Some places are CC magnets. I caught a Talbot Samba, a ‘70s Renault 4, a Harburger Transporter, a K10 Micra, a Méhari and a 2CV in the same village street in southern France over the years. It’s no Eugene, but it’ll do. Here’s another find from this blessed place: this cute little Pug, still very much a daily driver, like the others.
Introduced in 1972, the smallest Peugeot since the ‘20s had a distinguished 16-year career – over 1.6 million were made, including about 365,000 short-wheelbase cars like this one. Yet the 104 had not yet been featured on CC. Always ready to shine a light on the more obscure corners of the automotive world, I had the good fortune of finding this very well-preserved coupé version.
How small can a small car be? Peugeot’s answer, about 45 years ago, was: “Very.” The 104 was very short as a four-door, but it was positively tiny as a short-wheelbase hatchback. But short cars tend to have long lives and the Peugeot 104 was no exception.
The “04” series represents something of a coming of age for Peugeot. The 204 (1965-76) and 304 (1969-80) introduced FWD and ushered in a new era of small Peugeots, including the 104 (1972-88). Alongside this new family of smaller cars, Peugeot kept a line of larger RWD models. The 404 (1960-75) and the lower-spec/LWB 504s represented supreme ruggedness. The mid-to-higher-spec 504 (1968-83) and the 604 (1975-85) received IRS and re-established the automaker in the 2-litre and luxury niches that Peugeot had abandoned since the Second World War.
The other novelty of the “04” series was the introduction of a new 100-series FWD 1-litre car, a true Simca 1000 and Renault 4/5/6 fighter. The 104 had an all-alloy OHC 4-cyl. engine producing 46 hp (DIN), which was about as good as small engines could get in the early ‘70s. Positioned east-west, the little four was tilted 72°, lying almost horizontally toward the bulkhead, which enabled the spare wheel to fit over the engine/transmission block. The all-round independent suspension used coils, not unlike the 204/304’s setup, as well as front disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering.
It was not without its faults. The lack of a rear hatch was bemoaned by many – so much so that Peugeot devised a proper hatchback for the four-door saloon by 1977. The 104 was the first post-war Peugeot to completely forego the increasingly passé column-mounted gearstick; alas, perhaps because of this relative inexperience, the gearbox linkage was deemed substandard and the interior beyond drab. And just as they had done with the 204, Peugeot launched their new lowest-price car at a pretty steep FF 12,200 in late 1972: you could get a Simca 1100 saloon with 60 hp and a proper rear hatch for a few hundred Francs less, or a plain-Jane Citroën GS for a few hundred more.
To justify its price, aside from its very modern drivetrain, he Peugeot 104 had two secret weapons. One was the use of space, which was incredibly good. Four people and a few pieces of luggage could fit in the 104 saloon without difficulty. The saloon managed to fit four decent-sized doors in a total length of only 358cm long (141 in.) with a 242cm (95 in.) wheelbase. This was the shortest European four-door saloon at the time, a fact often repeated in contemporary literature.
The second secret weapon, revealed at the October 1973 Paris Motor Show, was the “Z” car. This was Peugeot parlance for an ultra-short version of the 104 that, at least initially, was called 104 Coupé. The main difference was in the dramatic 20cm reduction of the wheelbase, which transformed the 104 into a true city car.
Peugeot chiefly aimed the 104 Z at DINKY-types and older folks: the coupé was given a much improved interior and distinctive headlamps to justify its price being over FF1200 more than the 104 saloon. A full range was soon developed, from the super-stripper ZA Commerciale (sold without rear seats) to the hot hatch ZS, which had a bigger 66hp 1.1 litre engine.
The sacrifice of the rear seats, which were all but symbolic, was the inevitable trade-off of the shorter wheelbase. The diminutive Pug was at best a 2+2, but it proved influential on the rest of the 104 range. New engine options were usually tested on the coupé first, and it was the only one to receive the fire-breathing 92 hp 1360cc Peugeot XY engine, on the 1979-only ZS 2; the saloon and lesser ZS made do with calmer versions of this motor.
The coupé also had an esthetic influence. The 104 Z’s headlamps soon began appearing on higher-spec 104 saloons and ended up conquering the whole range. The 104 was styled, as virtually all Peugeots were in those days, by PininFarina and is credited to the hand of Paolo Martin, of Rolls-Royce Camargue and Fiat 130 fame. It isn’t easy to design a very small car, and this is a pretty good example of how to do it well.
Peugeot (and, presumably, PininFarina) tried to see what the 104 would look like with a sticky-out rear, which negated the car’s smallest-European-saloon selling point and upset the design’s balance quite a bit. A 104 wagon was also tried out, but Peugeot reasoned that the 104 Break would mostly exist at the expense of the 304 and 305 Break. So the 104 Z was the only production variant. Well, the only one with a Peugeot badge, anyway.
For the 104 was born, fortuitously for an economy car, just before the First Oil Shock of 1973 and the 1974 buyout of Citroën. The 104 coupé wasn’t selling too well, but Peugeot stuffed the Dyane’s 600cc flat-twin into a SWB 104 body and stuck a new grille with two chevrons on it, creating the Citroën LN/LNA (1976-85, top left). The 104 saloon’s underpinnings (and 4-cyl. engine) were also used to create the 1978-88 Visa (bottom left), which proved that it was, indeed, very difficult to design a pretty small car. In 1981, the now nine-year-old 104 was called upon yet again to serve as a base for the Talbot Samba, now that Simca had been taken over. The 104 coupé was stretched just enough to provide a bit of legroom at the back, necessitating a heavy restyle that hardly disguised the Peugeot DNA underneath. Interestingly, the Samba cabriolet (bottom right) was credited to PininFarina, who thus put their signature on a bastardization of their original design.
It’s intriguing that the 104 carried on as the Peugeot de base for so long, but the whole Talbot debacle screwed up Peugeot’s plans. As long as the Talbot and Citroën versions of the 104 were still in demand, why shouldn’t Peugeot carry on the original as well? The birth of the 205 on 1983 and the Citroën AX in 1986, along with the winding down of Talbot, signaled that the end was nigh.
Still, the 104 had just had a revised grille for the whole range in 1983, finally matching the large rear lights that had arrived in 1978 on the Z (and 1980 on the saloon). The dashboard was also revisited, in a manner of speaking: the 104 just borrowed the Talbot Samba’s more modern-looking effort. Peugeot played the high-end city car card until the end with the “Style Z” version, which was introduced as a limited edition in 1983 and carried over in subsequent years before becoming a full-time high trim level by 1986. The smoky grey (Gris fumé, in Peugeot parlance) colour seen on this car was the most common on this model, complete with go-faster stripes and the obligatory sports steering wheel.
By the time the Style Z came on the scene, the 104’s engine was back down to only one choice: 1124cc giving out 50 hp (DIN), but now mated to much better a five-speed gearbox. The 104 kept this engine until the end, in the summer of 1988. Our feature car is one of these final 104s – either 1987 or 1988.
I’m not quite sure why the 104 was the only Peugeot since the 203 never to propose a Diesel option. Certainly, the car’s underpinnings were compatible with Diesel engines, as is proved by the existence of Diesel Sambas and Visas. Another singularity of this little car, I guess.
The Peugeot 104 was a risky move on Peugeot’s part. The car’s price would necessarily limit its success, and indeed, compared to the VW Polo, the Renault 5 or the BMC Mini, sales were relatively modest. Peugeot’s average annual production hovered around 120,000 in the good years, plus 20,000-odd of the SWB version. (The best year for the 104 was 1977, with over 190,000 units made.) That was decent enough, but thanks to the 350,000 Citroën LN/LNA, 275,000 Talbot Samba variants and the 1.2 million Citroën Visas, the investment Peugeot put into their groundbreaking small car bore more fruit than initially envisaged.
Though not quite the hit that it might have been, the 104 has an important place in Peugeot’s modern history by introducing the modern city car in Peugeot’s range, which would later include the highly successful 106 (1991-2003), the 107 (2005-14) and the current 108. An important car, yes; a competent car, of course. And If I hadn’t seen so many of these growing up, I might even find it interesting…