality of the 404, and I loved it for that.

I have no doubt that if that guy was trying to sell a BMW 1600/1800 or an old Volvo on the quick, I would probably have jumped just as readily. But a 404 is what it happened to be, and I never regretted it. Oddly enough, my need for serious speed kicked in a bit later in life; anyway compared to all the Beetles I had owned before the Dodge, the 404 was a speed demon.

Another detail or two to put Peugeot’s fastidiousness with sturdy solutions that I have to share: The hub caps are securely held on with a bolt. Even the ruggedest road in Africa won’t shake this off.

And this little gem: its one of four standard mounting bases for the factory roof carrier, net to the sunroof. The center screw is removed, and then re-inserted through the carrier’s legs and screwed back into that securely attached base. The much longer wagon had six bases, and I managed to find a NOS wagon roof rack, a huge sturdy galvanized affair that covered the whole roof. You could walk on it, and load all your life’s belongings on it. How I wish I had never let go of that wagon.

I say that because my sedan was a bit tired when I got it; it had led a pretty full life, and was eleven years old, and had well over 100k on it. Those expensive Peugeot shocks were getting soft, and the upholstery was splitting. After I was given a company car in 1981 (a Buick X-Body Skylark, no less), I sold it for more what I paid. It was time to move on.

Peugeot 404 familiale 1

But Stephanie’s dark-green 1970 wagon was still very youthful, with some 50k on the clock. I got it for $35, because the head gasket on the new-for-1970 1800 cc engine leaked and the cylinders were inundated. I knew of a good 1600 cc motor in a junk yard for $50, and quick as a wink, it was back in action. With the three-speed ZF automatic and the 1600 motor, it was truly a bit leisurely, but always got us to our destination, including way up in the Sierras on rough roads, practically 4×4 type stuff. The wagon had a substantially longer wheelbase and completely different rear end and suspension: camel-ready, so to speak. I also found an original factory roof rack, which could haul a huge amount of gear, bikes, etc.

It’s time to end this 404 love fest; but I will be back with some related articles from time to time, unless something more compelling gets the best of my ADD. Sorry, that’s the way I roll. There’s no set agenda here at CC; it’s all about serendipity.

One last thing: This 404 has 56k original miles on it. It was a widower’s car and sat in a garage for 26 years. Alex, a student at the UO and his Dad, who once was a Peugeot mechanic found it and got it back on the road four years ago. And they just might be willing to sell. Stay tuned. (Update: willing yes; reasonable price no. Pass)

Update in 2016: I still have pangs of regret on passing on this one, but what’s life without them?

Illustrated History of all the classic RWD Peugeot wagons (203, 403, 404, 504, 505) is  here