Trackside And Curbside Classic: 1951 Peugeot 203 – How I Came To Own The World’s Fastest 203

203 WS Killarney Links Voor skerper crop vert-horz

(first posted 4/28/2013. revised 7/7/2016)      How many saloon racing cars can claim the title of curbside classic after fifty years?  This is the story of a highly modified 1951 Peugeot 203 saloon that competed in a number of races at the Killarney racetrack near Cape Town in South Africa in 1963, and nowadays graces my curbside in the picturesque university town of Stellenbosch, about 30 miles from the track.

 Peugeot 203 Racer side curb

This very special car, which has for over thirty years been nestling in the forests of the Tsitsikamma National Park in the sleepy holiday resort of Nature’s Valley – about 370 miles from Cape Town – recently made a return appearance on the Killarney Racetrack with its new owner – yours truly – after competing there with great gusto fifty years ago.  Most racing cars have a short life and are often discarded and forgotten when the drivers move on to something faster and better, but luckily not this one!

 Peugeot 203 Web-Large

Philip Wagener started the project that would become a lifetime adventure, when he bought an unroadworthy 1951 Peugeot 203 sedan from a friend for £75 (about $100 then) early in 1962. The 203 was Peugeot’s all-new post-war car, one that begat a long line of classic RWD Peugeots: 403, 404, 504, 604 and 505. This line began here, and each subsequent generation was a further evolution and enhancement of the qualities and specific engineering solutions that went into the initial 203.

The 203’s new engine, a modern over-square inline four with an aluminum hemi-head cylinder head, had 1290 cc and was rated at 41 hp (later versions had 44 hp). This basic engine architecture would evolve to be used in all of these subsequent RWD Peugeots (as well as light trucks, vans and the military P4), all the way through 1987.

203 WS Ongeluk Links

Soon after he had revamped the car, he and his wife Rika and young son Robert were involved in an accident where a pickup went straight into the side of the car. Nobody was injured, but the 203 was a write off.

203 WS Herbou 1

Another body, originating from the gravel roads of neighbouring country Namibia (then South West Africa), which had no serious accident damage, but lots of rust, was bought. The newly acquired body was stripped and built up from scratch and the already modified engine and other mechanical components from the first car were transplanted. Voila! They had a Peugeot again.

 203 WS Killarney Links Voor

At that time the distributor was already moved to the front of the engine to accommodate the inlet manifold and carburettor arrangement. The radiator was moved forward to accommodate the distributor.

203 WS Enjinruim

The inlet ports had been enlarged and separated and two Solex carburettors were fitted to a custom made inlet manifold. The exhaust manifold had four 900mm equal length pipes. (Very much the same as Italian tuning expert Nardi had done on the European 203s.) There were stiffer valve springs and stronger valve spring retaining collars were machined from high tensile steel. Compression was raised from the standard 6.8:1.

Still during 1962 ( I suspect he had a lot of fun playing around…) Philip made another inlet manifold from aluminium for two SU carbs (1½ inch). With this state of tune he participated in the Camps Bay Hill climb in Cape Town and came second!

203 WS & Mini op Killarney

Not long after this he changed the gearbox to a later C2 unit and designed and made a floor mounted and very precise short throw floor gearshift. A tachometer was made from a discarded speedometer and the cable connected to the gear where the distributor used to be. Philip hand-painted the face of the “rev counter” himself and you have to look twice to see that it is hand done! An electrical fuel pump (SU) and seat belts followed. The standard mechanical pump would never be able to feed those carburettors and gutsy little motor!

203 WS Gr 3 Saloon car scratch

Early in 1963 Philip started practicing at the Killarney race track near Cape Town and he realised that he could not stay upright in the standard seats around corners, especially when changing gears. Two real bucket seats were taken from a 1935 Riley Kestrel and fitted. The passenger seat in the front was adapted to hinge forward and a 12 volt battery lives underneath.

For racing (more playing around in the workshop…) four SU carbs, a racing camshaft and a front anti-roll bar were fitted. All this proved worthwhile as Philip came third in all three four lap “Scratch” races in which he participated. That was against racing aces like Koos Swanepoel in his Ford Anglia and Emmot Barwell in his Alfa Romeo Guiletta. Only three gears were used, reaching 7,000 rpm at the end of the longest straight.

 203 WS Voltooi RV

Although this was the end of the short racing career of Philip and his red Peugeot 203, it was by no means the end of the development of the car. In fact, it seems as if it had only started, even if the car was now more used as a sport sedan for daily transport.  Straight after the racing at Killarney the two SU carbs were refitted as well as a camshaft that was more suited to road use. The 15 x 400 rims were changed for 15 x 380 rims – better acceleration in top gear?

During 1964 a new exhaust manifold was made: four 18 inch pipes going into two 24 inch pipes going into one pipe all the way to the single free flow silencer right at the back. (Getting those exhaust manifold pipes around the right hand drive steering column was no mean feat and there was a little cutting done to the monocoque body structure…). In racing form the exhaust had no silencer and it came out just in front of the rear right wheel!

In 1965 extensive modifications were made to the then standard size 1290cc block. The 203 block was bored out with a specially made hand cranked tool. It was not bored out to fit the wet sleeves of the next engine size, that of the bigger 1468cc 403, but to that of the now quite popular 1618 cc 404. This must have given a lot of extra power – it was an increase of 25% in engine size!.

 203 L Voorwiel

In the beginning of 1966 Philip changed jobs and had more time and equipment at his disposal. During the next three years he widened the rims from 4½ inches to 6 inches, (yes, he raced with standard rims and tyres!); the 203 cylinder head was modified to take bigger 404 inlet valves and bigger Leyland truck outlet valves were fitted – everything is not Peugeot….

203 Webers orig

In September 1968 Philip took over the workshop and now he could buy his own machinery and tools, and in his own words: “Toe kon ek lekker werk wanneer ek tyd gehad het” (Roughly translated from the Afrikaans: “Then I could enjoy myself when I had the time”). A Meissner (local tuning expert) no 7 profile camshaft (suited to road and track) was cut and two Weber 40DCOE carburettors fitted. The bigger inlet ports were matched to four short rubber tubes for the Webers. (The 203/403 engine is highly suited for this kind of adaption as you only have to remove a plate on the side of engine and fit the inlet manifold of your dreams, unlike the 404 engine, where you only have one small inlet port – a source of huge frustration!)

 Enginruim orig van Regs

Soon after this a 403B bell housing, 404 gearbox, shortened 404 driveshaft and torque tube and the later 404 differential and 404 half shafts followed. The engine got a new 403 (still three main bearing) crankshaft and by this time the compression ratio was 10:1. A special intake was made for the air cleaner taking in air from just behind the grille. The intake on the right hand side of the engine is for a specially designed heater for the Cape winters.

This was now a substantially modified car and I would think quite fast for its day. In a late 1980’s interview I had with Philip, who was a humble and gentle man, with a great sense of humour, he told me the top speed was about 180 km/h and that it could spurt to 100km/h in 10 seconds! His wife Rika recalls with great amusement how she once beat a big noise V8 at a traffic light in the nearby town of Knysna…

203 Enginruim detail

But this discreet little hotrod had to stop. The huge standard Peugeot drum brakes on the front wheels were changed for Ford Zephyr Six disc brakes, Triumph callipers and a brake booster (made in Australia).  At the rear a flat oval home made stainless steel silencer tried to keep the sound down, but that was only up to about 2000 rpm. Beyond that chaos breaks loose! (The car now runs with an additional small stainless steel silencer just in front of the rear axle. One has to consider the neighbours and your own ears….)

It seems that at this stage Philip considered the development complete. Apart from stripping the paint to the bare metal (second time in twenty years) and respraying the car in 1982, the only modification that was added many years later was Luminition electronic ignition.  Luckily I have two letters, one written and one typed by Philip himself, in which describes the story.

 203 Voorkant 15-10-2011

For most people it looks like an original fifties Peugeot 203, and it does give that impression, because everything that has been done to the bodywork and interior has been done quite discreetly. For those who know these cars well, there are some serious changes!

Firstly the colour! It is a beautiful deep red, but in those days 203s were mostly boring dove grey. Some guys were lucky to get a drab olive green and the really special ones were black. Here and there some buyers got a beige or cream one. In Europe there was a beautiful deep maroon. I remember my grandfather had a charcoal one with a sun roof and the early small rear window.

 203 Agter 15-11-2011

On the Wagener Spéciale the small rear window was changed to the later more panoramic version. The bumpers and grille are painted glossy black (instead of body colour), but one must admit, it does look good. The widened wheels make quite a statement – even with the standard 165xR15x80 tyres! The headlamps with halogen globes are not standard but that only a purist will notice. The simple little polished stainless steel number plate lamp holder at the rear is another of Philip’s own creations. Some experts will notice, perhaps.

 203 voorsitplekke

The inside is another story. The basic colour is black and the seats have white piping -.totally non-original! Those Riley Kestrel bucket seats are a real giveaway that this is a modified interior. Then your eyes move to the very short stubby gear lever in the central carpet covered gearbox housing. No steering column shift here. The instrumentation is all changed. Gone is the central panel with a square speedo with little square gauges. In the centre is a big round speedometer (Smiths!) and four smaller round gauges (fuel, oil pressure, ampères and water temperature) to the left and right of the central big dial. Right in front of the driver, through the polished flat aluminium spokes of the custom made wood-rimmed steering wheel is the cable operated hand painted tachometer.

 203 instrumentpaneel

The original plastic knobs for the controls have long disintegrated into powder and Philip turned a set of beautiful wooden knobs. One of them for another modification: a windscreen washer! And there is also a hand throttle – much too boring to use on this car…   The starter handle is original: on the left hand side of the dashboard is a little black handle. That you must pull out with two fingers to get the starter going! When you switch on the ignition, you hear the new (the electrical SU fuel pump packed up) Facet pump ticking away, a light goes on under the dashboard to light up your feet, you pull the starter with two fingers and as the engine starts with a healthy surge, the light at your feet goes out!

How did I get to know of the car? If I remember correctly, another 203 enthusiast, Johan Fourie of Witbank, told me about it and one year, in the late eighties, whilst holidaying nearby, we made a pilgrimage. Our two families immediately bonded and we became friends.  On that first visit I was granted the rare privilege of driving the car. The power going up the Grootrivier Pass and the acceleration as soon as we reached level ground gave me the impression that this little car was faster than my 1985 2,2 litre ohc fuel-injected Peugeot 505GTI… We are still have to see to that in a duel! I estimate the horsepower in the region of 110 plus…

 Philip Wagener en renfoto

And so the friendship grew with me drawing as much information out of Philip as I could during each visit. The fascination with the car stayed, but I never even had a wild dream that I would one day own the car. That was until August 2011 when Rika phoned me and said that Philip had passed away at 81 and that she would prefer that I buy the car! We settled on a price and on 13 October I took delivery – with quite a load of spares, including a gearbox and differential. The return journey of about 550km went without a hitch. I just scared some people up some steep hills…

 203 WS Killarney Raceway crop

In 2012 Johan Loubser, vice chairman of the Peugeot Club, and I took it around the Killarney track during the Sunday lunch time parade at the South Easter Historic Races during the weekend of 4 and 5 February. It was a great feeling.

Peugeot 203 With Dawid 2013

No, I am not going to race the car! I have never raced, it costs too much money, and if anything breaks I am in big trouble as this car actually exists in the mind of Philip Wagener, who is no longer with us! That is apart from the fact that both Rika Wagener and my wife have forbidden me to race it!  So I am going to enjoy and nurture it for as long as I can. But beware at the traffic lights and up steep hills, fellow curbsiders!