I’ve yet to come across a vintage review of our beloved Peugeot 404 wagon, so this comparison of ten imported wagons is the closest to that, so far. I was of course curious to see how it was perceived and compared to the others. This is a pretty eclectic bunch, from small to pretty large—for European standards—and ranging in price from $2167 for the Fiat 124 to $3929 for the Citroen DS21.
We’ll let R&T give us a mini review of each and then you can time travel back to 1968 and pick yours.
R&T starts off by saying that “the imported station wagon has much to recommend it to the American buyer. it is of handy size—intelligent size, if you will—relatively low in cost and upkeep…”
It should be noted that by 1968, the only compact domestic wagon was the Rambler American, and it was of course larger than almost all of these, except for the Citroen, Peugeot and Volvo. So for American buyers looking for something both compact and practical, these had a lot to offer. No wonder import car sales were surging again in the late sixties.
The Citroen was of course the most unusual of the bunch, and undoubtedly it sold in the smallest numbers. One might be thrilled to see one of these rare wagons in certain university towns, but they were way outside the mainstream, and much rarer then even the sedan. The Datsun 510 represented the sweet spot and the future of import wagons: Japanese, four doors, reasonable balance of size and good performance from its 96 hp OHC engine. The Fiat, Ford and Opel would soon be gone.
The Citroen’s unique qualities: FWD, superlative ride, room for seven passengers, large luggage space and comfortable seats put it in a class of its own. But its unusual power assisted brakes and steering required serious familiarization. And the big unknown was reliability and service. Not a lot of Citroen dealers to be found. But it is a compelling wagon.
The Datsun was rated “a best buy”, thanks to its numerous strengths and attractive price. These became very popular and developed a cult following. There’s still a couple on the streets here in Eugene; can’t say that for any of the others except perhaps the VW and Volvo 145.
The Fiat 124 had a lot going for it, especially in terms of driving pleasure: it was the sports car of imported wagons. Excellent handling, steering and brakes, a lively engine, sweet transmission, and very good brakes. The little 1197 cc engine was of course buzzy at speed.
The Cortina also had some appealing qualities, as well as obnoxious noise at speed. It seemed to disappear faster than any of the others; not exactly a good sign.
The Opel had only two doors, but a choice of three engines (1.1, 1.5 & 1.9 L), which was quite unusual for an import. The 1.5 version tested was ‘exceedingly noisy”. The styling was “undistinguished”; boxy, in other words.
The Peugeot 404, which was nearing the end of its life, was one of the largest in the group but still yielded excellent fuel mileage (23.5 mpg average) from its 1.6 L slant four. The large and comfortable front seats reclined, but the position for the driver was deemed high and too close to the wheel. That reflects the fact that the 404 was conceived in the late 50s, and had a narrow and tall body for maximum space utilization. That worked for me, but then I’m a fan of high seating positions and narrow bodies.
Not surprisingly, performance was deemed “leisurely”. And that’s with the four speed manual (column shifted). Ours had the three-speed ZF automatic, so it was a extra leisurely, but it always got us there, eventually. Its 1400 lb(!) load carrying capacity was “far above average”. Surprisingly, no mention of its superb ride, no matter whether empty or loaded with 1400 lbs.
The Saab 95 makes an interesting contrast to the 404, with its compact V4 and FWD drive train and body, yet offering seating for up to seven, with a rear-facing third seat. The 404 was built with three forward-facing rows, but not sold in the US.
The Sunbeam Arrow was praised for its smooth 1725cc four, but its cheap interior detracted from its appeal. Another outsider that was soon never seen again.
The VW Squareback was the only rear engine wagon in the group, which gave it both a front and rear cargo area. It had good steering, throttle response from its fuel injected boxer four, and an excellent transmission. Of course it was sensitive to side winds, had poor rear seat leg room, and high engine noise. In other words, all the usual VW weaknesses.
The Volvo 145 wagon was deemed “best looking wagon in its size class”, but its 1.8 L pushrod four was noisy although “eager”. Excellent finish and quality noticeable everywhere. Good ride, steering, handling and brakes. The Volvo “brick” wagon would of course outlive all the others by several decades and become iconic’ they’re still common on the streets here (mostly the later 240 Series). Who could have predicted that in 1968?
The 404 had the longest cargo space, at 74.5″, and the highest weight carrying capacity (1400 lbs), more than twice that of the Opel. Typical American wagons were rated at about 1150 lbs for compacts, and 1250 lbs for full sized ones. Of course one could increase that on American wagons with certain options.
The Opel with the available 1.9 L engine would be the quickest of the bunch, and the 404 and Squareback would be at the rear (R&T only estimated performance based on power-to-weight ratios).
R&T was still using its quite arbitrary “Wear Index”, based on piston travel, which presumed short stroke and highly-geared (low numerical) engines would last significantly longer. That might have been relevant in the 1940s and 50s, but by the late 60s the differences in engine design, quality of materials, tolerances and other factors made that increasingly less relevant as a predictor of actual engine wear. R&T eventually dropped that after the Japanese showed that even small engines could last a long time.
As to prices, I was somewhat surprised to see how reasonable the 404 wagon was at $2899, some $500 less than the similarly-sized Volvo 145.
Now for the picks: which would you want to magically be dropped off by Carvana in front of your house? As compelling as the Citroen is in so many ways, and as sorely tempted as I am, I’d still pick the 404, with a manual instead of the automatic. It’s the one car from my past that I’d most like to have again now, as it fits into my life better than the others. The Saab is appealing too.
Of course if I had any extensive seat time in the Citroen, I’d probably wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.
I want four of them. The DS to look at, the 404 and the Volvo as just plain good cars, and the Saab to love and cherish for daring to be different.
I wonder how their ground clearance and the usual underside angles compare to some of current CUVs. I’d bet the wagons are superior in that criteria.
By the way I’d pick the Saab…
I have distinct childhood memories from a Cortina wagon. It fell apart relatively quickly, but then its owner was hard on cars. The optimist in me wonders if I could make a go of one if I cared for it well. But the more rational part of me says never mind and picks the Datsun.
I will admit that PN’s many tributes to the Peugeot have me eyeing that one as I wrestle between the Ford and the Datsun.
My heart says Citroen or SAAB but my mind says Volvo and my wallet says Datsun.
Then and now I would want the Citroen, but wouldn’t be able to afford to buy or run one.
I wish my Dad had bought squareback VWs instead of the notchbacks he had, the camping trips would have been slightly less uncomfortable. But he bought the notchbacks used, there were fewer squarebacks around. I’ve been tempted, but never actually put my hand in my pocket.
The Saab appeals to me most today.
A couple of comments on the original article, I’m surprised they singled out the Sunbeam for poor finish, I can’t imagine the Ford and Fiat were any better. The Cortina estate rear seat was a horrible thing, to make it fold flat it had really small cushions
The way the Ford rear seats fold flat does make for a long load length relative to the overall length. This was even more obvious in the 1970s with the bigger Ford Consul/Granada and later Cortinas. On the other hand the alternative way of folding the seat base forwards formed a bulkhead which could stop loads sliding forward under heavy braking as well as being better upholstered.
There was a much nicer trimmed Humber Sceptre version of the Arrow available from late 1974 over here, but the design was getting old by then.
It’s a pity they never imported in the USA the SIMCA 1501 wagon which was a strong contender in this class. The DS would be my choice, of course.
Sorry, I would wait until ’69 or ’70, and buy a Toyota Corona Mark II wagon. With the exception of the Datsun, these are all junk. And I would not own a French vehicle even if it was free.
Glad to see my post vaporized.
First car I ever drove was a Datsun Wagon. Got it up to 3rd gear in the high school parking lot. I’d have to agree with fintail jim “my mind says Volvo and my wallet says Datsun”
I only have direct experience, in order, of the Citroen, Volvo and Datsun and that would also represent my order of desire as well. Great cars all!
In 1968, I was very familiar with Volvo, SAAB, Opel, VW, and Datsun. I grew up around all of them in wagon form. The best of the bunch was the Datsun. It was the perfect size, value, design and it looked fantastic. The Volvo was excellent, but out of my price range. My father would have definitely chosen the SAAB because he loved them. There is NO WAY I would have wanted that VW. Know then too well and I do not like them. I have never been an Opel fan. A neighbor of mine had two Kadett wagons, and they screamed, “Cheap!”, but they lasted.
Datsun. It was the future, obvious even back then.
I don’t think I knew the Citroen wagon existed until it appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Squareback and Opel are the only two I’m sure I noticed in ’68 in the O.C., but I was only 7.
I’ve ridden in or driven all of these cars, though not every one in wagon form, except the Sunbeam. Once upon a time I would have taken the Volvo or Datsun, but recently Paul’s Peugeot evangelism plus an appreciation for practicality that has come with age, steer me towards the 404. With the Saab or VW as runners-up.
I’m surprised that the Fiat is as small as it is, the perception of the 124 would put it in the same class as the two Brits and the Datsun but it’s smaller than the Opel which was considered a whole class smaller in Europe.
I get the sense that the VW likely would’ve been the standard by which the others were judged by most buyers then; millions of Beetles over more than a decade meant wide dealer support and independent mechanics being familiar with the VW’s unorthodoxies. Can’t say as much about the Citroen, which would’ve been a brilliant car to have…in France.
Fully half of the economy models are captive imports – Kadett, Cortina and Sunbeam. Of the three, Ford had been continuously selling the English Ford Line in the US for 20 years at that point, Buick had all but quit on Opel in the gap between the launch of the ’61 Special and the Kadett, and Chrysler had only just bought Rootes and deemphasized Simca in their favor (as they’d soon drop Rootes for Mitsubishi…)
Saab disqualifies itself on price/value. It would be a solid contender if it were $500 cheaper but it’s just not worth its’ premium over the other smaller ones.
Among the midprice, big-for-Europe models its’ surprising the Peugeot was so much cheaper than Volvo. The “French Mercedes” was a screaming deal.
So was the Datsun. The future, indeed, even if it was a future Honda and Toyota would have more of because of Nissan’s styling miscues. If only they’d stuck with the 510 and continuously improved it, at least until it was time to go FWD in the early ’80s.
I attended high school that was about 20 miles from home, from 1969-1973. Until we started getting our own licenses, I was in a few carpools driven by parents (along with many journeys on public transit). One of the moms, and it was mostly moms, had a 124 wagon, another had a Kadett, a third had a Squareback. The Fiat was by far the roomiest and most comfortable for a bunch of 14-16 year olds. I also got a few rides from a teacher who lived near us, in her V4 Saab 96. Not the wagon, and I rode in front, but I remember it as very comfortable and with a roomier and airier feel than the front seat of our own Volvo 122S.
My first ever car in 1971 was a ’68 Saab 95 V4. I hoped for a 95 wagon but would have been OK with a 96 sedan, and the 95 came up for sale. I actually once carried 6 other people in it for ~80 miles.
The other cars on my shortlist were the Peugeot 404 and Volvo 122. The Saab got the nod because it was FWD.
I’d pick Datsun as well. Even with the live rear axle it would probably be fun enough to drive, I’d imagine parts are scare but not unobtainable. Volvo is a close second.
Although I enjoy living in a world where there are French cars I’ve never had the desire to own one either.
You don’t know what you’ve been missing. 🙂
Citroen, Pug, Opel. Had 69 Opel 1.9 wagon as one of my first cars. It started a lifelong love of the Kadett b series.
Americans were sooo spoiled in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with a wide variety of independent import brands.
Since most have abandon wagons and moved to CUVs, let’s pretend what the import test would look like today.
OPEL – Opel/Vauxhall Crossland
(Made in Spain. Was part of GM Europe. Sold to PSA, Now rollups up to Stellantis)
DATSUN – Probably a Nissan Qashqui
(Made in England. Now rolls up to the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance)
CITROEN – Citroen C4 Cactus The perfect example of Citroen mindset.
(Made in Spain. Part of PSA. Now rollups up to Stellantis)
PEUGEOT – Most likely a 2008
(made in France or Spain. Part of PSA. Now rollups up to Stellantis)
VOLVO – Volvo XC40
(Made in Belgium. Was owned by Ford, now rolls up to Geely, China)
SUNBEAM – May I suggest something along the lines of the Opel Mokka
(Made in Spain. Was part of Rootes Group, sold to Chrysler Europe, then PSA as Talbot, then Stellantis)
SAAB – May I suggest a 9-8 based on the PSA PF1 platform
(Dearly departed, but if GM Europe had retained the brand and then sold to PSA with Opel/Vauxhall, which now rolls up to Stellantis)
FIAT – Could only be a Fiat Panda and not that abomination Fiat 500L
(Was made in Fiat Poland, now Italy, consolidated into FIAT-Chrysler, now Stellantis)
VW- VW T-Cross
(Made in Spain, part of VW Group with Skoda, SEAT, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, etc, etc, etc)
FORD – Ford Puma Crossover. (NOTE: Ford EcoSport no longer available)
(Made in Romania, part of Ford of Europe)
Please add your thoughts!!
Weird how many of these companies wound up being part of Stellantis…
More than the Panda, for Fiat I would pick the 500X crossover, which is still sold in the US if I recall correctly
Got to be the Citroen – self levelling suspension.
Though, I admire the Peugeot’s durability
It’s a tossup between Volvo and Peugeot…
I honed my manual gear shifting skills on both my aunt’s Squareback (awful car) and her 145, a car I’m still very fond of and would be my rational choice. A year or so later and our list would have included the Pug 504 wagon, a car I’ve always liked as much as the Volvo, which would make the rational choice harder. Like so many, however, for me the emotional choice has to be the DS. Just need to swap out those horrible NA lights for the swiveling units.
My pick is the Datsun. One of mom’s paramours drove a ’72 and that was fun to drive because it was stick and drove pleasantly. I had a ’73 squareback … the back seat was miniscule and cargo was awkward dimensions, plus not everyone seemed familiar with working on a VW–blew out 4 oil coolers after a rebuild and left me stranded driving from grad school out of state. Paul N.’s love of the 404 is endearing, but my dad had a 403 in 1961 and it was a nightmare getting service for it (this was the Navy years) and mom had enough of it. Volvo went on to be iconic, but it was pricy up front and the maintenance. The others I don’t recall at all (Fiat, Sunbeam) and others only as a sedan (Citroen) or coupe (the Opel was a cool car). My dad had a 1978 Datsun 810 for 24 years which deserves its own COAL. It seemed easier to get maintenance for that.
I’d take the Citroen ride comfort handling plus the self leveling features are hard to beat, … but I actually own the fore runner to the Sunbeam Arrow, a Superminx estate and having previously dismantled an Arrow estate for parts the interior differences are not much size wise, mechanically they are identical mine is the first edition of the 5 main bearing 1724 engine with a downdraft carb the arrow series had a side draft, there is one advantage in having a superminx, flat tyres, the tools require are housed in the drop down tailgate of the Superminx the spare is underneath the load floor no need to unload the car to change the wheels over.
Datsun or the Opel.Rode in an Opel wagon a few times.
Pops had a Peugeot 404 new in 1967, it was a great car until the tin worms ate it up .
He also had two different Saab wagons, both had the three cylinder two stroke engine and were fine when they ran, not often nor long .
My head says “! 404 !” .
My stupid heart says ” VW Typ III Squareback” as I’ve had a few and know how to keep them running easily if not cheaply .
A buddy had a Fiat wagon, it was tiny but reliable for the time he had it .
Having owned both a 131 wagon and a 124 roadster, I’d go for the Fiat in a flash. But why isn’t the Datsun compared to the Fiat ? Didn’t we learn here last month that the 510 was a sleeper sports car, a poor man’s 2002 ? Nothing of the kind mentioned here, today . . . or was the wagon without some rear suspension goodies that made all the difference ?
Well, I have a 1965 VW Squareback in my garage, so I suppose the VW would be the obvious answer. The Volvo is also compelling. Can I have both?
While I’ve never driven any of these besides a later-day Volvo 240, as a former DS 23 owner I’d plop for the Citroen.
And I never knew they sold the Arrow wagon as well as the sedan over here. You learn something new everyday.
This is a surprisingly difficult question. I like to think that if I traveled back to when I was -1 and had to pick one of these without the benefit of futuresight at that time, I’d probably go for the Datsun 510. Perhaps the VW in second place though the two doors hurt it. Next the Volvo and then probably the Pug. The Citroen is just too big and potentially complicated, the Ford, Sunbeam and Opel too unwanted by their general dealer bodies, and the Saab increasingly becoming a relic with the Fiat, well, the Fiat might actually be interesting.
Today if I could have (and have to deal with) one of these in my garage it’d be Datsun, VW, Peugeot and then Volvo. Perhaps the Fiat next and then the Saab. That particular Citroen is best admired and photographed but not owned or maintained for by me which leaves it at the end along with the Ford, Sunbeam and that generation of Opel Kadett.
I owned Squarebacks for many years. If I had to pick a new one from this bunch now, I’d go with the Datsun. Good height in the cargo area, resilient engine, easy to fix.
My guess would be that the Sunbeam actually sold in smaller numbers than the Citroen. I didn’t even know the wagon was sold here.
I will take the Sunbeam please, somebody has to.
Provided it has Rostyle wheels and the cool square headlights and grille we got on the Australian models.
No question, I would have gone for the VW, with the new EFI.
So if imported wagons were so popular, why did the Detroit big 3 all drop similarly-sized wagons from their lineups that potentially could be competitors? I’m guessing because all of them were designed with the assumption that smaller cars were for people who couldn’t afford big cars.
I didn’t realize the Cortina was still being exported to the US by this point, or that the Sunbeam Arrow ever was.
My uncle drove a Citroen DS wagon that I rode in several times, sometimes in the side-facing rear jump seats, so this is an easy pick for me. No car I have been even before or since has rode so smoothly, like the bumps in the road simply weren’t there. Also the flat floor, great winter traction for the day, the height adjustment, and so many other unique features. And yet, lack of A/C availability might be a dealbreaker (I’m guessing several others here also don’t offer A/C, but other than the VW i don’t know which ones). Of the others, the Saab may be the most charming and practical, and the Datsun probably the easiest to live with and own.
Dad’s ’70 Squareback had dealer installed A/C and it worked ok.
Frankly , all of these wagons are pretty interesting but it hadn`t sense to put e.g. a Fiat 124 or a Volkswagen 1600 in the same category of more advanced Citroen DS / Volvo Wagon.
You guys in Curbeside Classic wouldn`t ever compare a Citroen DS Break Wagon or a Peugeot 404 Familiale wagon , neither a Volvo 164 wagon with a Dodge Royal Monaco Station Wagon and a Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser Wagon .
If the comparison test seeks around the cargo`s space ,
then remember eg. an Autobianchi Bianchina Panoramica or a Citroên Ami 8 Club wagon are also station wagons BUT won`t make justice to be part of the bigger bunch .
Ergo : Autobianchi Bianchina wagon, Citroen Ami 8 wagon, Mini Clubman wagon
( and the Volkswagen 1600 Squareback wagon – Fiat 124 wagon ) may be measured their cargo versatilty in rapport to the category`s size they each belong to !
“…wouldn`t ever compare a Citroen DS Break Wagon or a Peugeot 404 Familiale wagon…”
They were direct competitors in their home market when new, as were the Cortina and Arrow. The Kadett was one class down from the VW, but there was no Beetle wagon.
The others you listed – the Bianchina, Ami and Mini wagons (or at least the wagons of the latter two) had been sold in America earlier in the ’60s but withdrawn from the US market by 1968.
And again America reacted a bit late when introduced the Mercury Bobcat wagon
I’d place the Citroen first, with Peugeot and Saab tied for second. Honorable mention to Datsun and Volvo. I remember 2 door Opel wagon in the early 70s but I’m surprised the Cortina was still on sale in 68, I also don’t recall ever seeing a Fiat 124 wagon. The sedans and sports models were common enough but the only Fiat wagons I recall are the 128 and 131.