This rather sad-looking 204 is a fixture near the parental nest in France. I’ve seen it several times over the years – always slightly more decrepit than before, but seemingly still in occasional use. These have become quite a rare sight around here now, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they were the most popular car in France for several years running.
Classic car mags and websites usually remember the 204 coupé and convertible, but those were always exceedingly rare. For those of us who live (or used to live) in its country of origin, the 204 was sometimes a wagon, but first and foremost a humble four-door saloon.
Though discreet almost to the point of being bland, these cars were nothing less than a revolution for Peugeot, thrusting the venerable automaker into the true mass-market and transforming their range from a one-car monoculture to a multitude of models. After the pre-war 202, Peugeot launched the clean-sheet 203 as its sole model in 1948, followed by the 403 (1955) and the 404 (1960) – all essentially the same car with updated styling and gradually larger engines. The 404’s replacement, the 504, was planned for 1968.
But the increased engine displacement, no matter how gradual, was pushing Peugeot further up the price ladder. When the 404 came along, its 1.6 litre plant was putting it out of many people’s reach. Peugeot executives looked worriedly at Simca and Renault, whose range was far richer and wider. They determined that for Peugeot to survive, they needed to broaden their scope considerably and include a mini, a compact and an executive car. The first segment they targeted, with the 204 in 1965, was the compact. The mini (104) came in 1972 and the big car (604) in early 1975. That year, incidentally, was peak Peugeot diversity: the catalogue included the 104, 204, 304, 404, 504 and 604 – a straight flush-type feat never repeated since.
The 204 was Peugeot’s Great Leap into the Unknown. It was a completely new car from A to Z: new body, new engine, new FWD transmission, new all-independent suspension and new front disc brakes. The only thing it had in common with its 1965 RWD stablemates, the 404 and the soon-to-be-retired 403, was the badge. That stood for Peugeot’s carefully constructed image: a conservative, provincial and Protestant family business for generations, France’s oldest automaker after Panhard, renowned for its well-crafted and durable cars and other wares (anything from bicycles to peppermills) that were always a little more expensive, a little more austere and a lot more durable than the norm.
The 204 was launched in the spring of 1965. Its sole engine was an all-alloy 1100cc 4-cyl. sitting atop a 4-speed all-synchronized gearbox and placed transversally, like the BMC Mini, to drive the front wheels. The interior was Spartan and the options list virtually inexistent, but for the traditional sunroof. Critics hailed it as a thoroughly well-made car, with excellent brakes, good visibility and comfort, but the 53 HP (DIN) were deemed a bit on the low side, the steering seemed a tad vague and handling in the wet was not as good as it could have been. The lack of options and relatively high price also irked a few journalists, but the impression of quality was indisputable. Priced around FF9000 in 1965 and placed in the 6CV tax band, the 204 competed directly with the Renault 10 and the Simca 1300.
True to form, Peugeot soon added variants to the 204. By late 1965, the “Break” (station wagon) was put in production. Presented at the 1966 Paris Motor Show, the two-door cars hit the streets in the first weeks of 1967, with their shortened wheelbase and attractive bodies. That same model year, a noticeable esthetic change came with the new wraparound taillights, courtesy of PininFarina, who used these on several other designs at the time. Finally, a 3-door “Commerciale” delivery wagon was introduced later in 1967, derived from the Break. Peugeot did build a prototype 204 pickup around this time, but the platform was felt to be not strong enough for a pickup’s hard labour. Peugeot pickups would remain on the larger RWD platform until the very end.
There were a couple of interesting specials made using the 204. Let’s just mention the Autobleu GT coupé, which was presented at the 1967 Geneva Motor Show. Autobleu was an aftermarket specialist firm, especially renowned for eking out additional HP from various French engines. In the mid-‘50s, they had tried making a series of special-bodied cars based on the Renault 4CV, but Alpines were more successful. They gave it another shot with their 204 GT fastback, designed by Pietro Frua and based on the cabriolet version. Alas, the venture was doomed due to the transformation’s high cost – and Autobleu’s own engine tune-up side, which allowed clients to get their stock-bodied Peugeot about 10 extra HP for a lot less money.
The 204 started to really catch on by then: in 1969, 1970 and 1971, it was the number one selling car in France. But it seemed that Peugeot were already moving on from the 204: after 1970, the range started to shrink. The reason was the launch of the 304, essentially a 204 shell with 504 headlamps, a 1.3 litre engine and a larger trunk. The 304 cannibalized its elder sister by stealing its body, including the two-door and wagon variants. The 304 saloon’s elongated behind (with an extra 15 cm of trunk space) did not improve the handling, but the other versions (3- and 5-door wagons, coupé and cabriolet) were strictly identical to the 204, so they were, on the whole, much more drivable thanks to the larger 7CV engine. Snob appeal dictated that one would go for the 304 if one could – the 204 lost a great amount of appeal once this pecking order got established. The 104’s launch in 1972 robbed the 204 of its bottom-rung status, leaving it with even less of a reason to exist much longer, though it did pick up an extra 2 HP (DIN) along the way.
From then on, the 204 coasted. The 304 saloon was restyled and given an even larger engine in 1972, as well as a floor-mounted gearstick. The 204 carried on with its styling unchanged and an increasingly outdated column shift till the end, which came after the 1976 model year. The final 204s did have a few distinctive touches, such as the “heraldic” lion badge (after 1971) and, as above, a black plastic grille (1975-76). The 1.3 litre Diesel engine, hitherto only available on the Break, became available on the saloon for those final couple of years.
Our featured CC has the former but not the latter, as well as bumpers with a painted black stipe that replaced the earlier rubber inserts in 1973. So it’s a late Pompidou / early Giscard model (a.k.a late Nixon / early Ford or late Heath / early Wilson). Let’s call it a ’73, as I already have a ’74 on my hitlist with the Méhari I caught last month.
By this time, Peugeot had already started work on the 305, which essentially took the 204/304’s underpinnings within a new body shell, which was finalized and launched (looking nothing like the above, really) in 1977. The 304 went out of production in 1980 as the 305 took over; the last 305 wagons were produced in 1990, making the 204/304/305 family of cars a rather long-lived platform.
Our feature car’s fading dark green hue is a classic 204 colour, which was pretty much proposed throughout the model’s 11-year lifespan. The 204 was never one to wear the more stylish ‘70s colours, such as puke green, curious orange or metallic “robo-turd” brown, as seen on its younger 304 sister model. It was and remained a mid-‘60s car through and through.
The dash did receive a major update in 1968 with the adoption of the three round dials that we see here. Strangely, the 304 initially went back to the linear / square style (with a smattering of fake wood, for good measure), but soon reverted to this arrangement as well. The massive chromed shifter head on our featured car is, of course, not at all stock.
The Peugeot “2” series were a string of classic hits, from the 201 that introduced the “zero in the middle” nomenclature back in 1929, the 202 that survived the war, the 203 that was the first monocoque Peugeot, the 205 that saved Peugeot’s bacon from the Talbot debacle in the ‘80s, the 206 that became a record-selling world car (10 million built and counting)… The 207 and current 208 seem a bit lackluster in this company, but our 204 is very much worthy of Peugeot’s “Terrific Twos” – it was the model that broke new ground and helped transform its maker into a world-class automotive giant.
It’s a pity this one seems to be stored without any protection. It was obviously registered recently to its current owner, as the brand new plates can attest. Perhaps said owner isn’t able to rescue this nice little Pug right now. Here’s hoping it will get the attention it deserves sooner rather than later.
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