Curbside Classic: 1989 Peugeot 505 Wagon – The Last Of The World’s Greatest Wagons

(first posted 6/20/2011)

The Peugeot 505 wagon marks the end of an extraordinary series of vehicles, the last of its kind. For almost fifty years (full history here), Peugeot built an evolving family of purpose built wagons (and light trucks) that had no equal anywhere. They may have shared the distinctive X0X nomenclature of their corresponding-numbered sedan versions, but were substantially different vehicles from the windshield back.

With the disappearance of the 505 in 1992, a whole genre of vehicles died: the extended-length high-capacity RWD wagon. What killed them off? The mini-van, which certainly has its advantages, as well as a growing taste in Europe for sedan-based wagons. But for hard core wagon fans, the world will never be quite the same. Hail the last of The World’s Greatest Wagons.

The justification of the immodest title bestowed on this series of wagons is fully justified (hopefully) in the companion History piece. So we’ll stick to the 505’s role as the ultimate expression of them. And we won’t even touch the 505 sedan, which will get its own CC, given how different it was in construction as well as the driving experience.

As a former 404 wagon (and sedan) owner, I’m hardly impartial about my love for these big wagons. But I will admit to being personally less familiar, and even a hair less enthusiastic about the 505 than its illustrious predecessors. Let’s just say that a new eight-seat 505 SW8 wagon was not on the radar when we bought our Grand Caravan in 1992, and not just because Peugeot had abandoned the American market the year before. The mini-van’s arrival in 1984 swamped the big wagon market, which led Peugeot to finally offer the three-seat version for the first time ever in the US (why??), but it was too late to stem the tide, not that Peugeot wagons really ever were that popular here. But that’s doesn’t fully explain my hesitancy.

For that matter, I never really considered a new 504 either when we bought a Cherokee in 1985. In retrospect, I sometimes regret that, but the 504 diesels were just too noisy and slow. And in 1984, diesels were just about the only choice in CA-bound wagons.

What had drawn me to the 404 in the first place was its mechanical simplicity and easy to fix nature, contrary to the image all French cars are sullied with in the US. Well, that and the fact that I picked ours up for $75! And although the later Peugeot wagons (and sedans) continued to be built on superb chassis with suspensions unparalleled in terms of comfort combined with load capacity, the adaptations required to meet US-specific regulations as well as just the inevitable increase in complexity and electronics  all cars were much more of a challenge for Peugeot than most other makers (Japanese, in particular)

It was the peripherals, mostly, that made the later Pugs decidedly more challenging, as well as contributing further to that Made In France rep. A big part was the ability to understand properly what the specific issues were, and how to treat them; not a common occurrence with Peugeot’s thin and shaky dealer network. In a way that’s always been the case with Peugeots here, and why I could pick up ten year-old 404s back in the day for next to nothing (or actually nothing): American aversion to the unfamiliar. The result today is the same as it was then with the 404; the remaining 505s are all in the hands of Pugeophiles. Except 404s didn’t have ABS, four-speed automatics, air conditioning, and a raft of other “potential problems”.

This one’s owner, is a carpenter and a confirmed 505 wagon adherent, thanks in part to their roomy cargo bay. I’d seen him driving another one before I ran into him a while back with this one. The prior one developed some serious mechanical malady (I’ve forgotten exactly). But then I ran into him again at the hardware store just the other day, and he was driving a different one yet. Our featured 505 was hit, but its transmission went into his latest love. At the rate he’s going, he’s going to exhaust the supply of available 505 wagons by himself, and quickly.

The real asset of the 505 wagon (and all Pug wagons) is their extra-long (114.2″) wheelbase and unique four-coil solid rear axle suspension (sedans had IRS). That gave them a phenomenal 1265 pound rated load capacity (slightly more than my F-100), without compromising that famous French ride in the least. And if it was anything like my 404 wagon, the directional stability of these wagons is superb, to the point of not really being all too happy about changing direction from the straight and true. Sport wagons these were not, even the turbo versions.

It’s what separates the Peugeot wagons from the contemporary Volvos, which were built on the same platform as their respective sedans. As roomy as the Volvos could be, they were just not in the same class as a Peugeot, but a Volvo 740 turbo felt like a sports car compared to a 505. It’s also what made the Peugeot wagons irrelevant: in Europe, wagons increasingly became the preferred body style for middle-class family cars, instead of the utility work horses they had once been. And genuine light trucks and vans took over the Peugeot’s utility role. In the US, big wagons were in terminal decline anyway.

The 505 wagons were powered by no less than four completely distinct engine families, which is a bit confusing even to me. And a bit disappointing, since the later two gas engines aren’t even Peugeot engines, strictly speaking. Through 1985, gas 505s used the familiar XN-series engine that first appeared in the 404 back in 1961. American versions had the final 1971 cc version, with fuel injection, but it wasn’t exactly brimming with power given the wagon’s size and capacity, especially in terms of the increased power expectations of the mid-eighties. That’s an understatement, all the more so with an automatic and A/C.

So beginning in 1987, two other gas fours replaced the familiar XN, whose roots go back to 1948, the first modern Peugeot four with the classic iron-block pushrod aluminum hemi-head configuration. I admit to being a bit disappointed when I lift the hood on the later 505s, and didn’t even bother with this one.

This one’s not a turbo, so it has the “Douvrin” 2.2 L SOHC four, built at the Peugeot-Renault joint venture plant that also built the PRV V6. The 2DJL engine was used heavily by Renault, and found its way to the US also via the Eagle Medallion and Winnebago LeSharo. It has a rep for actually being a pretty tough mill.

And the 505 turbo versions used a totally different motor, what is called the Simca 180 engine, (N9T) which PSA inherited from their purchase of Chrysler’s European ops, including Simca and Rootes (Hillman, etc.). I can only assume that it must have been a tough unit too, at least after a decade or so of development, to be the engine of choice for Peugeot’s turbo program. Or maybe they needed to do something with that orphaned engine.

Needless to say, Peugeot’s diesel engines went into a fair number of 505s, although not nearly as many as the 504 wagon, which was predominantly diesel, if not exclusively so, some years, like most Mercedes of the times. But by the mid-late eighties, the diesel boom was over, and even turbocharging couldn’t catch American’s eyes or wallets anymore. And although Peugeot’s diesels were tough, and had nothing in common with the gas engines, their noise and vibration levels were hard to bear.

As much fondness as I have for all Peugeot’s classic big wagons, the 505 somehow moves me the least of all of them. Maybe because it was a concept whose time had obviously already passed, or the fact that the 505 was trying too hard to be something it wasn’t, with the turbo version and its sleek styling. Its design and interior lacks the quirkiness of the 504, or sleek elegance of the 404. The 504 was undoubtedly the ultimate of the family, with its camel-back raised rear roof and utterly uncompromising looks. But seeing this 505 and the one or two other 505 wagons around town never fails to make my heart jump a bit; I hope the owner of this one keeps finding replacements for a long time to come.

[I’m guessing at the exact year of this 505]