Even in its country of origin, finding a decent example of the Peugeot 304 is getting mighty challenging these days. So I found a rather tatty one, which will have to do. French people aren’t as careful with their ‘70s Peugeots as one might hope, and even though this one is used as a mobile publicity board for a restaurant, it’s still sleeping rough and could use a fresh coat of metallic azure blue paint.
Still, at least this is a good representative of the type that was most often seen: a (mostly) blue mid-production S model, with the big taillamps, brown vinyl seats and the manual sunroof. These cars were everywhere when I grew up, and although no one in our family had one (my father had a 504 and later a second-hand 604 – close, but no cigar), these are more familiar to me than current Peugeots are in many ways.
The 304 story starts in April 1965, when Peugeot launched the 204 (above). This was the marque’s first FWD car – a thoroughly modern design with a transverse-mounted all-alloy 1.1 litre OHC engine, all-independent suspension and front disc brakes, wrapped in a PininFarina-designed 4-door body. The 204 soon spouted variants, including a wagon, a fastback coupé and a cabriolet. But the little Peugeot, though very successful, was a bit limited in its appeal.
To persuade punters to part with more money, Peugeot needed to offer a bit more car. At the Paris Motor Show of October 1969, the 304 was unveiled – it was clearly a 204 body with a 15cm-longer trunk and a sort-of-new face (the 504’s distinctive trapezoidal headlights), but everything between the two was strictly identical to the 204.
Well, there was an exception: the engine was a 1288cc good for 65hp (DIN) – ten more than the 204. No one ever accused the 204 of being too quick, so this extra cavalry was direly needed. In fact, given the 304’s heavier tail and fancier trim, the 1.3 litre was barely enough to give the new model any dynamic edge over its cheaper stablemate.
The 304’s range soon started to do what it was meant to do, i.e. cannibalize its older sister. By the spring of 1970, the coupé and cabriolet switched their Jacquelinesque 204 kisser for the feisty “Sophia Loren eyes” of the 304. They also traded their column shifters for floor-mounted ones in the process. By October 1970, the 304 range saw the addition of a wagon variant that was identical to the 204, bar the front end and the engine. But the 204 wagon continued to exist in parallel, unlike the sporty two-doors, which got their bigger engine, new interiors and revised lights, and never looked back.
Then 1972 happened. Two evolutionary leaps took place in the hitherto peaceful life of the 304. In the spring, the coupé and cabriolet received an additional 10hp thanks to a 2-bbl carburetor. This was the “S” engine, which Peugeot touted as the “New S motor super-powerful 80 hp [gross]” in its period adverts.
The 75hp (DIN) engine enabled the 304 to reach 160kph and became available on the saloon (but not the wagon) by the Paris salon that autumn for MY 1973. And on that occasion, Peugeot unveiled the 304 saloon’s butt-lift: gone were the twinned vertical lights of the early cars and on went a larger composite rectangular units. At the same time, the roofline was made a bit taller and the C-pillar thicker to improve rear headroom. For good measure, they also added a vent on said C-pillar and gave the S a new set of rims and hubcaps.
The 304 saloon, whether S or not, now featured a floor gear change like the coupé and cabriolet. That shifter was actually less precise and well-sorted than the column change that the 204/304 had been engineered with from the start, but the times were a-changing and Peugeot were way behind on that particular score. Older legacy models such as the 404, 204 and the 304 wagon kept their column change until the end, as did some versions of the 504 such as the pickup, but from this point on, new Peugeots would have their four on the floor.
The S model also re-established the three-round-dials instrument cluster that Peugeot had established on the 204, but inexplicably discarded for the 304, moving back to an old-fashioned (by European standards) rectangular tachometer. One tradition remained unbroken: the metal sunroof. This feature was a Peugeot fixture available on nearly all models since the prewar days, and one that continued on for the rest of the century.
The 204 was France’s best-selling car for three consecutive years (1969, 1970, 1971) – the first postwar Peugeot to have that honour, but the 304 never reached its cheaper sibling’s popularity. That was only true domestically, though: export markets preferred the 304, in all variants, by a small margin compared to the 204. Peugeot even tried their luck on the US market with the 304, but apparently only managed to shift 4200 units (sedans and wagons combined) from 1970 to 1972.
One criticism levelled against the 304 was its cabin space: the 304’s noticeably thicker seats, compared to the 204, caused rear legroom to be a bit on the stingy side. The 304 S were dressed in an all-leatherette upholstery (in a shade that Peugeot called “amber”) until 1976, when cloth became standard. Had our CC been a bit younger, its interior would have disintegrated by now.
Nineteen seventy-five was the very peak of the outstanding -04 series. The 404 saloon (top right) left the scene that model year (though it stayed on as a pickup truck); the V6-powered 604 (bottom right) debuted at the March 1975 Geneva Motor Show. The 104 (top left) was the new up-and-coming baby Pug, the aging 204 got a Diesel and a black grille as a retirement present, the 304 and 504 were cruising along, the latter with a new 6-cyl. for its two-door variants. Hard to pick just one…
This finely-tuned equilibrium was already being upset by the Citroën takeover, which the French government more or less forced on Peugeot in late 1974, and then completely blown to bits by the Chrysler Europe deal in 1978. The 305, which was no more and no less than a re-bodied 304, was launched that year, signaling that the end of the 304 era was nigh.
The 304 coupé / cabriolet were the first to leave the scene, at the end of MY 1975. The 204 range went the year after that; the 304 saloon disappeared from the range in the summer of 1979 and the wagon lasted until May 1980, just in time for the 305 wagon to take over. With 1.2 million units made, the 304 was a very nice money-maker for Peugeot. Add 1.6 million 204s and the whole Peugeot FWD programme seems to have been a genuine success.
Don’t get me wrong, there were great Peugeots made after 1975 and after the -04 series. The 205 is still a regular road cockroach in a lot of Western European countries, which is impressive for a car introduced in 1983, and the 505 bravely carried the torch for big RWD Pugs into the 1990s. And mid-‘70s Peugeots were not without their issues (they rusted pretty badly for instance, like most cars of that era).
Still, with 2021 hindsight, it seems like the -04 series cars, be they FWD saloons or RWD wagons, represented something of a pinnacle for their maker, before Peugeot got distracted (and somewhat diluted) by having to rescue Citroën, then Simca/Rootes and finally themselves, from the hole they found themselves in. Now that PSA has absorbed Opel and sealed an alliance with FCA, the Peugeot genes no longer show as clearly as they did on their mid-‘70s range. Fortunately, a few survivors like this 304 S still hang about, a reminder of how masterful the world’s second-oldest carmaker was at its craft.
Cohort Capsule: Peugeot 304 Convertible – You Look So Rich!, by Perry Shoar