Most cars improve within their production life. They start off with a plain-Jane price leader and a deluxe / sporty variant, then other trim levels are added, engine and transmission options are grafted on, more options become available, defects are remedied, facelifts and safety features change the car’s appearance. With the 504, Peugeot sort of bucked that trend – this 504 L being a case in point.
This one hit close to home when I saw it back in the old country last month. My father had one just like it, albeit in Diesel flavour and in a different colour, when I was born. It was one of the few cars he ever bought new, sometime around 1975. Ten years later, he traded it in for a second-hand 604 SL (can you feel the social elevation?) – a move he soon regretted, from a financial point of view. Just like how Peugeot themselves felt about the 504 then: it was a good decision, broadly speaking. Over three and a half million satisfied customers the world over can’t all be wrong.
The 504 L can trace its roots directly to Peugeot’s postwar renaissance, incarnated by the 203. It arrived on the scene in 1948 and established the basic pattern for Peugeot’s next few decades: four door saloon with unit body construction; a range of variants including a wagon, a pickup and swanky two-door variants; a sturdy 4-cyl. engine with a column-mounted 4-speed – only one engine, until the 403 introduced the Diesel; the front suspension did evolve with the 404’s struts, but the rear’s coil-sprung and worm-driven live axle (with specific variants for wagons and pickups) remained.
Within this framework, the progression of Peugeot’s basic saloon from the 203 (1.3 litres, made between 1948 and 1960), 403 (1.5 litres; 1955-66), 404 (1.6 litre; 1960-75) and 504 (1796cc initially, then upped to 2-litres for MY 1971) was almost seamless. Well, except that the 504’s party trick was its IRS, but we’ll get to that.
The other trick Peugeot invented to make sure they kept a loyal following was to create base-spec versions long after their new car was launched. In early 1960, the 203 went out of production, but Peugeot immediately introduced the 403-Sept, a super-basic 403 with a 203-size engine. The 403 died in 1966, but the base-spec 404 wagon had a 1.5 litre engine since MY 1962 (not the 403’s engine, but a 404 block shrunk down to the 403’s displacement) and it only took Peugeot till 1967 to launch the 404/8 saloon – a stripped-down 404 with the 1.5 litre engine.
The 404/8 was a sales dud and only lasted a couple model years, even as the 504 joined the range in late 1968. Then came time for the 404 to be put out to pasture, so Peugeot played the same trick again with the 504 L. The ultra-base-spec 504 arrived in the spring of 1973 – about 18 months prior to the 404 saloon’s European market exit. This time, Peugeot did not fit the older model’s engine in the new one: they just re-used the 504’s initial 1.8, which was a direct evolution of the 404’s 1.6 anyway.
However, they kept the cheapo feel of the 403-Sept and 404/8 in many ways, both inside and out, as well as underneath: the 504 L forewent the IRS used on its pricier stablemates (above) and reintroduced the solid, rigid and oh-so-lively rear axle, hitherto only seen on the 504 wagon, back to the saloon. Just as on the wagon, the 504 L’s rear brakes were downgraded to drums, but the wagon’s double coil setup was simplified to a single pair for the new base-spec saloon.
Thus the 504 had four different rear suspensions throughout its long production life. The 2-litre saloons and the Pininfarina-built two-doors (top left) kept the IRS. The 504 L / LD (top right, the latter being with the 1948cc Diesel version, a.k.a the car we had when I was a kid) had a solid rear axle with a pair on coils. Wagons (bottom right) had a double pair of coils, inherited from the 404 wagon. The 504 pickup (bottom left), which only took over from the 404 version in late 1979 (!) featured leaf springs, as any truck should. Incidentally, the pickup outlasted the entire rest of the range in Europe, being made in France until 1996.
Mirroring its undercarriage, the interior of the 504 L was pretty old-fashioned. Peugeot used the base-spec “Commerciale” wagon’s rather severe dash, with its horizontal tachometer (from the 304) and uniformly black plastic trim. At least they used the regular steering wheel on the saloon, as opposed to the Commerciale’s ancient item. For its part, the 4-speed gearbox’s lever was on the column, whereas the higher-trim 504 saloons had theirs moved to the floor for MY 1973.
I kind of flubbed the photos of the interior, so here’s a clearer rendition of the 504 L’s distinctively uncluttered interior layout (top pic), as compared to the higher trim mid-‘70s 504 GL / TI. Pretty stark comparison! When Peugeot decided to go austere, they did not mess around.
External differences were more discreet. One key feature of the L was its lack of black bumper guards, though our feature car has them – plain 504 bumpers are apparently hard to find these days, these must be replacements. Other distinguishing marks were the L’s black plastic grille and painted door frames. The usual stripper fare.
The thing about the 504 L is that is eventually eclipsed its higher trimmed sisters. This did not happen overnight, but was the normal consequence of attrition within the Peugeot range. In 1979, the 504 L just became the plain old 504, got a better-looking dash with its four now firmly on the floor and bumpers with rubber guards, so it became less of an outlier within the range. The next year, the lowest-spec 504 saloon became the GR, now paired with a mechanically identical (but better equipped) SR.
The 2-litre IRS saloons disappeared in 1980, and so did the SR in 1982, leaving the formerly-known-as-L 504 GR as the last saloon in the European range for 1983, alongside the wagon, pickup and the PF coupé/cabriolet (those still had the IRS, of course). Thus ended the 504’s European career: all of the 504’s attributes and engine options had gradually been transferred over to the 505, barring the live axle for saloons and the PF variants, which sadly just disappeared. The 505 wagon kept the 504 L’s single coil live axle setup, much to the chagrin of the many folks around the globe who praised the 404 and 504 wagon’s tough-as-nails derriere.
Peugeot themselves called the 504 “the French Mercedes” in some of their foreign adverts. With the 504 L (79hp, top speed: 155kph / 96mph) and even more so with the LD (56hp, top speed: 132kph / 82mph), the comparison with Benz is somewhat tenuous. If you thought the oil-burner W123 was kind gutless, you should try the Peugeot version. In terms of durability and reliability though, the 504 does have some similarity with Stuttgart’s best export.
As far as I know, the Argentinian- and Kenyan-made 504 saloons, the latter being sold until 2001, had the same live axle setup as our 504 L. The Nigerian cars (above), assembled until 2005, apparently had the pickup’s tougher leaf-sprung rear end, though a thorough CC investigation about these global 504s would be far more instructive than hazy and sometimes contradictory Internet sources.
I was very glad to see that at least one 504 L was not shipped off to Africa and remains, pristine and with its original plates, in its home country. This was probably the first one I’ve seen in 20 years. They are not drop-dead gorgeous like the coupés, but they certainly have character. And those “Sophia Loren” eyes – one of the only bits of the car they never really messed with. Everything else, from the rear lights to the bumpers, from the dashboard to the grille, from the engine and the rear suspension, was up for grabs, sometimes for the better, mostly for the cheaper. Peugeot really did us a solid with that one.
COAL Capsule: Peugeot 504 – My Most Beautiful Failure, by Laurie Boussom