504 is the area code needed to reach New Orleans. Based on my childhood recollections, 504 was also the number Peugeot used effectively to reach New Orleans import car buyers. Praise from period buff books reinforced the choice: the quirky, charming French car offered a number of attributes that made it well-suited for ardent Francophiles.
While domestic iron still ruled the roost in New Orleans in the 1970s, some imports were catching on, including Peugeot, which was not surprising given that the city has a rich French heritage dating back to its founding.
For a young, budding car enthusiast like me, the 504 was one of the first imports I could readily identify. Pinninfarina’s distinctive styling, with the canted “eyebrows” over the headlights and the uniquely droopy deck lid, ensured that the 504 stood out from the crowd. I also got an early lesson in French pronunciation from my parents as I learned about the car: “pew-joe” quickly became part of my lexicon, rather than my more phonetic original “pee-ugh-eee-oht.”
One of my parent’s friends, Xavier (naturellement!), had an early 504 (probably a ’71 or ’72), which I vaguely remember, mostly because of its looks, its seat headrests and the fact that it was so different from all the other cars that I knew. What I didn’t understand at the time was what it was like to drive, or the extent of its appeal. But today I can look back at what the press had to say when the 504 arrived on our shores to get a more vivid tableau.
Motor Trend’s assessment in the February 1970 issue primarily pointed out a number of advantages of the efficient European design philosophy, noting that the Peugeot packed a lot of space and clever details into a diminutive package. They also noted that, for most Americans, any Peugeot was pretty much an unknown commodity.
Car and Driver also commented on Peugeot’s obscurity stateside, along with noting its ample practicality, comfort and high build quality.
The 504 was filled with unusual details that would have seemed very foreign to most U.S. buyers. Some, like the integrated headrests that could easily be pushed down into the front seats, were quite useful. Others, like odd foot-mounted controls, were certainly less-endearing quirks.
Car and Driver gave much praise to the Peugeot’s ride and handling balance, noting that it offered a rather unique combination of softness with agility. That point alone must have helped sell more than a few 504s in New Orleans, with the city’s notoriously pot-holed and relatively narrow streets practically begging for a maneuverable small car with a smooth ride.
Performance was nothing to brag about: it was merely adequate at best, and one of the 504’s weakest points. Peugeot would soon address that shortcoming, however, as a bored-out, more powerful 4-cylinder engine was imported during 1971. Road Test Magazine delivered a full report on the more potent Pug in October 1971.
The enlarged engine provided useful additional output, allowing the car to better deliver on its promise of sprightly performance. The increased capacity would also have been vital for cars equipped with air conditioning, which was almost a mandatory option in South Louisiana.
In spite of its charms, and perhaps because of its quirks, Peugeot only sold 8,288 examples of its new 504 in the U.S. market for 1970 and 1971, significantly trailing its European rivals like Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and even Saab (though the Swedish “Born From Jets” brand was virtually non-existent in the Deep South from what I recall–it must have been a popular New England and West Coast choice).
Based on my childhood sightings in New Orleans, however, the Big Easy could well have been one of the stronger markets for the French brand in the U.S. Perhaps the NOLA Peugeot dealer was good, maybe there were enough neighborhood mechanics adept at handling all the necessary maintenance, and of course, there was the inherent local obsession with all things French. Whatever the reasons, I could count on occasionally spotting a 504. It was always a fun car to see, bringing a bit of Gallic personality to the Bayou State. Vive la différence!