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.