(first posted 12/20/2011)
Some cars are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. (Malvolio, Twelfth Night. Sort of.)
The unassuming Peugeot 205 was not born into greatness. Following a spending spree in the 1970s, Peugeot found itself in control of Citroën and Chrysler Europe, and unsurprisingly they were both money pits. By 1980, Peugeot was no longer profitable. Fortunately, and somewhat astonishingly given that the dread hand of Chrysler was tangentially involved, Peugeot’s fortunes were about to be revived by a car quite unlike their usual offerings. The Simca-derived Peugeot 205 won WhatCar?’s ‘Car of the Year’ in 1984, and was declared ‘Car of the Decade’ by CAR magazine in 1990, at least according to Wikipedia.
Fun small cars are what we’ve come to expect from the French, but it’s worth remembering that in the early ’80s, Peugeot was known for building larger, comfortable cars like the 404 and 505, and needed a competitor to fight the Renault 5. The 104, built from 1972 onwards, was worthy but showing its age. A replacement was needed, and the 205 was an instant hit on its arrival in 1983.
The 205 lived more or less unchanged for 15 years, lent the whole Peugeot family its styling language, and defined a generation of hot hatches. Given that it was styled in-house in the early ’80s, the 205 looks remarkably fresh. Certainly better than Peugeot’s recent stuff, inspired by putting deep-sea fish into a blender.
Boggo versions of the 205 such as this are sadly overlooked. This example sports (hah!) the 60hp 1.9 non-turbo diesel engine – probably more than enough to overpower the skinny front tyres in the battle for traction. My eyes bugged when I saw this Pug has been to Thruxton of all places, as I initially assumed it had actually been raced. It turns out the friendly owner runs a historic racing series, and the diminutive 205 is not actually his track slag. Despite having access to all sorts of exciting race beasts, he daily drives this 205 along with a 1995 Toyota Celica.
Doubtless it doesn’t go at much more than a leisurely pace, but I’m sure the owner would enjoy the absurdly long suspension travel on the track. Hot laps could be completed with a box of unbroken eggs on the passenger seat.
F1 technology! No wonder he took it to Thruxton. Although I have to wonder why the rally heritage of the two-time world champion 205 Turbo 16 wasn’t plastered all over the rear window. The 205-based T16 won two Group B championships in 1985 and ’86, the last years before that PCP-flavoured class was shut down for good. Four hundred horsepower in such a short wheelbase must have been terrifying.
Although the T16 bore about as much resemblance to this poverty-spec example as bottle rocket does to the space shuttle, it still speaks volumes about the solid fundamentals in this humble hatch. Small wonder that they remain popular despite being so disposable.
Even 28 years after its first introduction, the 205 remains a decent daily hack. Cheap to fix, the slower versions can be had for pocket change, and thanks to a curb weight of around 800kg, they’re frugal and huge fun. The owner reports that it makes a great daily workhorse and is popular with his 9-year old son, who has mystifyingly named it ‘the Stinkbug’. Somehow it seems fitting.
Peugeot spent some serious francs on the fully independent suspension – it’s so compact it barely intrudes into the passenger area, it’s well-damped, and there’s plenty of feedback, though very ’80s in flavour. It’s very much an update of the classic Austin Mini formula, although the Mini’s devious rubber cones were a little more communicative. A friend of mine had three 205s, he enjoyed them so much. Two were crashed and the other broke (I should point out that this is an observation about the driver rather than the car).
The low curb weight obviously appealed to his inner Timo Salonen; a shame, then, that the 205’s biggest downside is its crashworthiness, which is not unlike being wrapped in tinfoil and put in a machine press.
With more than 5 million made, the 205 was a real hit, just when Peugeot needed it most. Many are still around, as they rarely rust. Those that remain take me back to a time when hatches, and hot ones in particular, were more involving. This isn’t to say that the lift-off oversteer of the GTi is something that I need in my life, but hey, it beats the progressive understeer engineered into almost all cars these days.
It would be a stretch to call the 205 under-appreciated (the GTi is legendary), but a little more recognition of the basic car’s intrinsic goodness would be justified. It seems unfair that I could find the money to afford one simply by cleaning my couch – an ignominious end to a car that defined its class in its heyday.